July 11, 2013
“When she sang, a sense of peace overcame the classroom, which felt like a light, warm wind. Her voice was strong and bright, light and free, and made me forget about my problems.” It is rare that these kinds of emotions are invoked in a hot, stuffy classroom at a busy city university. However, this is what undergraduate student Gulzira Kamytzhanova experienced listening to her professor Dr Elmira Köchümkulova perform on the Kyrgyz instrument komuz, in a ground-breaking new course on Central Asian Music offered at AUCA, designed and sponsored by the University of Central Asia (UCA).
The fifteen-week certificate course was based on the pilot edition of the textbook Music of Central Asia: An Introduction that was published by the UCA Cultural Heritage Book Series and edited by UCA senior research fellows Dr Köchümkulova and Dr Theodore Levin, who is also a senior project consultant for the Aga Khan Music Initiative (AKMI). The textbook is a joint initiative of UCA and AKMI, and provides a comprehensive and interactive ethnographic survey of the rich and diverse musical traditions of Central Asia.The textbook and course are part of a series of UCA activities aimed at helping the different peoples of Central Asia preserve and draw upon their rich cultural traditions and heritages as assets for the future.
From September 2012 to April 2013, the course was taught to students at the UCA Aga Khan Humanities Project in Dushanbe, the American University of Central Asia in Bishkek and the Kurmanghazy Kazakh National Conservatory in Almaty by UCA research fellows Dr Will Sumits, Dr Köchümkulova and Dr Saida Daukeyeva respectively. The textbook was also used by co-editor Dr Levin in his Music of Central Asia and the Middle East course at Dartmouth College in the United States.
The course included a regional overview, followed by a series of ethnographic studies focusing on particular musical repertoires, genres, styles, musical instruments and musicians within the two distinctive socio-cultural spheres whose symbiotic relationship has shaped Central Asian history: the nomadic world and the world of sedentary dwellers. The course also addressed music within the context of other aspects of culture and social life. “Music and special moments in people’s lives have always been intertwined,” said Dr Köchümkulova, who contributed textbook chapters on music’s role in Kyrgyz social traditions, such as funeral rites and memorial feasts. Students examined the effects of globalisation on Central Asian music through the prism of musical fusion and hybridity, diaspora communities and cultural revitalisation initiatives.
“Given that music is a moving target, constantly evolving and changing, capturing this dynamism in a textbook is tricky,” said co-editor Dr Levin. To meet this challenge, the textbook puts music at its centre, including 130 audio and video clips, and building the text around these pieces. World-class graphic designer, Sonya Cramer, who previously worked with AKMI designing the 10-volume CD-DVD anthology, Music of Central Asia, released by Smithsonian Folkways Recordings, integrated the diverse materials in the textbook - narrative text, song transcriptions, call-out boxes, photos, study questions - and made it come alive. The course reflected the dynamism of the textbook, with weekly readings, group discussions, and critical analysis of live and recorded performances.
“Guest musicians visited our class, giving students the opportunity to hear the music in a more personal and intimate context. The students could interact directly with the guest musicians themselves and ask any questions they had. This was a unique experience, and provided powerful exposure which had a strong impact on the students and their perceptions of traditional music and musicians,” said Dr Sumits, who taught the course and is supporting AKMI music programmes in Tajikistan. Students also attended concerts. “Attending live concerts and experiencing diverse musical performances helped me appreciate that music constitutes a large part of the culture and life of the people in Central Asia” said student Jibek Toktokojoeva.
Students were encouraged to make personal connections to the musical traditions they were studying. “It is important to me that my students are exposed to, and form their own opinions on, the numerous musical traditions of Central Asia, many of which they experienced for the first time” stated Dr Köchümkulova, who performed on the komuz for her class. The performance was eye-opening for many students. “Viewing Dr Köchümkulova as an academic authority on a subject, I did not recognise that music is so important for her. I thought that she treated music as a teaching subject, but in her performance she described how music is sacred and highly meaningful for her” said student Gulzira Kamytzhanova. Fellow student Yelena Vorobey’s learning experience also became more personal; “We had the opportunity to write reflection papers on musical performances which forced me to examine why I had certain feelings and thoughts about each performance.”
Of particular value was the way the course focused on music as a tie that binds people together cross-culturally. With articles commissioned from 21 Central Asian, European and American scholars, the textbook and course brought together both ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ perspectives on the region’s music and culture. “Our aim was to present multiple viewpoints and multiple styles of music scholarship and show their value,” said Dr Levin. Dr Sumits added “Developing an appreciation of traditional music from all countries as a living art form helped break down national, cultural, geographic and linguistic boundaries, and encouraged a cosmopolitan perspective that allowed students to appreciate regional traditions, other than their own.”
For Dr Daukeyeva, who heads the Folklore Research Laboratory at the Kurmangazy Kazakh National Conservatory in Almaty, the opportunity to teach the course in Kazakhstan was very exciting; “The textbook provides fantastic teaching material. It will undoubtedly serve as an indispensable guide into the music of Central Asia for students from around the world.” The textbook was also acknowledged as an invaluable resource on Central Asian music by her student Gulshan Sarimsakova, “I received in-depth knowledge from the textbook as it helped me to widen my worldview and knowledge on music in Central Asia. It also inspired me to compose new music, which is something I never expected from a university course.”
The textbook and course will be revised based on student and instructor feedback, and offered for broader instruction across and beyond the region. Several additional chapters are being commissioned to broaden the scope of the material. Preliminary feedback indicates that the students of the pilot course received an excellent foundation of knowledge about Central Asian music. But, perhaps more impactful, the course provided the opportunity to connect this knowledge to their own emotions, passions and heritage.
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