Folk Ensemble Blends Kazakh, World Music

The Kazakh band Beles blends Kazakh traditional music with other melodies and instruments. Manager Madiyar Maldybayev discussed the team and their music.

Безымянный How was your group established and why is it called Beles?

The group was formed as a creative union long ago. Alexey Yefremenko and Marat Nukeyev performed as a duet while in school. Assel Nurkenova also graduated from the Kulyash Baisseitova Specialised Music School.

Alexey is not just an accordion player, competition winner and virtuoso, but also knows Kazakh folk music and folk songs very well. The dombra player, Marat, is also a virtuoso and winner of international competitions. Assel is the top kobyz player in Kazakhstan today. Professor Raushan Mussakhodzhayeva called these three musicians rarities.

I myself play dombra, shankobyz, sybyzgy and percussion. We all graduated from the conservatory and joined the Presidential Orchestra of the Republican Guard in 1997. With the transfer of the capital, we moved to Astana, and continued working in the orchestra for 15 years. I met a lot of foreign delegations, to whom we were the first to present our national culture, and for each guest we prepared folk music of their country. Doing that, we developed a large repertoire.

The name Beles in Kazakh means “a stage on the path of development,” “a certain point.” The Kazakhs have a blessing: “Belesten beleske zhete ber” (“Conquer peak after peak”). This is our motto.

Why did you decide to form a band?

We have been working on our own for two years. But even in the orchestra, we began to perform in this format; it was our own project. Young people don’t listen to folk music in its pure form, and we decided to popularise it in plain language for young performers, which is what we have been doing now for eight years.

Have there been any review concerts during this time?

We haven’t had review shows, but we have performed in many countries. The farthest point of our travels was Colombia, Latin America, where we had the privilege of representing Kazakhstan at the World Travel Exhibition. We are often invited to Moscow – on the Day of the City, for example, and this spring, the Moscow city administration organised a big concert in honour of the Nauryz holiday. Beles is probably best known in Turkey. The mayor of Ankara saw our presentation in Astana by chance and invited us to participate in the Grand Ankara International Festival. The stadium where the concert was held attracted a record number of spectators – about 40,000. We were given 45 minutes to perform, but in the end we took the stage for about an hour and played almost our entire repertoire. In total, we’ve had more than 30 concerts in Turkey.

Why do you think you are better known abroad than in Kazakhstan?

It’s simple: those with money are broadcast most on domestic channels, and it does not matter whether they are professional musicians or random people. But we hope that in the end, Kazakh airwaves will be filled exclusively with worthy soloists and bands.

Are you involved in combined concerts in the country?

Yes. We perform on holidays primarily: Constitution Day, Nauryz, Independence Day, New Year. We have participated in festivals, including Almaty is my First Love, and in Taraz, Pavlodar, Karaganda and other cities. But still, we travel abroad more. Embassies invite us.

What makes your group special?

Firstly, we are professionals; secondly, instrumental music does not need to be translated to be understood. In addition, ethnic music is popular among foreigners and we have bright costumes and different instruments. For example, Assel plays kobyz and kylkobyz and even the harmonica. In addition to dombra, shankobyz and sybyzgy, I play Scottish bagpipes. We can perform traditional music in its purest form.

We were invited to Madrid, where we had an hour-long concert for adopted Kazakh children so they could hear the music of the steppes, the music of their homeland. In Berlin, we performed at the ITB [Internationale Tourismus-Börse] exhibition. There were many interesting booths, but thanks to the bright music, Kazakhstan attracted special attention. We’ve been to Canada, three times to America, almost all over Europe – Spain, Germany, France, England – as well as Korea, Mongolia and China. But we haven’t been to Australia or Japan yet.

How does your ensemble differ from groups like Turan and Ulytau?

Each ensemble has its own niche. Ulytau is a rock band that uses the dombra. Turan is a purely folk ensemble and plays only Kazakh music. Ulytau plays kuis [folk instrumentals] in a rock style. Our songs are a synthesis of the music of different peoples.

There are women in all three bands…

The main thing is they are talented. Our Assel was a presidential scholar twice; she attended the meetings of Nursultan Nazarbayev with gifted children. He knows her well and after the transfer of the capital he personally invited her to work in Astana. She has won the Grand Prix at all competitions existing in Kazakhstan.

Who makes your costumes?

We develop them together. Our costumes, like our music, are a mix. For example, our hats are Kyrgyz, our camisoles are Uzbek, our boots are Kazakh – the jeans are modern. The ideas are ours and tailors sew the costumes for us. We have our own style and colourful costumes to catch the eye.

Who makes the arrangements?

We do them by ourselves. We get together and discuss. We take as a basis some Kazakh theme and, as on a canvas, we embroider a colourful pattern of other melodies. The prevailing topic becomes the title. If the basis is, for example, Zartunk Armenian music, then the overall composition has the same name. But we’ll add improvisations on dombra and kobyz for a Kazakh theme. Chinese, Peruvian, Oriental, Turkish, American music … our repertoire includes about 15 songs. If we play them in a row, it takes about one and a half hours – that is a full-fledged concert. You may ask why in 7-8 years we have only 15 songs, when some performers in a year release an album of 10 songs. We are very sensitive: the creation of a single composition can take half a year. We carefully check different options. And when we finally come to the arranger, we give him a little ready-made material and explain what we want.

Currently, we work with the talented musician Khamit Shangalievy. With Khamit, we found a common language. We do not want to repeat anyone; we have developed our own style. That is important for us.

Who were your mentors?

The Presidential Orchestra where we started to work was headed by Arystanbek Mukhamediuly; the current minister of culture and sports, [Mazhilis deputy and folk singer] Bekbolat Tleukhan, was the artistic director and Rustem Beisenuly headed the folk music ensemble. We are very grateful to them.

What problems do you encounter most often?

Today, in my opinion, sport gets more attention than culture. The rewards of athletes and musicians can’t be compared.

There are almost no professional sound engineers in the country and little good equipment. Sound engineers are trained in St. Petersburg, but even those who’ve studied there are not in demand in Kazakhstan: because of the low wages, they go into business. A palace director would rather pay 50,000 to a non-professional than three times as much to a professional. … .

European culture is known worldwide; now, it is necessary to show Kazakh art and folk music. In our compositions, Kazakh music makes friends with melodies from different countries in a model of integration.

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