The Sıbızğı Recordings from Northern Xinjiang Collection (British Library ref: C1960) includes digital copies of several home-made cassettes, radio interviews, and film soundtracks from northern Xinjiang, documenting the repertoire of the bi-phonic, end-blown flute sıbızğı (also: sybyzghy), played among Kerey (also: Kereit or Kerei) Kazakhs. The collection contains more than eight hours of music and folk narratives, 309 recording pieces in total. Historically, the sıbızğı was played by eloquent Kazakh orators, often village leaders, at anniversaries, celebrations, and discussions of village affairs. Each sıbızğı melody relates to a unique folktale, of ancient warriors, modern rebel heroes, animals and hunters, birds, orphans, and famous poets of the Kazakhs. Geographically, the sıbızğı tradition is performed primarily in modern-day Xinjiang and western Mongolia. Most Kazakhs in this region trace their ancestors to the Orta Cüz (Middle Horde) group, and the majority of sıbızğı players, though by no means all, are Kerey Kazakhs, whose clans, families, and villages share cultural memory through performance and recordings of the sıbızğı repertoire.
Above: A map of sıbızğı sound collections in Xinjiang. The collections document performances by musicians in northern Xinjiang, including the regions of Altay, Qumul, and Erenqabırğa, a strip region from Sauan to Urumchi.
According to oral literature, the sıbızğı was created by shepherds while grazing, making a múñlı (sad, melancholy, or sorrowful) sound, which has a pronounced difference from the ‘cheerful’ sound produced by the dombıra (dombyra). Some folktales take the following form:
During a time of many hardships for the Kazakhs of the steppes, a cruel bay (rich lord) sent two orphans to watch over a flock of sheep and protect them from wolves, threatening to beat them if they failed in their task. One day, the younger boy thought he heard the howl of a wolf and drove the sheep to a new location. Over several days he heard the howl again and again, until he realised that the sound was not a wolf after all, in fact it was the wind blowing through hollyhock reeds that had been eaten by the sheep. Plucking one from the ground, he began to blow into it, putting his fingers over the various holes in the stem to change its pitch. One night, the other boy heard this strange new sound and asked, 'Are you crying?' The younger shepherd boy replied, 'No, I am playing a melodious voice.' Since that day, the boys began playing the hollyhock reeds together, creating new sounds. Later, the practice spread to the people, and the hollyhock came to be called 'sızılğı'. Over time, folk intellectuals adapted the reeds with two, three and four holes to make new sounds, and this came to be called sıbızğı.
While found in hardly any written, published sources, such origin stories about the sıbızğı are abundant among the community of sıbızğı players and their listeners. Most of the folktales refer to the Syr River region as an important place in the origin of the sıbızğı, partially because of the legend of Qorqıt Ata (Grandfather Qorqıt; Korkut Dede in Turkish), a famous poet, philosopher, epic chanter, and a high-ranking baqsı (shaman) in both the historical Turkic world and folk literature. Qorqıt Ata was born in the 8th century AD in the Syr River region and served as the prime minister of five khanates in his lifetime. According to The Book of Qorqit Ata, a compilation of oral literature, Qorqıt and the Prophet Muhammad lived at the same time, and the Kazakh national instrument – the qobız – was invented by Qorqıt, who also left a large number of mythological musical accounts to the later Kazakh nation.
'Qorqıttıñ Küyi' (The Tune of Qorqıt), performed by Tölegen Qúndaqbay-úlı. There are a few sıbızğı pieces that depict the life of Qorqıt, and many sıbızğı players believe Qorqıt is also the inventor of sıbızğı.
'Aqsaq Qúlan Cosığan' (The Crippled Red Horse Is Running), performed by Mansur Böreke-úlı.
The complexity of the stories about the early mythological history of the sıbızğı indicates a diverse and cross-regional array of folklore throughout Xinjiang and Central Asia. Sıbızğı tunes often feature folk tales with relatively concrete historical accounts up to the era of Ghengis Khan in the 12th century, also highlighting the shared cultural roots of residents in the Altaic region – merged tribes of Kazakhs and Mongols. For example, 'Aqsaq Qúlan' (Crippled Red Horse) presents a tragic, but philosophical, story of the Mongolian Khan and his son: Genghis Khan loved his son Jöchi, so much so that he ordained that anyone who brought news of the boy’s death to him would have their head filled with lead. One day, the poet Ketquba had a nightmare of Jöchi tumbling from his horse and dying, a vision that proved to be correct. To inform the Khan, Ketquba played his dombıra, making a sound like a galloping horse. Upon hearing the song, Genghis Khan trembled and wept, asking, 'Why does this song make me feel so sad, as if it heralds the news of Jöchi’s death?' The poet put down his dombıra and explained the story of Jöchi’s death in a poem. The Khan was ready to kill Ketquba in the manner he had ordained, until the poet countered: 'It was not I, but the dombıra who told you of your son’s death through sound.' True to his word, the Khan filled the dombıra with lead. In modern-day Kazakh legend, this is how the dombıra got its soundhole.
Throughout the history of the Kazakh nation, there have always been individuals combining the roles of philosopher, poet, and musician, and the same applies to sıbızğı performers. The first widely recognised sıbızğı master was Asan Qayğı Sábyt-úlı, a famous 14th-century Kazakh philosopher, aqın (poet), cırau (folk singer), by (debater and judge), and prophet. He served as an important minister of the Golden Horde and the Kazakh Khanate. According to the sources, Asan Qayğı worried about all matters concerning the life of the Kazakhs, from personal disputes to clan affairs. He rode a celmaya (white camel) all his life, in search of a cerúyiq (paradise), rich in water and plants and free from feuds and inequality.
During the Ablay Khan era in the 18th century, the skilful sıbızğı tradition became highly developed in the Syr River region. Berdiqoja was a famous sıbızğı player of this age, who served the Khan by playing tunes about historical heroes and their martial exploits. In the 19th century, Cılqışı Ahtan-úlı was a well-known sıbızğı master, and later performers called him the Sıbızğı Piri (The Angel of the Sıbızğı). Cılqışı was the first to have the mixed role of sıbızğı master and by, and was highly respected in solving village affairs through gatherings that featured the playing of the sıbızğı. In early 20th-century Altay, there were four prominent bys who are still venerated by contemporary sıbızğı masters, among whom Bensenbi was better known as a composer on dombıra and sıbızğı.
Until the later 20th century, any gathering including sıbızğı playing was also regarded with reverence, rather than viewed as normal entertainment. Carole Pegg (1991), writes of the necessity 'for every Kazak family to own one (sıbızğı) and to keep it in a respected place, even if they could not play' (p. 75). In any gatherings where the flute is present, storytelling, mainly in question-and-answer form, and sıbızğı playing function as one, addressing topics of history, social justice, and important public initiatives. Even today, cyın (gatherings or assemblies) and toy (parties) are still important parts of collective life within a Kazakh clan. In such events, talking and discussing issues are major activities, while music-making can serve either as an interlude to such discussions, or sometimes as the central focus.
In recent times, playing dombıra and singing án (folksongs) have become more popular, and the role of the sıbızğırole has diminished, yet historically the sıbızğı played an essential role, and continues to represent a significant cultural memory for Kerey Kazakhs. The use of the sıbızğı to control a crowd’s mood through music, or influence the atmosphere of a gathering during a moment of musical storytelling, is a deeply embedded historical practice that for many Kazakh musicians represents a more ‘true’ vision of Kazakh culture than the dombıra.
Prof. Talğat Múqışov of the National Conservatory of Kazakhstan offers the following explanation of the instrument’s historical development in Kazakhstan: before Kazakhstan’s independence in 1991, the sıbızğı was not as popular as now. In 1934, during the Soviet era, the Symphony Orchestra of Qurmangazi was established in the city of Almaty, and the flute replaced other wind instruments, including the ‘unfortunate’ sıbızğı. At that time, musical instruments that could not fully represent the spirit of the entire Soviet people would not be considered 'qualified musical instruments'. A 'real instrument' was one that could play any kind of music in a symphony orchestra. As the sıbızğı only plays Kazakh music, it was regarded as a mere 'national musical instrument' that could only be played on limited stages. According to Múqışov, the sıbızğı currently represents the true 'Kazakh spirit' that has been driving the enthusiasm of the participants in the region’s 'new folk music' (Múqışov 2016).
Above: Sıbızğı player Nığımet Qabdolla-úlı in his home in Qútıby County, date unspecified.
Above: Sıbızğı player Qúttıbay Sıdıq-úlı in a public assembly, 5 May 2002.
Above: Students playing sıbızğı, Qútıby County, 2014. Photo by Xiaoshi Wei.
Since the 1960s, the sıbızğı has been recorded for radio, mainly on open-reel tapes, the first ever medium to capture and preserve the sound of the sıbızğı. Due to the high acoustic fidelity of open-reel tape and to the diffusion of radio, recording artists began to be viewed with respect and to gain higher status across Xinjiang. In the early days of the radio network, artists who were played on radio, e.g., Qoşanay and Tölegen, were held in particularly high regard.
Since the 1980s, the rise of cassettes has given people a more personal connection to their recorded music, with greater autonomy over their use of the medium itself. Because of the compactness of the cassette machine, the sıbızğı community started to believe this was more advanced technology. In village life, being recorded, similarly to being photographed, became seen as an ‘advanced’ act. People began to make personalised programs on cassette to document sıbızğı gatherings, creating playlists with the music in their preferred order. Recording is also an act that can strengthen ties between clan members: events involving the sıbızğı frequently include discussion of migration history, forging strong relationships between performers within the same clans. At parties or gatherings where old friends and relatives reunite after a long time, people play songs and talk about their shared relatives who were lost along the way. Sıbızğı players would intentionally play tunes about the journey of life. Lengthy spoken introductions before each tune talk about those who were lost, and the act of recording helps to preserve these interpersonal moments.
Since the 2000s, historical recordings of the sıbızğı began to appear on VCD (Compact Disc Digital Video) and on the internet. At present, the younger generation can access performances by their fathers’ contemporaries from mobile phones and computer screens. Although the traditional large gatherings that centre on sıbızğı performance have begun to diminish, the historical recordings still function as a means to pass down the music.
Above: Sıbızğı player Mansur Böreke-úlı.
Above: A family cassette tape of performance by Mansur Böreke-úlı.
Above: A family cassette of performances by Tölegen Qúndaqbay-úlı.
Above: Múhamet Áubákir-úlı in a recording session with Urumchi-based sıbızğı players Beyilqan Qalyakbar-úlı and Qúsman Maqmırza, date unspecified.
Above: VCD of the documentary film Máñgilik Sarın: Qútby Öñiriniñ Sıbızğı Táryhi (Eternal Melody: History of the Sıbızğı in the Qútby Region), 2007.
'Marğabıldıñ Qara Qasqa Atınıñ Şabısı - Bastapqı Şabısı' (The Running Posture of Marğabıl’s Horse - Beginning), performed by Nığımet Qabdolla-úlı.
This tune portrays a historical horse-racing gathering among the Kerey and Nayman tribes of Xinjiang Kazakhs. It highlights the historical rivalry between the two tribes and the sense of prideful superiority the Kerey feel over the Nayman, a sentiment that still prevails among Kerey cultural insiders, even those who live hundreds or thousands of miles from their homelands.
Above: The poster of the publication Ripples: Historical Recordings of Sıbızğı, with written text in Kazakh (in both Cyrillic and Arabic alphabets), Chinese and English.
Recovering home cassettes
Starting in 2013, Prof. Xiao Mei at the Shanghai Conservatory of Music has been financially supporting my initiative to collect and document a large number of homemade cassette recordings of sıbızğı performance. With the goal of creating an archival package containing interviews, audio recordings, and edited texts, I conducted fieldwork in Altay, Qútıby, Urumchi, Şiñgil, and Qumul, gaining access to several individuals’ private recordings. At the individuals’ homes, I also created digital copies of their private cassettes; more than 400 recordings of sıbızğı tunes were collected from families in northern Xinjiang, allowing researchers to examine the repertoire, content, and stories behind the music in unprecedented scope. The Sıbızğı Recordings from Northern Xinjiang Collection, now deposited at the British Library, displays the significance of Kazakh musical heritage, documenting a way of life that is rapidly changing and helping to preserve an image of longstanding traditional musical practice, capturing performances by masters of the sıbızğı who have since passed away.
This post was written by Dr Xiaoshi Wei, Newton International Fellow at SOAS University.
Pegg, Carole. 1991. 'The Revival of Ethnic and Cultural Identity in West Mongolia: the Altai Uriangkhai Tsuur, Tuvan Shuur and Kazakh Sybyzgy'. Journal of the Anglo-Mongolian Society, 12 (1-2): p. 71.
Múqışov, Talğat. Interview. Conducted by Qahar Erbol, 24 May 2016.
Núsúltan Núrahmet-úlı. Múratqan Bybyrál-úlı, and Örken Qaydar-úlı. 2007. Mañgilik Sarın: Qútıby Öñiriniñ Sıbızğı Táryhi (永恒的旋律：呼图壁地区斯布孜额介绍, 'Eternal Melody: History of Sıbızğı in the Qútıby Region'). Şyncyañ Dıbıs-Beyne Baspası (新疆音像出版社).
Various Artists. 2023 (forthcoming). Ripples: Historical Recordings of Sıbızğı in Xinjiang (Толқын: Сыбызғы үнінің тарихы, 波浪：斯布孜额历史录音). Recordings compiled and liner notes written by Xiaoshi Wei.