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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Reviving an Old Form of Central Asian Rap

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan -- Toss Tuuganba Abdiyev a word to riff on and he gets all jiggy, if the lexicon of hip-hop can be applied to a 68-year-old Kyrgyz musician who used to ad-lib verse in honor of the Communist Party and right now, to a storm of laughter, is singing about Bush, Putin and noodles.

Abdiyev is an akyn, a title given to the masters of a form of musical improvization that dates back more than a millennium. It was usurped by the communists, nearly died after the fall of the Soviet Union, and is enjoying a revival as young Kyrgyz and Kazak musicians discover their own, ancient form of rapping.

In one of its most popular forms, called aitysh, the music is a contest between two performers who sit several feet apart and duel in sung verse, each cuing off the other's words and ideas in a mixture of rhythmic singing, chanting and exclaiming.

"It's all about improvising on whatever topic comes up," said Alagushev Balai, who co-authored a book on the music. "Who has the sharpest verses with the most musicality and rhythm and wisdom and wit?"

The akyns began as the oral carriers of history, myth and philosophy for Central Asia's pre-literate nomads. And they have been known to versify for hours at a time on subjects from the beauty of the universe to the pleasures of consuming a cup of tea. Kyrgyz akyns play a three-string instrument called a komuz, which is made of apricot wood, while Kazaks have a two-string instrument to accompany their spontaneous rhyming.

They also sing Kyrgyzstan's epic poem, the Manas, which runs to about half a million lines, making it the world's longest. The Manas, featuring a ninth-century superhero, is an ode to the country's determination to be independent. Other performers, called manaschis, devote themselves exclusively to reciting or singing parts of the Manas; it would take months to sing it all in one go.

The akyns, however, were also extemporaneous preachers who lectured in sung verse on the political and moral issues of the day, adapting old legends or codes for the country's latest ruler.

"In the Soviet period, a lot of attention was paid to akyns, and the communists used them as a propaganda loudspeaker," said Balai. "Akyns sang about Lenin and the revolution and the achievements of the party."

By the time the Soviet Union collapsed and Madonna was sweeping into this mountainous republic on bootleg tapes, the akyn art was in its death throes, discredited by its association with communism and just plain not cool. There were only four akyns left in the country.

"We were forgotten artists," said Abdiyev, who first began playing as a 6-year-old and tosses his komuz around -- Jimi Hendrix-style -- as he plays. "But our young people have rediscovered it and the music is moving in new directions again." The folk art's revival was helped by the creation of the Aitysh Foundation here four years ago and the opening of a school for young akyns where old-timers like Abdiyev teach. Also, schools in the newly independent country began to teach the Manas, creating new interest in the country's folk arts.

"We have about 60 students now," said Sadyk Sher-Niyaz, a businessman who created the foundation and school.

There are also annual aitysh competitions between Kyrgyz and Kazak performers in which the singers exchange gentle insults about each other and their countries while tossing witty asides to the audience. The soaring, traditional hats of the Kyrgyz are a particular target of the Kazaks.

Sung in the Kyrgyz or Kazak languages, it is almost impossible to catch the pithiness of the verses in translation.

"During an aitysh, akyns sing their songs in turns," said Balai. "It is a musical dialogue, like a debate. Another form of dialogue is called alym sabak, which means 'catch the line.' This is when one akyn starts an argument and the second one should continue it, starting a new rhythm or following the competitor's one."

For the last month, many of the akyns have been campaigning in the country's parliamentary elections, taking their version of a stump speech from village to village.

Asked if the akyns were supporting the incumbent president and government-backed parties, Sher-Niyaz said, "Oh no, we're with the opposition now."