The proud multi-influenced sound of the Steppe repackaged with psychadelic flourishes
If Turkey is the bridge between Europe and the Middle East then it goes without saying that Kazakhstan serves as this between Europe and East Asia, and boy can that be heard on this album. Made In Kazakhstan is proudly Kazakh. The world’s largest landlocked country, Kazakhstan, is also the largest economy in Central Asia, loaded with natural resources but aside from being rich with elements on the periodic table the nation also has a proud music culture thanks in part to being exposed to centuries of contact with the culturally disparate influences in its vicinity.
“...the album is unashamedly Kazakh in both its traditional elements but also the unity on display between East and West that define the country and perhaps separate it from its other Central Asian cousins.”
Formed in the mid-1990s, like so many artists across the world Urker claim to have been inspired by The Beatles. Whilst they may lack the natural talent of John, Paul, Ringo and George, they certainly share the penchant for eclecticism within their music. Though the album can broadly be split into two styles, moody instrumentals lightened by vocalist Aydos Saghat’s chirpy voice and psychedelic rock songs with a poppy sensibility, the record is full of many nuances. The album pays homage to the traditional in its choice of instrumentation whilst at the same time looking westerly too, perhaps serving as a metaphor for the nation’s political outlook in and of itself.
The two most notable instruments to feature on the record are the kobyz and the dombyra, which separate the album from any standard pop or rock record. The opener is characterised by the kaleidoscopic sound of the kobyz, which at times takes on almost a didgeridoo-esque sound despite being a stringed instrument. For me, Konyr evokes imagery of the desert. I can only imagine someone donning sunglasses performing this song, amidst a backdrop of sand. The instrument pops up on Ansau again creating a similar feel. It was traditionally believed that the kobyz can help banish sickness and evil spirits; whilst I can’t claim for it to have cleared up the sniffle I am currently enduring, it certainly helped me pass the time and momentarily forget about it.
My favourite song, however, is made great due to the fast-pace beat of the dombyra, a long-necked Kazakh lute, whose vibrating twang give it an almost electric guitar sound. That is not to say that the band don’t know how to boss an electric guitar either. In fact, Rustam Musin truly bosses the distorted sound with real aggression and intensity on Toi Duman. In great contrast, the album includes softer tracks such as the ballad Zhanym and Ayaulym which begins with a certain darkness which is made all the lighter with the upbeat introduction of the keyboard.
It is, however, Saghat’s vocals that really give the album a Kazakh feel. Though the music does incorporate traditional elements, overall their sound wouldn’t be out of place being played by a British or American band, even with the flourishes of the kobyz and the dombyra. Saghat’s voice, however, which comes in naturally at quite a high-pitch, for want of a better turn of phrase, sounds inherently Asian. Whether he draws on the endearing quasi-waling vocal style like he does on Arular or in his natural timbre on the aforementioned Tugan Elim, he cannot escape the identifiability of his Asian background in his voice. This is certainly something to be proud of and embrace and is actually what makes the album so wonderfully Kazakh. I cannot pretend that I am totally enamoured by the record, but what Urker do so well is create a statement showing that the album is unashamedly Kazakh in both its traditional elements but also the unity on display between East and West that define the country and perhaps separate it from its other Central Asian cousins.