Kyrgyzstan’s native poets telling tales of a stabilizing nation

The World

Story from PRI’s The World. Listen to the above audio for a complete report.

The small Central Asian republic of Kyrgyzstan held a presidential election recently.

It was the first peaceful handover of power since the end of the Soviet Union. A violent revolution last year overthrew the previous president.

As the country moves forward, the local media have been covering events closely. But so has an older, arguably more powerful institution in Kyrgyzstan.

For centuries, the people of Kyrgyzstan have used improvisational poetry as a way of telling their nation’s story.

The poets are called “akyns” – and in a country that’s experiencing rapid political change, they are considered the voice of the Kyrgyz.

At this performance in the ethnically-torn southern city of Osh, two of the nation’s most prominent akyns, Aaly Tutkuchov and Jenishbek Jumakadyr, banter about the power they wield over politicians, some of whom are in the audience.

“They’re afraid” – sings Tutkuchov. “They’re thinking “What will they say about me?”

Jumakadyr responds: “Someone’s taking cell phone video of us. They must be with the National Security Service.”

Akyns are masters of improvisation. The two-person performance itself called an “aytish” – is like a cross between an American rap battle and a stand-up comedy routine.

In another routine, the akyns talk smack about fellow performers. Tutkuchov jokes that a guy waiting in the wings to come on is so short, he has to wear high-heels. Jumakadyr adds that even then, he could hardly reach the microphone.

The men, in between insults, play a small, three-string guitar-like instrument called the Komuz.

But like the best rap artists, akyns take their role in Kyrgyz society very seriously.

Tutkuchov said he sees himself almost like a journalist, creating a political dialogue for the public and keeping lawmakers in check.

If one akyn is promoting the government or some leader, the second akyn should take the opposite point of view, he said.

And politicians try to curry their favor. Tutkuchov said when that fails, politicians sometimes threaten akyns after a performance. He’s had to change his phone number to stop harassing calls.

“We know – when we point out wrongdoing – they will try to put pressure on us. Or make us scared of them but we’re not afraid of them. This is the important thing about akyns. We need to tell the truth,” Tutkuchov said.

Kyrgyzstan’s akyn tradition is making a comeback after decades of Soviet rule.

Ethnomusicologist Elmira Kochumkulova said Soviet officials would force akyns to tell them what they planned to say ahead of time – even though akyns are supposed to improvise.

Sometimes, the communist leaders would insist akyns spread Soviet ideology, to spread Soviet culture, to remote villages, where many Kyrgyz lived. 

They knew they could use their skills, because they were quite popular among the people, like propaganda tools.

Two decades after the fall of the Soviet Union, the status of the Kyrgyz akyn is returning to its former glory.

Kuchumkulova said the power of akyns shouldn’t be underestimated. They really are the social commentators of Kyrgyzstan. They’ve helped the country transition to democracy and deal with some of the traumatic events of the past year.

That included the death of dozens of people in an uprising that led to former President Kurmanbek Bakiyev’s ouster.

When the April 7 events happened and more than 80 young men died, the akyns were key players at the funeral. They improvised funeral songs at the burial site.

“My dear Kyrgyz. You’ve seen so many things, you’ve gone through so much sorrow,” one of the akyans sang.

And they have.

After the political and ethnic violence of the past six years, last month’s presidential election was peaceful. However, it’s also being viewed as Kyrgyzstan gravitating back into Russia’s sphere of influence.

The akyns will certainly have something to say about that.


PRI’s “The World” is a one-hour, weekday radio news magazine offering a mix of news, features, interviews, and music from around the globe. “The World” is a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI and WGBH Boston. More about The World.

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