Gulnara Aitpaeva
Director, Aigine Cultural Research Center
Aiza Abdyrakhmanova
Project Coordinator, Aigine Cultural Research Center

The Kyrgyz komuz is a national musical instrument. Traditionally, komuz was made from a single piece of wood. The instrument has three strings, which were traditionally made from dried ram innards, but in modern times, fishing lines are often used instead.

Komuz lovers and bearers preserve a legend about the origin of this instrument:

Once there was a brave Kyrgyz hunter named Kambar. He climbed high into the mountains and dealt with beasts and birds. Once Kambar was returning home and heard some melodious sounds. He noticed a thread was stretched from one tree to another. However, it turned out to not be thread, but the dried Kayberen gut. From this gut and a piece of wood, Kambar made the first musical instrument and played on it the first Kyrgyz melody. This instrument was later called komuz, and the melody that Kambar put together, and which his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren adopted from him, bears his name, “Kambarkan.”

Komuz is closely associated with the ethnic identity of Kyrgyz people. The instrument is presented in the legend about mankurts—people who do not remember their roots, not even their own father and mother:

Enemies trying to capture the paradise Kyrgyz lands and enslave the people stole a hundred little boys. For twenty years, the invaders raised the boys to be mankurt, with no memory of their past, parents, and motherland. After twenty years, the Kyrgyz enemies sent the mankurts to kill and enslave their own people. When the mankurts arrived in their motherland, they began to kill their brothers, sisters, fathers, and mothers. But on hearing a komuz melody, they suddenly stopped the massacre. The Komuz had awakened their memory of childhood and motherland.

Today, komuz is taught in all eighty-seven music schools in the republic in the European twelve-note system. The same European system is also used in departments of folk music at higher education institutions. Learning the komuz in the European twelve-note system is a legacy dating back to the Soviet era.

Participants of the Preserving and Transmitting Traditional Music project © Aigine Cultural Research Center

Meanwhile, traditional methods of teaching and learning komuz appeared, perhaps, together with the instrument itself. Many brilliant komuz masters worked out their teaching methods and taught students according to the traditional ustat-shakirt (master-apprentice) system. Therefore, diverse schools of followers and students formed around famous komuz masters and players. Within the framework of this system of individual education, masters not only taught playing techniques but also explained the meaning of each melody, told the story of its origin, showed the interpretation of the same melody by various famous masters. Mentors have been immersing their students in the world of komuz and explaining that they need to play not so much with their hands as with their souls. Great komuz masters often were and still are specialists producing the instrument.

Master Nurak Abdrakhmanov (1947-2014) remained in the memory of modern Kyrgyz as a great composer, performer, and master of making the instrument. He began searching for his komuz teaching system back in the Soviet period when he worked as a music teacher in Ak-Talaa Village in the Naryn region. He was not satisfied with the formal education programs used in the schools. Master Nurak learned early on that that the European twelve-note system did not cover the musical subtleties and possibilities of komuz, saying that the system reduces what is possible with komuz in thirty ways. Master Nurak believed that learning komuz in a traditional and cultural way helps with learning how to play komuz more quickly and easily.

The need to teach how to play komuz easily while preserving the cultural context and the need to preserve the rich musical palette of the Kyrgyz instrument explains Master Nurak’s long, almost forty-year, search for a special teaching system.

En Belgi (the system of signs), a musical note system as called by Master Nurak, is based on a simple finger framework that involves learning how to play komuz through the functions of each finger of the two hands. En Belgi teaches not only the technique of the playing but also the philosophy of the komuz, which allows for transmitting the most subtle and profound intonations of the komuz.

In 2009, having learned about the idea of a great musician to spread note system as a traditional teaching methodology on komuz playing, the Aigine Cultural Research Center (Aigine CRC) worked with Master Nurak to implement the pilot project Preserving and Transmitting Traditional Music. The project aimed to create a training manual based on the materials Master Nurak developed over many years. The project was successfully implemented in 2009 and 2010. And the project outcome became the book Komuz Playing with Nurak Abdrakhmanov’s En Belgi Note System. The book includes thirty-one melodies, each presented in two versions: one in the European twelve-note system and the other in En Belgi. Melodies are organized by difficulty level, so readers can choose the level that corresponds with their abilities. The book text is accompanied by a compact disc with detailed displays of hand and finger statements. Each of the thirty-one melodies are also included on the compact disc. The book’s structure makes it suitable for both formal and informal education systems.

From 2010 to 2012, Aigine CRC and Master Nurak selected and trained forty music teachers from state musical schools throughout the country. After selecting state school representatives, we were guided by the strategy of entering the Master Nurak’s system into formal education system through informal training. The main form of the work was seminars during the holidays. Three intensive seminars were held within a year. All the classes were built around individual communication with Master Nurak. Through his personality, all the participants were immersed into the world of komuz. The main tool of the seminars was Master Nurak’s book on the En Belgi system.

Each participant of the project has continued teaching students in the framework of formal and informal education. Currently, the En Belgi teaching methodology is being widely implemented in many music schools and universities in Kyrgyzstan.

Twelve blind and visually impaired children were trained by the En Belgi system with the support of the Youth Program of the Soros Foundation-Kyrgyzstan in 2013. The development of the En Belgi system and training led by Master Nurak enabled children with limited abilities to reproduce the komuz melodies, expand their worldview, learn improvisation, and acquire knowledge about the oral history of folk melodies.

Master Nurak dreamed of a performance of five hundred apprentices playing simultaneously. His students, who trained within the framework of the project, were the main coordinators and creators of a thousand-piece ensemble performed by Masha Bota at the opening of the World Nomadic Games 2016.

Forty-eight coordinators, all graduates of Aigine’s projects, were the main creators of the thousand-piece ensemble, which performed “Mash Botoy” by Atai Ogonbaev. In the memory of the great teacher and musician, the ensemble was named after his original teaching system En Belgi.