Казахской национальной консерватории им. Курмангазы

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Variation in dombyra performance: küi as state of mind 
Dombyra performance is inseparable from variation. In the past and still nowadays, outside the state-
supported performance milieu, küis are likely to be variously interpreted by individual performers and 
even by the same performer in different contexts or on different occasions. The variable nature of küi
originally arose from their oral transmission. Besides this, however, inimitability of musical expression 
constitutes an important criterion of a dombyra player’s mastery. Even today, despite the existence of 
canonized versions of küis, a performer is both encouraged and expected to render extant instrumental 
pieces in his own, idiosyncratic way. In the dombyra repertory of Mongolian Kazakhs this has led to 
existence of a number of variants (türler) of the same küis, or variant interpretations of their underlying 
narratives. Occurrences accorded a particular significance by the community have accumulated multiple 
variant interpretations. Thus, it is known that the küi Zar zaman soon after Berdibai’s arrival in the Khovd 
valley gave rise to several variants by clansmen through which they expressed their own perceptions of the 
incident captured in the küi. The most widely known is a variant ascribed to Isabai Aqjarqynuly (1848–?) 
(see Example 2). According to oral tradition, before performing his version of the küi he addressed 
Berdibai with the words: “Ei, Berdibai! If I had been there with you and come upon the couriers, I would 
have played so that they wouldn’t even touch the horse’s saddle.” Appropriately in his version the küi and 
its characteristic suspensions acquired a more dynamic, brisker character, being rendered in an 
accentuated rhythm [11; 12, 56; 13].    

Illustration 3. Raikhan Mukhambetuly. 
Example 2. Zar zaman, Isabai, perf. Öserkhan. 
Apart from enabling communication among 
contemporaneous performers, küi has also given scope for 
a dialogue between the community’s dombyra players from 
different generations, whereby a message encoded in a küi 
by one küishi was reinterpreted or responded to musically 
by a subsequent dombyra player. One such dialogue-küi is 
Qoshtasu (“Farewell”) by Mukhambet Taitasuly (1905
1945), another descendant of Qalaqshanyŋ auyly. In 1943 
he was leaving for Xinjiang to join the rebellion against 
Chinese rule and, having a foreboding that he would never 
return, he composed this küi and performed it to his 
clansmen and family as a way of bidding farewell to them 
[11; 12, 79–81]. The Qoshtasu which I first heard on 
Öserkhan’s recording is current in similar renditions among 
present-day performers in Ulaankhus and Olgii (see 
Example 3). When in autumn 2006, I met and interviewed 
Mukhambet’s son, Raikhan, who now lives in the Qaranghandy region of central Kazakhstan, he played to 
me a küi which was rather different from the version I had heard in Bayan-Ölgii (see Example 4). While 
maintaining the küi’s motifs (A, B) in a variant form, he amplified it with another, distinct section (C) 
which, by contrast to the descending melodic leaps in the original version, gave prominence to resolute 
ascending intervals. In the interview Raikhan explained that, whereas the first section of the küi, largely 
consistent with Mukhambet’s Qoshtasu, conveyed his father’s anguish and longing on leaving his 
homeland and family, the second section called on Raikhan, his son and successor, to be independent and 
brave, as if saying: “If I die, don’t fear anything in the world”. In this way, the memory encapsulated in 
the küi was reimagined, symbolically linking the two küishis, father and son, over time [14]. 

Example 3. Qoshtasu, Mukhambet, perf. Öserkhan. 
Example 4. Qoshtasu, Mukhambet, perf. Raikhan. 
The phenomenon of küis’ variability leads one to speculate as to what in semantic and structural terms 
constitutes küi as an entity and maintains its identity in processes of variant performance and transmission. 

The key to this lies in the cultural concept of küi as an art form and a medium for the transmission of 
memories. Küi, as my informants stressed, reminding me of its literal meaning, is ‘state of mind’ (köŋil 
küii) [13; 14; 15]. In relating a historical or legendary account one küi is intended to express one universal 
meaning, whether a generalised emotional state, an abstract image or a philosophic idea, a meaning which 
lies behind the küi’s narrative and is essential to it. This underlying meaning and its musical expression, 
which takes the form of a motif, a tune or another type of musical nucleus  (saryn, äuen,  saryn-saz), 
provides a point of departure for the dombyra player, as he learns and performs an existing instrumental 
piece. When listening to a küi, a dombyra player tries to identify its essential meaning as rendered in 
sound and then convey it in his own performance both faithfully and expressively. Although he varies his 
interpretation over time and from one performance to another, he endeavours to maintain what he 
considers the küi’s semantic and musical nucleus as a way of preserving the küi’s identity. To return to the 
example of Zar zaman, all the küi variants current among Mongolian Kazakhs uphold its peculiar musical 
feature: the rhythmic suspensions conveying the idea of the ‘sorrowful time’ of their emigration to 
Similarly, as the interviewed musicians remarked, perceiving a certain universal meaning behind 
an incident or image, and developing a musical expression associated with it, is a starting point for a küi 
master’s own creativity. In both perpetuating traditional küis and making his own instrumental 
compositions he thus operates with basic constructs of musical meaning in mind, which are individually 
shaped in performance. The listener, on his part, is expected to decode the küi’s essential meaning and 
explore it in his own way, investing it with individual meanings. One of my informants, Turymtai 
Müsirbaiuly (b. 1938), a follower of Qalaqshanyŋ auyly now living in the Semei region of eastern 
Kazakhstan, described to me what he recognised as effective communication of a küi’s meaning from 
performer to listener: “Supposing I play a küi called Saghynysh (“Nostalgia”). Whatever feelings I express 
in the music, whether it is longing for the homeland, my people or feeling nostalgic about a person or the 
times past, only when my performance evokes in the listener his own feelings of home-sickness or 
nostalgia, only then is it Saghynysh. Otherwise, if the küi expresses the longing of only one person and 
does not affect others, this küi would not be Saghynysh.” [13] 
The idea of küi as a state of mind reinterpreted by a chain of performers and listeners, as aptly 
described by Turymtai, offers an insight into the distinctive nature of dombyra performance as a practice 
of remembrance. Far from providing a mere record of actual historical eventsküi unfolds a history of 
states of mind, evocative archetypes of the people’s social memory. In the repertory of Qalaqshanyŋ auyly 
such are the archetypal memories of the Kazakhs’ migration to Mongolia preserved in Zar zaman, a 
küishi’s departure to rebellion in Xinjiang captured in Qoshtasu, and the sense of nostalgia, haunting the 
diasporic community, conveyed in Saghynysh. These memories are re-experienced and given individual 
significance by different performers, and listeners become co-creators in this process of remembering and 
reconstructing the past. In its interpretative approach to history, dombyra performance thus possesses a 
transformative quality. It captures the people’s changing memories of the past, informed by agendas and 
concerns of the present. 
The evolving nature of remembering through küi can be traced in various aspects of transmission, 
such as a küi’s prominence and degree of variation in performance, or reinterpretation of its narrative and 
music. A salient aspect of social memory in küi is musical style. 
Style and notions of tradition and identity 
Traditional Mongolian Kazakh dombyra  küis, such as Zar zaman and Qoshtasu, are in the shertpe 
style identified with eastern Kazakhstan, and characterised by plucking or flicking the strings with 
individual fingers. Their more immediate stylistic prototype is the dombyra repertory of the Altai and 
Tarbaghatai areas of Xinjiang, former home to Mongolian Kazakh tribal communities. Called Kerei küi
after the largest tribe living in western Mongolia, these pieces, in their structure and scope, are designed to 
be performed on the qalaq or qalaqsha dombyra, with a flat resonator and a short neck with 7 to 9 frets, 
that was historically widespread in eastern Kazakhstan and across Altai [16, 185; 17, 18, 93; 18, 149, 
166]. The küis typically embrace the small range of an octave and a half. Most of them are intended for a 
dombyra tuned to the interval of a fifth, with the melody on the higher-sounding string drawing upon a 
progression of fundamental tones in diatonic mode, and a bass drone produced on the unfretted, or ‘open’, 

Illustration 4. Turymtai 
lower string (see Examples 1–4 above). This style has been interpreted as an early type of shertpe
historically anterior to the classical style of eastern Kazakhstan (Arqa) that formed in the 19
 – early 20
century and kindred to the ancient drone-overtone music-making originating from Inner Asia and southern 
Siberia, such as performance on horsehair fiddles, end-blown flutes and throat-singing [19, 233; 17, 17–
18, 23–24; 18, 230–238]. 
Although the traditional Kerei  küis designed for the qalaqsha dombyra are still current in the local 
repertory, and their style has accrued the image of ‘antiquity’ among performers and scholars, a different 
instrument type and style gained prominence in western Mongolia from the late 1950s. They were 
introduced by musicians from Kazakhstan who were assigned to Bayan-Ölgii to assist the establishment of 
the Kazakh Music and Drama Theatre and the orchestra of folk instruments to be based there. Following 
the model of similar enterprises launched in Kazakhstan some 20 years earlier, they brought to the theatre 
a modernised type of dombyra, with an enlarged rounded resonator and an extended neck accommodating 
up to 19 frets [19, 38, 40; 12]. The bulk of the repertory intended for this dombyra was in the tökpe style 
originating from western Kazakhstan, which contrasted with shertpe in playing technique (simultaneous 
strumming of the strings with all fingers of the right hand) and structure (a sequence of sections, buyns, in 
different pitch zones alternating with a recurrent initial motif). Most of it was intended for a dombyra 
tuned to a fourth, with the two voices producing a heterophonic texture. The pre-eminence of tökpe küis in 
the theatre repertory reflected changes in Kazakhstan itself, where this style had been elevated in 
mainstream performance, coming to exemplify a national stylistic idiom [19, 337–338, 373; 20, 5, 8]. 
The developments in the newly-established Kazakh Theatre soon affected the nature of dombyra 
music-making in the broader milieu: the modified instrument type replaced the old qalaqsha dombyra, and 
the tökpe style started to be adopted in local performance and creativity [14]. The ready acceptance of the 
new instrument type and style owed in part to the fact that, in the ideological climate of socialist times, 
imbued with a spirit of enterprise and modernisation, assimilation of imported elements was viewed as a 
sign of development and innovation. More importantly, though, the modernised dombyra  and western 
Kazakhstan repertory became emblematic of a ‘national’ performance style, linking the diasporic 
community with their historic homeland. Stylistic choices made by dombyra players in their renditions of 
existing küis and their own instrumental pieces can, therefore, give an insight into the evolving discourse 
of tradition and identity, and into dynamic interpretations of history and memories among Mongolian 
Thus, some local küis in the traditional style, such as Zar zaman, have 
been maintained in their early versions on archival recordings and in the 
repertory of elderly musicians, and thereby come to embody the dombyra 
performance tradition of the past. They are not popular with younger 
performers who view them as musically and technically unsophisticated 
and underdeveloped by comparison with the repertory from Kazakhstan. 
Other  küis have been adjusted to the aesthetics of more recent times
assimilating features of tökpe, that is, the strumming technique and 
sectional form. There are also new dombyra compositions that are 
played entirely in the tökpe or the eastern Kazakhstan shertpe styles. 
These  küis have won increasing acclaim among listeners in Bayan-
Ölgii, reflecting the altered musical tastes and notions of dombyra 
performance ‘tradition’ among the Mongolian Kazakh community. 
An example of a küi currently popular in Bayan-Ölgii is Ata meken 
(“Ancestral Land”) by Turymtai Müsirbaiuly (see Example 5). The küi 
was composed in response to an incident that occurred to the küishi when 
he was on military service on the border of China and Mongolia. There he 
met an officer from Kazakhstan who had never heard of the Kazakh 
community in Bayan-Ölgii. Wishing to demonstrate to him how true 
Kazakh culture was preserved in the aimag, Turymtai invited him to a 
concert given by the touring Kazakh Music and Drama Theatre. The 
concert opened with the folk orchestra’s performance of the küi Sary Arqa 
(“Golden Steppe”) by Qurmanghazy, the celebrated 19
-century  küishi originally from western 
Kazakhstan. Listening to this performance, the officer was moved to tears. This made Turymtai wonder: 

“Where is the Kazakh homeland?” His reflections on this subject were captured in Ata meken [13]. By 
contrast to traditional Mongolian Kazakh küis, the küi is in fourth tuning and has a wider pitch range. 
Although drawing on the shertpe style, it also involves fragments played with the strumming technique 
typical of tökpe. The küi’s original version as composed by Turymtai has been further developed by 
performers in Bayan-Ölgii entirely in the tökpe style with the characteristic strumming articulation 
producing a dense two-voiced texture, similar to that of classical tökpe  küis from Kazakhstan. The 
question posed by the küishi is thus by implication answered in the stylistic transformation of the küi

Example 5. Ata meken, Turymtai, perf. Turymtai. 
My study of Mongolian Kazakh dombyra performance and the local tradition of Qalaqshanyŋ auyly 
reaffirmed the validity of the indigenous concept of küi as genealogical chronicle (shejire), and brought to 
the fore various aspects of küis’s commemorative nature. Additionally, though, it also highlighted for me a 
twofold role of dombyra performance as a means of documenting the community’s history: not only as a 
chronicle of its complex historic experience and orally transmitted knowledge but also as a testament to 
evolving perceptions and understandings of this history within the community. Altered performance 
aesthetic, translated into musical style, has marked the shifts in modes of remembering through music. 
Despite the persisting awareness of the local dombyra repertory, the perceived locus of dombyra 
performance ‘tradition’ has shifted, following the community’s paths of migration from Chinese Altai to 
Kazakhstan. Carried through the medium of küi, created and re-created in performance, memories of the 
past evolved in response to the current political agenda and cultural discourse in the community, reflecting 
the diaspora’s changing notions of themselves in relation to the broader Kazakh culture and ethnicity. 
Today, amidst a challenging existence for the Kazakh diaspora in Mongolia and returnees in Kazakhstan, 
their dombyra performance continues to be passed down through generations, recapturing and reviving in 
sound the community’s history and memories. 
Halbwachs, Maurice. 1992. On Collective Memory. Edited, translated, and introduced by Lewis A. Coser. 
Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press. 
Connerton, Paul. 1989. How Societies Remember. New York and Sydney: Cambridge University Press. 
Slobin, Mark (guest ed.). 1995. Diaspora: A Journal of Transnational Studies. Special Issue on Music and 
Diaspora. 3/3. 
Shelemay, Kay Kaufman. 1998. Let Jasmine Rain Down: Song and Remembrance among Syrian Jews. 
Chicago and London: Chicago University Press. 
Harris, Rachel. 2004. Singing the Village: Music, Memory and Ritual among the Sibe of Xinjiang. Oxford: 
Oxford University Press.  
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(Strings of the Centuries: The Lives and Works of Kazakh Folk Composers). Almaty: Daik-Press. 
Seidimbek, Aqseleu. 2002. Qazaqtyŋ küi öneri (The Art of Kazakh Küi). Astana: Kültegin. 
Mukanov, Marat. 1974. Etnicheskii sostav i rasselenie kazakhov Srednego juza (Ethnic Composition and 
Distribution of the Kazakhs of the Middle Horde). Alma-Ata: Nauka. 
Qinayatuly, Zardykhan. 2001. Mongholiadaghy qazaqtar (Mongolia’s Kazakhs). Almaty: Atajurt. 
Interview with Maria Qylybaiqyzy. Ulaankhus, Bayan-Ölgii. August 2004. 
Interview with Mels Öserkhanuly. Ulaankhus, Bayan-Ölgii. August 2004, June 2005. 
Qarsyuly, Saqai. 1991. Küi kerueni. Kümbirli küiler kerueni. Küi jäne küishiler khaqyndaghy aŋyzdar men 
aqikhattar (Küi Caravan. Caravan of Resonant Küis. Legends and Truths concerning Küis and Küishis). Edited by 
Rysbek Zurghanbaiuly. Ölgii: Bayan-Ölgii aimaq baspakhanasy. 
Interview with Turymtai Müsirbaiuly. Qalbatau (Georgievka), Semei region, Kazakhstan. August 2006. 

Interview with Raikhan Mukhambetuly. Saryözek (Volskoe), Qaraghandy region, Kazakhstan. August 
Interview with Murat Äbughazy. Almaty, Kazakhstan. July 2006. 
Äsemqulov, Talasbek. 1989. Dombyragha til bitse. Qazaqtyŋ baiyrghy muzyqalyq  terminologiyasy 
khaqynda (If the Dombyra Could Speak. On the Old Kazakh Musical Terminology). Juldyz. 5. 185–190. 
Utegalieva, Saule. 2006. Hordophony Tsentralnoi Azii (Chordophones of Central Asia). Almaty: 
Utegalieva, Saule. 2013.  Zvukovoi mir turkskih narodov: teoriya, istoriya, praktika (na materiale 
instrumentalnyh traditsii Tsentralnoi Azii) (The Sound World of the Turkic Peoples: Theory, History, Practice (On 
the Material of the Instrumental Traditions of Central Asia)). Moscow: Kompozitor. 
Amanov, Bagdaulet, Mukhambetova, Asiya. 2002. Kazakhskaya traditzionnaya muzyka i 20 vek (Kazakh 
Traditional Music and the 20
 Century). Almaty: Daik-Press. 
Qusaiynuly, Töleukhan, Täukeiuly, Ysqaq. 1981. Bayan-Ölgii muzyka mädenieti (The Music 
Culture of Bayan-Ölgii). Ölgii: Bayan-Ölgii aimaq baspakhanasy. 
Mukhambetova, Asiya. 2005. Alghy söz / Predislovie (Foreword). Toqtaghan, Aitjan, Äbughazy, 
Murat. Tättimbet jäne Arqa küileri (Tättimbet and Arqa Küis). Almaty: Bilim. 5–10. 
Доктор философии по этномузыковедению, заведующая Научно-исследовательской фольклорной 
лабораторией Казахской национальной консерватории имени Курмангазы 
  В  статье  исследуется  роль  домбрового  исполнительства  как  средства  передачи  социальной  памяти  у 
казахов  Монголии  и  репатриантов  в  Казахстане.  Основываясь  на  этнографическом  исследовании 
исполнительской  традиции  племенного  сообщества  из  западной  Монголии,  известного  как  «Қалақшаның 
ауылы» («Аул  домбры»),  автор  рассматривает  различные  аспекты  кюя  как  практики  сохранения  памяти  и 
идентичности,  касающиеся  историчности  домбрового  репертуара,  его  вариантной  передачи  в 
исполнительстве и музыкального стиля. 
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