I was just about to fall asleep on my trip to Almaty this morning when my ears heard an eerily familiar sound. The stark synthetic notes of Europe’s (the band, not the continent) biggest hit came out of the car’s speakers. Yes, they were playing “The Final Countdown” on Kazakhstani radio. Memories of playing with the Gnomes and watching seasons of Arrested Development with friends came flooding back. Excitedly, I texted news of this event to my friend Jamie in the van ahead of us, and he responded appropriately, “WHERE ONCE THERE WAS A YACHT, NOW THERE IS NAUGHT.”
While I was still in awe of hearing this song not only played on the radio, but on the radio in Kazakhstan, I heard the familiar notes of yet another one of my favorites. Just two songs after Europe came Juanes’s “Camisa Negra.” This was probably the biggest hit in Latin America when I was traveling in Ecuador, in 2005. But this array of songs is actually pretty routine for Kazakhstani radio. Much like the culture and ethnicities of its people, the musical preferences in Kazakhstan encompass almost everything. The radio seems to have a massive playlist full of old and new American classics, Russian pop songs, Kazakh pop songs, Indian pop, Turkish pop, and American hip-hop.
Russian pop is a teffific genre on its own. And the music videos for these incessantly overproduced, beat-heavy songs are equally incredible. Maybe these fit in the wider genre of Euro-pop. But I’ve never been to Europe. The sound of these songs are pretty unmistakable though. And a plus comes from the fact that many of the artists proudly sport mullets as if they were in style. (Wait, maybe they are in style here. Secondary project: mullet hunting.)
Kazakh music is fun because it is such a dominant part of the culture here. The most famous instrument is the dombra, which is a two stringed instrument about the size of a mandolin. However, the most common instrument is probably the voice. Every Kazakh I have met can sing, and I have heard most of them do it at some point. At almost any Kazakh party, someone at some point will bust out into one of the well known Kazakh songs and most of the party will join in. We even spent a number of hours practicing these songs in our Kazakh language class. And while most of the class scoffed at this idea, I am convinced that if I learned the words to one of these songs, I would be absolutely adored by the Kazakh people I meet. Say a toast in Kazakh, zharksa (good). Sing a song, woote woote zharksa (very very good).
The language of Kazakh is can actually sound like music sometimes and ever has a law of harmony in which all of the vowel sounds in a word must match as hard or soft. Anyway, the point is that music is a strong part of traditional Kazakh culture. And then, BAM, it collides with Euro-pop to make an interesting blend of old music and new pop songs. There is a heavy background beat with featured stars tearing up the dombra like they were Jimi Hendrix or something. (Andrew’s host brother can play the instrument behind his back.)
But the best part about the Kazakhstani music is what they seem to pick out from America. Maybe it’s due to marketing, maybe it’s due to a randomness, but they usually pick out the worst stuff America has to offer. If they like it here in Kazakhstan, it is probably on heavy rotation on Delilah, Linkin Park, or hip hop. (Truth: I once caught my host brother singing the chorus to “I just called to say I love you” at dinner. A week later, a street musician was playing it on a saxophone in Almaty.”) Okay, so none of these are automatically bad, but they ignore a lot of pretty good genres. Children can also be seen wearing t-shirts featuring the faces of famous rappers from both now and in the past. (One soccer game we played with the locals had the following exchange: “Wait, who’s on my team?” “You guys have Tupac and G-Unit. We have Eminem.” “Oh cool, I thought we had Eminem.”) People here love Eminem.
Despite an affinity for American pop and hip hop, the lyrics to these songs are not understood by most of the locals. Even if they can sing along to the words, they may miss the underlying cultural context of what the song actually means. This lack of understanding led to one of my favorite conversations with my host brother…
One day we were listening to a music CD he had recently gotten from one of his friends, when Puff Daddy’s “We’ll be missing you” came on. I began singing along to some of the words and bobbing my head. My host brother could clearly tell I knew this song pretty well and asked me what it was about. I began to explain, “Well, this song was written about the death of one of his friends. Biggie Smalls. See like back in the nineties, the East coast and West coast of America had this rivalry going on. Different record studios. It got pretty violent at times. I don’t remember who was killed first, but the two biggest deaths were probably Biggie Smalls on the east coast and Tupac on the West Coast.”
Given the stunned look of surprise on my brother’s face in response to this story, I realized I may have been just brought decade-late breaking news to Kazakhstani music scene. Olshaz simply responded, “Wait, you mean Tupac is dead?”