dombra, yes – no – maybe

Originally published on 03/06/2013

To begin, I would like to feel somewhat apologetic for my last rambling, preachy post… But I don’t really feel that way.  However, if it was boring, annoying, or offensive, for that I am sorry.  In Russian, we often say, “da net, naverno.”  Which means, literally, “yes, no, maybe.”

This post will be better, yes, no, maybe.

Today I had the extreme pleasure of meeting Jak, a Kazakh kid that lives on our floor.  When I met Jak, he was holding something of a recital for the French guys who live on our floor.  You see, Jak is a very skillful dombrist.  The dombra, a two-stringed Kazakh folk instrument is played quickly, percussively, and most importantly, passionately.  Jak was rocking.  Literally, his whole body was swaying as he played for us.  After he finished playing for us, Jak and I talked for a little while.  After a few questions, Jak was explaining to me the history of Kazakh folk music.  I told him that the music he played made me want to jump up and dance.  I then asked him if he knew any traditional dances.  He instantly told me that dancing was for women and men played the dombra.  He then became rather pensive.  Eventually he said that there were a few male dances, but that were relatively newly re-birthed, as most had died during the Soviet Union. 

The Soviet Union, in attempts to unify and civilize the borders of the Russian Empire, destroyed cultures local to these areas.  Thus, this was the case in Kazakhstan.  Soviet power would also take resources from the edges of Russia (i.e. Kazakhstan) and pull them into Moscow, leaving the outskirts impoverished.  For the Kazakhs this was especially difficult during the early years of the USSR and many fled to neighboring countries, such as China, India, and south to the Middle East to avoid starving to death.  Over the last 20 something years, Kazakhs have been returning to their motherland, bringing back traditions that the USSR destroyed over half a century previous.  Because of this cultural return, Jak learned the Qara Jorga, a male/female dance (he used the word “unisex”).

Jak told me that the theme of the majority of folk songs is that of war, horses, army life, and, of course, more horses.  Jak really loves horses.  We discussed that it is interesting that the music is more masculine, but that there aren’t as many male dances.  He thinks that there were a long time ago, but that the USSR killed off a lot of the male dancer/dances.  Good thing that the Kazakh diaspora kept at least a little of the tradition alive, because life is definitely not complete without the Qara Jorga .

I’m interning in the Folklore Department at the “Gorky Institute of World Literature,” a research center of the Russian Academy of Sciences.  We work with some of the leading Russian ethnographers, anthropologists, and folklorists.  It is pretty much the bees’ knees.  We do a little work, but a lot more learning.  Really.  I have never met someone that is more generous with knowledge then our boss, Elena.  She is truly an amazing person.  During our discussions with Elena on the Russian folk epics known as bylinas epic poems that are sung as part of an ancient oral tradition – we talked about how the Soviets tried to recreate them into epic tales of our comrades Lenin and Stalin’s supposed heroic services for the proletariat.

Russians often feel a deep, spiritual connection to the bylina.  Elena, a very experience ethnographer, says that if you don’t cry when you hear certain epics, there is something wrong with you.  There was no such connection with the Soviet epics.  In fact, people generally scoffed at them.  All the Soviets did was take ancient plots and swap the hero for Lenin.  Laughable?  Absolutely.  Russians recognized that not only the communists’ feats weren’t true in deed, but that they were not true in merit; they were more unbelievable than magical fairy tales.

Was it simply stigma against the good comrades that made the Soviet renditions of bylinas so terrible?  I’m not so sure.  I think the people’s immediate rejection had a more basal root in the Russian subconscious.  Guess what it is… That’s right, you got it!


The Soviet system was an effective (in its own right), industrial machine, which, according to its own rhetoric, should be by principle emotionless, faithless, and progressive.  Principles that contradict the emotion-filled bylinas and folk tradition.  So what happened to these Soviet epics?  I don’t really know… And if the Soviets hadn’t have written them down, I’m sure that no one would at all.  The epics simply did not resonate with the people, and therefore they didn’t stick.  It is all about the feeling, the passion, and the experience.  Something that can’t be produced in a factory, no matter how awe-inspiring your propaganda is.

In other words, I’m going to learn the dombra.


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