Weeping, Singing, Roaring—in Rhyme

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“It’s not just memorization.” Ulukbek Toktobolot Uulu, 22, is helping revive recital of Kyrgyzstan's 500,000-line national poem.


Learning a half-million-line poem isn’t easy.

“It takes a lot,” says Ulukbek Toktobolot Uulu, 22, a music teacher who is just beginning his training as a manaschi, a traditional reciter of epic poetry in Bishkek, the capital of Kyrgyzstan.

For about a year Toktobolot has been studying Manas, the country’s ancient and colossal national poem, the lengthiest recorded version of which is 500,553 rhyming lines long. He can declaim parts of it for about 10 minutes. Lifelong masters can narrate the lyrics for hours.

“You can’t just start, you have to know your mood,” Toktobolot says. “I start telling different pieces depending on my feelings. You get tired. You get a dry throat. You need to draw on energy from the ancestors.”

For millennia the vast steppes and high mountains that encompass modern Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and western China have been roved by Turkic pastoralists who ordered their universe—their lives, religions, legends, and histories—orally, in storytelling songs.

Probably no country has a greater claim to this art form today than Kyrgyzstan, one of Central Asia’s smaller and more democratic states. Manas, its national epic, matches the oceanic scale and beauty of the region’s landscape: part folktale, part gospel, part patriotic tract, it tells the sweeping story of the origins of the Kyrgyz people through the exploits of its eponymous central character, the knightly super-hero Manas.

Scholars compare the eloquence and psychological power of Manas to Homer’s masterpieces, the Iliad and the Odyssey. (Though Manas is about 20 times longer.) The Kyrgyz epic even addresses similar themes: good versus evil, the moral codes of leadership, Shakespearean rivalries, national destinies, and generations of warfare—in this case, against neighboring China. Though Manas has been declared a treasure of world culture by the United Nations, it remains virtually unknown in the West owing to a lack of accessible translations. Even in Central Asia, detailed knowledge of the poem has grown tenuous, and bards capable of reciting long passages are rare.

A sample of the lyrics describing the birth of Manas:

He is created from the beam between the Sky and the Earth,
He is created from the waves of a river under the moon,
He is created from the blend of gold and silver.

The origins of the epic are murky. In Kyrgyzstan the government officially has declared the poem to be a thousand years old, though historians note that some of its events appear to date from the 16th and 17th centuries. Naturally there are countless versions of Manas. Its pan-Turkic appeal straddles political borders in Central Asia, and it varies more along antique clan lines. Each teller adds his or her personal inflections. (Women recently have taken up recitation, traditionally a male prerogative.)

On my foot journey across the region, I have been lucky to see a few manaschi in action.

In Aktau, a port town in Kazakhstan, I watched an old man conjure the ghosts of steppe warriors at a family funeral. Strumming a two stringed lute called a dombra, he sang—with short breaks—for almost nine hours. Hiking on the trail near the western Uzbek border, I encountered another singer, picnicking with his wife, who declaimed couplets that rose and fell like the rhythmic hoof-beats of a running horse.

Perhaps the most famous manaschi in Kyrgyzstan is Sayakbai Karalaev, who died in 1971. His emotional range was renowned. He wept. He stood. He fell silent. He roared. Audiences reeled, stunned by his performances. (Even Stalin was impressed.) Since independence from the Soviet Union in 1991, Kyrgyzstan elevated the epic from mere folklore to a pillar of fledgling national identity. Karalaev has appeared on a banknote. The government holds annual minstrel competitions lasting days.

“Under the USSR the epic of Manas was suppressed or had its words changed,” says Toktobolot, one of a small core of aspiring bards who is helping revive the tradition among a younger generation of Kyrgyz. “But now I’ve heard how it is supposed to be told. And it has entered my heart.”

By Paul Salopek

Source: National Geographic


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