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About Kazakhstan / Arts / Music / Kazakh musical instruments


Kobyz is a bow instrument with two strings. It was hollowed out of one whole wooden piece – juniper (arsha), maple, pine-tree and birch. The instrument consisted of three parts: head (bas), middle (base is keude) and lower part (ayak). The base is made in the form of an open bowl stretched downside. This lower part of the instrument is covered with leather (sounding board). The support (tiek) is established on it. Even in our days, the strings for kobyz are made of horse-tail. The bow has an arched shape and it looks like a bow weapon: the bun of horsehair is tied to both ends of the bent branch and fixed by the strong thread of camel wool. The performer enfolds the bow from aside with his hand. The shaman instrument looked quite strangely: there were owl’s feathers on the head, various metal plates in the form of horn curls and ringing bird images were hanging around the head; the mirror was located on the bottom of the bowl. All these were not just decoration but the shaman signs-symbols. Kobyz possesses unusually rich and colourful timbre.


Zhetygen is an ancient seven-stringed plucking instrument, which reminds of gusli or lying harp. The most ancient type of zhetygen looked like the prolonged box hollowed out of the wooden piece. Such zhetygen did not have the upper sounding board and pins. The strings were stretched by hand from the outer side of the instrument. Later the upper part of zhetygen was covered with the wooden sounding board. Assyks were out under each string from two sides. Moving them it was possible to tune the string. If assyks were drawn closer to each other the tune was rising, and if drawn apart the tune was falling. String tuning was made by the pins and by moving the supports.


Sherter is an ancient stringed plucking instrument. Sherter is played the same way as the dombra. But sherter is much smaller than dombra, it had a short neck without the frets, it had different, stronger sound than dombra. Sherter resembled kobyz because it was also hollowed out of the whole wooden piece, it had the bent shape and the base was covered with leather. Two strings were made of horsehair. The instrument had just one pin; therefore both strings were put through the head, then one of them was attached to the pin and the other string was attached to the head itself. Tuning of strings was related to the long shape of the instrument. The string fixed on the sherter head was stretched by hand and the second string fixed on the pin was tuned corresponding to the pitch of the first string. Sherter was mainly used for accompanying songs, tales and legends. It was popular amongst the shepherds.


Amongst the wind instruments sybyzgy was the most favourite instrument. It entered the musical life of the people. Sybyzgy helped the shepherds in solitude at the far-away grasslands. It brought joy to people during the evening hours of rest when the musicians were telling and playing beautiful ancient legends and stories. Sybyzgy-players were always welcome to all toys and feasts. Wide popularity of sybyzgy was connected with the simplicity it was made. Sybyzgy was made of hollow reed tube, on which three holes were cut. It was easy and fast to make sybyzgy, but it was very difficult to play it. Sybyzgy kuis were usually two-voice melodies: the first voice was extracted from the instrument and the second voice represented the guttural sound of the musician-performer. It was necessary to master the technique of simultaneous performance of both voices. Besides reed sybyzgy there were also wooden sybyzgy.


Dombra is the most widely used Kazakh folk instrument. Dombra can be met in each yurta; it was referred to as one the most necessary and obligatory things in the life of Kazakhs. The history of this instrument’s origin goes into the depth of centuries. There are two types of dombra – western and eastern. Different shapes of dombra were caused by the features of two performance traditions. In order to perform fast, masterly tokpe-kuis it was necessary that the left hand could easily move and slide along the neck. That is why the neck of western dombra was thin and long. This technique could not be used when playing the eastern could not be used when playing eastern dombra with wide short neck. Sizes of instruments and shapes of the bases had an influence on the force of the sound: bigger size means louder dombra. The sound also depended on the technique of the right hand: in tokpe-kuis the sound was extracted on both strings with strong hand movements, and in shertpe soft plucking of strings with certain fingers was used. Thus, there is the close link between the shape of domra and kuis performed. Dombra could be not only two-string but also three-string. In the past three-string dombras could be met in different regions of Kazakhstan, at present they remain only in Semipalatinsk oblast.


Dabyl is a percussion instrument, the rim with a handle covered from both sides with leather. Usually the warriors were using dabyl (during the attack). It was the instrument with a very strong and loud sound, which served for making signals. In ancient times percussion instruments (dabyl, dauylpaz and shyndauyl) were widely used in the life of Kazakhs. Loud sounds of percussion instruments were calling the aul residents for hunting, for conducting religious rituals; and they were also informing about the forthcoming migration.


Uran is a wind musical instrument used by warriors. Two tubes of different length have three holes each. It is made according to the picture of the musician, researcher A. Eikhgorn who saw the Kazakhs using this instrument in 1880-es. Wind instruments were used by Turk people in very ancient times. Researchers claim that the origin of wind instruments is oriental as they had been found amongst the nations of Central Asia. Ancient wind instruments did not have holes and they were used just for signalling. After the holes had appeared on the tube wind instruments were enriched with additional technical capacities.


Asatayak is a percussion instrument. It looked like a baton – a stick with the flat head decorated with ornament and metal rings, pendants. It had open and acute sound. In order to make the sound louder, baksy were using konyrau – small bells fixed to the head of asatayak. When shaking the instrument, konyrau were amplifying the melody with the metal ring. Asatayak and dangyra (tambourine) were the attributes of shaman rituals. That was why they were not widely used amongst the people. Already in the last century both instruments started to be forgotten gradually and they were replaced with kobyz, which took the role of these percussive instruments.


Dangyra is a percussion musical instrument. It represented a tambourine: the rim covered from one side with leather, inside of which there were small metal chains, rings and plates, sounding when the leather is stricken and during the movement there was an additional noise effect. Dangyra was an attribute of shaman rituals.

Popularity of musical art was promoted by constantly travelling around auls professional singers (olenshy, anshy) and musicians (kuishy). The most popular performers were those who could not only sing and play an instrument but also had the gift to improvise on important topics. Narrators and poets-improvisers when performing legends and fairy-tales, epic or historical legends were not only signing but also were narrating and they were playing an instrument. This all intensified their performance with expressive gesticulation and mimics.

The musical culture of Kazakhstan of the end of 19 – beginning of 20 centuries is characterized by the presence of the large group of talented composers, authors of many folk songs and instrumental works. The most prominent composers and musicians are dombra players Kurmangazy Sagyrbayev (1806 - 1879), Dauletkerei Shigayev (1820 - 1880), singers Birzhan Kozhagulov (1825 - 1877), Mukhit Meraliyev (1841-1918), Abai Kunanbayev (1845 - 1904), Zhayau Mussa Baizhanov (1835 - 1929), Akhansery Koramsin (1843 - 1916), Yestai Berkimbayev (1868 - 1946), kobyz player Ykhylas Dukenov (1843 - 1916).

Nowadays production of the folk musical instruments as one of the most interesting directions of the revived crafts and decorative production is developing because the further development of the concert activity of various professional ensembles continues. They have large demand not only amongst the specialists but also amongst the collectors.

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