National Dombra Day Embraces Rhythm of Kazakh Culture 

ASTANA – Kazakhstan has celebrated National Dombra Day on the first Sunday of July since 2018, fostering a deep appreciation of Kazakh traditions and native culture.

Dimash Kudaibergen playing dombra during his Arnau Tour concert in 2020. Photo credit:

The dombra is a sacred instrument embodying the history, joy, sadness, courage, and freedom of the Kazakh people. It is not just a national brand but a national identity and holds a special place in world music. The Kazakhs honor the dombra, and kuishi (performers of kuis) are revered guests.

Dombra kuis (traditional composition played on dombra) have been included in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage (ICH) of Humanity since 2014. 

Crafting the dombra

The dombra is a two-stringed instrument typically measuring 80-130 centimeters in length. It features a pear-shaped body and a long neck. A pear-shaped body called the ‘shanak,’ is carved from a single block or composed of rasped parts of maple, elm, or birch, serving as a sound amplifier. 

The ‘kapak,’ or soundboard, picks up string vibrations, amplifies them, and gives the instrument its distinct timbre. 

Traditionally, the dombra has two strings, which produce the instrument’s sound vibrations. These strings were made from sheep or goat intestines.

The ‘tiyek,’ a wooden rack between the two strings, is critical for transmitting string vibrations to the soundboard, creating the first resonant contour essential for the dombra’s sound.

Crafting a high-quality dombra requires significant skills, learned over the years. Zholaushy Turdugulov is one of the few traditional dombra craftsmen who preserve this art, skillfully bringing out the best sound from the instrument.

The legend of Aksak Kulan

There are many legends about the dombra. One famous tale is “Aksak Kulan” (the Lame Kulan). According to the legend, the hole in the upper soundboard of the dombra was made intentionally.

While hunting, Zhoshy Khan, the eldest son of Genghis Khan, was attacked by the alpha male of wild kulans, known as Lame Kulan. None of Genghis Khan’s servants dared to inform him of his son’s death for fear of being punished with molten lead poured down their throats. A great zhyrshy (performer of folk poems) Ketbuga made dombra, went to Genghis Khan’s palace, and conveyed the news through his kui. Since the musician spoke no words, complying with tradition, Genghis Khan punished the dombra instead by pouring molten lead into it.

From tradition to modern times

One of the prominent Kazakh composers and dombra performers was Kurmangazy Sagyrbayuly, who reflected the personal narratives and stories of the Kazakh people in the 19th century through his music. 

He composed numerous kuis, including “Alatau,” “Saryarka,” and “Adai,” which have become revered classics performed by dombra players. Today, his legacy includes 60 preserved kuis.

Zhaks Mukhametzhanov. Photo credit: The Astana Times

Dimash Kudaibergen, a renowned Kazakh singer, introduces the dombra’s sound to a global audience. In 2019, he performed Kurmangazy’s “Adai” kui at a solo concert in New York, captivating an audience of 9,000. 

At the 2022 Digital Life Design conference in Munich, Dimash showcased the unique sounds of Kazakh national instruments, including the dombra and kobyz, performing “Alqissa” kui by Nurgisa Tlendiyev.

This national instrument is experiencing a revival also thanks to Kazakh musicians and content creators on TikTok, a video hosting platform. Their masterful performances, modern interpretations, and unexpected collaborations thrive on the platform of short creative videos. 

According to TikTok data, the top 10 dombra players have collectively amassed 925,000 followers and garnered over 13.6 million likes. Hashtags featuring the word “dombra” have generated over 57.8 thousand posts, with nearly 10 million views.

Among these creators is Zhaks Mukhametzhanov (@zhakso) renowned for his virtuosity on the dombra. He gained fame by interpreting an Eminem (an American rapper) song on the national instrument, followed by a series of covers and popular hits. Inspired by the trend on TikTok, Mukhametzhanov’s experiment resonated widely, earning praise from audiences and even promoting positive reactions from musicians whose compositions he featured.

“This trend has been a wonderful opportunity to showcase the beauty of our national instrument, reaching even foreign TikTok users,” said Mukhametzhanov.

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