Ode to Dombra, national instrument reinvigorating Kazakh culture and identity (video)

ASTANA – If you’ve ever listened to traditional Kazakh songs, chances are you’ve heard the dombra with its complex yet delicate tonality that produces magical sounds of the endless Kazakh steppe. Sometimes it soothes with its fragile airs, sometimes it excites by resembling a herd of wild horses galloping across the vast prairie.

Dombras from different eras and regions are represented in the Museum of Folk Musical Instruments named after Ykhlas in Almaty. The museum’s collection has authentic instruments belonging to prominent Kazakh kuishi composers of the 19th and 20th centuries. Photo credit: abai.kz

The dombra is a long-necked, half-pear-shaped two-string lute whose body is carved from a single block or composed of shredded parts of maple, elm or birch.

The dombra has long been a key part of Kazakh orchestras and is often played at family gatherings and on national and public occasions. It sounds wonderful when played solo and as an accompaniment to a song.

Every year since 2018, on the first Sunday of July, Kazakhstan celebrates Dombra National Day, instituted by the first President Nursultan Nazarbayev. This year, President Kassym-Jomart Tokaev, in his congratulatory speech, declared the dombra to be the “talisman and amulet” of the Kazakh nation.

“His melodies are close and familiar to us because the Kazakhs and the dombra are inseparable from each other… Our people and the dombra are linked for eternity, because the spirit of freedom is transmitted from generation to generation through the art of kui (traditional Kazakh composition),” he said.

The Dombra as part of Kazakh national identity

For hundreds of years, the dombra has been dear to the Kazakh people. Today, it is still rooted in the notion of Kazakh national identity.

The dombra is often played at family gatherings on holidays and on special occasions, such as weddings. Photo credit: ich.unesco.org

Nothing is perhaps more famous than a saying by the Kazakh poet and writer Kadyr Myrza Ali “A real Kazakh is not a Kazakh, a real Kazakh is a dombra”, which every dombra player has heard at least once times in his life.

For Raziya Mubarak, an amateur dombra player with seven years of professional training, the phrase has deep meaning. “Nobody knows that a person in front of you is a Kazakh unless they start playing their own national instrument, like the dombra or the qobyz. The dombra will show another person that you are a Kazakh,” a- she said in an interview for this story.

Sharing her lifelong relationship with one of the oldest musical instruments in the country – the dombra, Mubarak said she started learning to play the instrument at the age of six when she was went to school.

“My parents inspired me to choose this instrument,” Mubarak said. “I think they wanted to give me a kind of Kazakh mentality and introduce me to Kazakh culture and traditions through the instrument.”

Mubarak struggled through many hours of practice during his learning journey before mastering the dombra. “It was a test of patience and perseverance. There were times when I hated the learning process, but after all this time, I think it was actually a good idea to teach the kids a national instrument. During my time abroad, I felt I could show Kazakh culture, history and identity through dombra. A Kazakh could travel to any part of the world and introduce some part of Kazakh culture,” Mubarak said.

In memory of his visit to Kazakhstan, President Tokaev presented Pope Francis with a dombra. Photo credit: Akorda

The dombra has been the backbone of Kazakh identity for so long that even Pope Francis, the head of the Catholic Church, emphasized its importance in his opening speech at the Seventh Congress of Leaders of World and Traditional Religions in september. “The dombra is a feature of your culture and one of the most important symbols of Kazakhstan,” he said.

According to him, the two parallel strings of the instrument symbolize Kazakhstan’s ability to create harmony and balance between “freezing winter and hot summer”, tradition and progress, Asia and Europe, it is the symbol of being “a junction between East and West”. ”

I bid farewell to the Pope, President Tokayev gave him a dombra in thanks for the Pope’s warm references to the Kazakh national instrument.

Dombra craftsmanship

Already in his seventies, Zholaushi Turdugulov has been making dombra for more than 50 years now. The craft is an extension of his love for traditional instruments and music that has spiritually enriched his soul since his twenties.

In his approach to instrument building, Turdugulov seems to emphasize the primary quality of a sound. “Sound is the most important thing,” he says. “The technical aspect of making a dombra is not that difficult. But finding the right tone of the instrument, the timbre of the dombra, if it has the traditional Kazakh tone and sound, recognizing the right wood is a skill that takes years of practice.

Zholaushi Turdugulov in his studio in Almaty. Photo credit: Turdugulov’s personal archive.

A trained ear could easily distinguish a good quality dombra from an ordinary dombra just by listening to the sound. For this, choosing a material with high acoustic quality is important.

It gives examples of choosing the right wood to make a dombra. “The nature of each tree is different, its structure is different, and the number of annual rings of the tree is different. You need to know where the tree grew, whether it grew on the sunny side or the opposite side, s ‘It’s a female pine or a male pine, there’s a lot of detail like that,’ he said.

Turdugulov skillfully knows how to get the best sound from dombras. For many years he has been offering classes to those who want to learn the art of making a sound dombra, which he considers a good deed, as a way to protect this priceless piece of Kazakh musical heritage. “Dombra is a tool that reflects our national image, just like language and culture,” he said.

Today, he works in his workshop in Almaty making dombras that once sparked his interest in craftsmanship, and in addition to the dombra, he makes many other national instruments, such as the qobyz and the zhetigen.

History of the dombra

Based on ancient designs on balbal stones, the dombra is believed to date back to 4000 BC. A well-known Kazakh archaeologist, Kemel Akyshev, working near the Maitobe meadow in the Almaty region in 1986, discovered several stones containing images of ancient peoples living in the area.

An instrument placed in front of five people dancing on balbal stones resembles a dombra. Photo credit: abai.kz

On the stones is represented an image of an instrument placed in front of five dancing people. The instrument has two ears, i.e. two strings, a long neck and a front similar to that of a dombra. The dombra may be one of the oldest known stringed instruments in Central Asia.

It is widely believed that the golden age of Kazakh traditional music was the 19th century, with prominent Kazakh kui composers whose main accompanying instrument was the dombra. Among them was Kurmangazy, one of the great dombra virtuosos who had a major influence on the development of Kazakh musical culture.

Kurmangazy’s dombra and compositional skills set him apart from the rest. Being the author of more than 60 kuis, he used the dombra very powerfully in his kuis masterpieces “Saryarka” and “Adai”, which have become classics that every dombra player is honored to perform.

Kurmangazy’s distinctive compositions invigorate the rich and varied sounds coming out of a dombra. In his kuis, we hear the endless Kazakh steppe. The resulting sound is like the rustle of grass, the neigh of a horse, or a free wind.

Expanding into modernity, the dombra is still considered the queen of Kazakh instruments. It is the most popular choice for Kazakh composers, traditional singers and performers of aitys (art of improvisation).

Dimash Kudaibergen, a famous Kazakh singer and “a man of six octaves”, was able to bring the sound of dombra to a wider audience. He often performs Kazakh national songs and kuis on dombra. In 2019, at his big solo concert in New York, Dimash performed Kurmangazy’s kui “Adai” in front of 9,000 people.

The Kazakh dombra has been included in the national list of intangible cultural heritage of UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) since 2014.

Kurmangazy Orchestra performing Kurmangazy’s “Saryarka” kui.