Dr. Evfrat B. Imambek,
Socioanthropologist, Ass. Prof. of the Kazakh National Academy of Arts

When it comes to the preservation of intangible cultural heritage (ICH), threats that lead to the loss of the viability of one or another element of ICH are latently implied. From a social anthropological point of view, this is a question of the interaction between tradition and innovation: do new technologies always egatively affect traditional art? How does modern everyday life affect the sustainability of a traditional view of the world that underlies the identity of each element of ICH?

The COVID-19 pandemic has posed a formidable challenge to humankind as a whole, but it has also provided crucial experience, and accelerated many processes in the culture of a particular society that have been quietly brewing in recent decades. As an example, we consider here the experience of Kazakhstan in the first half of 2020, living under strict quarantine conditions, and look to comprehend the impact of the latest information technologies on the safeguarding of oral heritage.

There is a contradiction between the need to popularize a folk song, which necessitates new arrangements with contemporary styles, and the need to preserve its original spirit, which is lost due to the processes of commercialization and massification. Traditional songs in Dimash Qudaibergen’s magnificent performance, for example, are taken out of the context of their traditional existence to fit modern standards, changing the presentation and sound of the composition and the songs themselves. Meanwhile, a world-renowned band, Ulytau, which has been produced by Alan Parsons and Kadyrali Bolmanov, performs traditional Kazakh music in a rock/meta adaptation. The question of whether traditional art should become part of show business remains open. “The songs remain the same”—is it really so?

This contradiction is facilitated by three factors:
• Technology provides unprecedented breadth of access to cultural heritage.
• Carriers of the elements easily mastered the practice of recording their performances and presenting them on social networks, giving them the opportunity to freely create.
• In difficult conditions of general self-isolation, people need emotional and psychological compensation, and many find that in traditional culture.

New ways of communication change the familiar understanding of the term “community of intangible heritage.” Communities now preserve and discuss elements of oral creativity from a wide variety of genres, which they consider
to be the basis of their cultural identity, in the virtual space.

But beyond these obvious benefits, there are some issues that need attention. Paradoxically, oral heritage has become more popular in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. The pandemic has severely affected Kazakhstan, which is located at the intersection of many transport corridors between east and west, north and south. Protective measures began to be applied almost immediately, but from 16 March 2020, President Kassym-Jomart Tokayev was forced to declare a
state of emergency in the country.

The strict self-isolation regime was a serious blow to the living heritage of the Kazakh people: after all, the celebration of Nauryz, included in the UNESCO Representative List of the ICH of Humanity, begins in Kazakhstan on 14 March with the Körisu tradition, which consists of visiting relatives and friends in order to inquire about their health and wellbeing after the winter. Nauryz 2020, which should have been the noisiest and most joyful ancient holiday, will be remembered for the deserted and silent squares and streets of the cities and villages of Kazakhstan.

However, the communities—large or small—worthily accepted this challenge, using the facilities of ICT. From the earliest days of the quarantine regime, the Internet space was filled with performances of bearers of living heritage, representing various genres, but especially singers and kuyshis. Kuyshis are the performers of the Kazakh traditional art of dombra kuy (music played on the dombra—a pizzicato two-stringed instrument), an element included in the
Representative List of the ICH of Humanity.

Dombra is the soul of a Kazakh © Anna Pimenova

Kazakh kuy is undoubtably part of the spiritual heritage of nomadic culture, a particle of a living organism of traditional culture. Kuy is an instrumental piece of music, short in duration, but very deep in content and refined in form, with a complex rhythm and developed melody. The kuy reflects the specifics of the Kazakh worldview, the logic of musical thinking. The people say: “God put in the soul of every Kazakh a particle of kuy at the moment of his birth.” According to
Alekseeva and Nazhmedenov, the Kazakh people are distinguished by “extraordinary musical talent, in almost any family there is a person who sings beautifully or plays talented folk musical instruments.”1

The strong connection between instrumentalism and verbal folklore led to the emergence of a special type of musician—the kuyshi—who were not only great musicians but also virtuoso masters of the word, which contributed to the development of a specific syncretic genre of kuy: the unity of words and music, connected in meaning, compositionally.

The connection of dombra practice with oral poetry gave rise to a peculiar form of music-making—a musical composition accompanied by the kuyshi’s story. The links between legend and music are diverse; in some cases the music reflects the character’s actions in the composer’s narrative, as, for example, in the legend of the kuy “Aqsaq qulan” (“Limping Wild Horse”), in which the music itself informs the king about the death of his son. In other instances, music illustrates particular episodes of the story. However, the narrative accompanying the kuy is more often not directly related to the content of the music; rather, the kuyshi will describe when, where, from whom, or under what circumstances he composed it. Such descriptions can anticipate music of a certain nature, but they do not serve the function of presenting a story.

In the framework of the nationwide action “Biz Birgemiz” (“We are together”), many well-known performers of this genre as well as very young dombra players recorded performances at home and posted them on social networks such as Facebook and Instagram.

Online concerts, both solo and ensemble, have become a new form that has gained popularity during the pandemic.

Such performances have been organized by free communities, but also within institutional structures. So, for example, Almaty Music College named after P.I. Tchaikovsky and the Ministry of Culture and Sports supported an online home concert by a third-year student from the college, Abdullah Kazhybek, winner of a number of national traditional music competitions, marking a first in the history of this college. The forty-five-minute program consisted of twelve dombra kuys, most of which are not well known to a wide audience. Therefore, the young kuyshi preceded each of the works with short descriptions of their history and authors. The concert was broadcast live via Instagram, and was actively watched by an audience of about 470 people from all regions of Kazakhstan. Thereafter, a recording of the concert was posted on YouTube by an admirer of Abdullah Kazhybek, where it has been watched by hundreds more members of the  ommunity of connoisseurs of dombra kuy.

Young students of Kokil College at the celebration of Dombra Day in Almaty © Anna Pimenova

Besides such concerts, other new forms of appeal to the living heritage appeared during the strict quarantine. For example, on 23 April a truly global online ceremony of the Tengrian rite of birth of the new moon took place at the initiative of the Kazakhstan youth movement Neonomad. It took place on the Zoom video-conferencing platform and lasted several hours. Bearers and practitioners of traditional knowledge and practices concerning nature and the universe
from the regions of Kazakhstan, Turkey, Germany, the USA (Oklahoma, New York), Peru, Russia (Buryatia and some others republics of the Russian Federation) joined the celebration. In total, over one hundred people took part in this amazing ritual.

The traditions and customs of Tengrism, as the spiritual foundation of many different cultures, were preserved and are preserved in the memory of many peoples. Openness as a fundamental principle of Tengrism presupposes the inclusion, processing, and use of all cultural and ideological achievements of other cultures. The universality of the foundations of Tengrism makes it possible to calmly enter the global cultural space. The openness and universality of its foundations in their original purity give a sense of universal human unity, a sense of the common origins of the culture of humankind; but they, in their specificity and peculiarities obtained in the cultural processing of the Kazakh people, make it possible to choose Tengrism as a cultural and ideological identification. As Dr. Nurmagambet Ayupov, one of the outstanding modern researchers of Tengrism, says: “Tengrism as the smell of mother’s milk, as the smell of steppe wormwood of childhood, as the first victories and defeats of youth, as the courageous overcoming of the barriers of adulthood, will always remain in the memory of a person, a nation. And the ‘Wise Elder Turk’ will continue to calmly and hopefully look into the Future, into the endless distance of the Path, guiding more and more generations along it.”

Ramazan Stamgaziev sings the ritual song of the bride’s presentation to the groom’s relatives © Anna Pimenova

By and large we can say that in Kazakhstan, in the context of the fight against COVID-19, people began to turn more to living heritage, finding in it not only an emotional outlet in a situation of self-isolation, but also a means of spiritual support for an optimistic view of the future.

The experience of online communication accumulated by the bearers of living heritage during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the currently available level of telecommunications technology, allows us to consider organizing a global ICH online festival or even a twenty-four-hour cultural marathon.

1. L.A. Alekseeva and J. Nazhmedenov. “Features of the musical structure of the Kazakh dombra.” Kazakh Culture: Research and Search. Collection of scientific articles. Almaty, 2000. pp. 69–70.