Folk Instrument Museum and the Circus

The Museum of Folk Musical Instruments

It has been a weekend of interesting activities here in Almaty consisting of two very divergent and eclectic activities.  The first part of the weekend was a bit cold and rainy, so something indoors was in order.  We decided to finally take in the Museum of Folk Musical Instruments.  You’ve seen it from the outside before, as it sits in Panfilov Park.  While not a huge space, it was very quaint inside.  I’ve been wanting to visit for a while, not just for myself, but also for my very good friend, Susan, who is a wonderfully accomplished musician back home.  I also had the brief pleasure of learning piano from her.  The visit to this museum really reminded me of her and I know she would have enjoyed it.

Deja vu? Not really, just a reminder of what the the Museum of Folk Musical Instruments looks like (formerly the Soviet Military Officer's Club)

The lobby of the museum had a large map on the wall showing the various types of traditional instruments played across the country.  As you might imagine, people in the southern parts of Kazakhstan used instruments more closely related to those played in the rest of Central Asia and the Middle East while the northern and eastern parts reflected more Russian and Mongolian influences.  As you may recall and for reference, Almaty is in the far southeast corner of the country as indicated on the map.

Folk Instrument map of Kazakhstan highlighting regional differences

Beautiful carved wooden doors graced the entry to one of the main halls.

The national instrument of the country is the Dombra.  It is a long neck lute instrument whose strings are strummed by hand or plucked individually.  The Kazakhs have a history of singing ‘bards’ similar to Celtic culture, where these traveling musicians tell stories of traditional myths and stories through their songs.

Famous Kazakh dombra players and their instruments

Various traditional Kazakh folk instruments

More Central Asian folk musical instruments

Below you can see a rather large frame drum made from camel skin.  It was used in special ceremonies and legend has it that the sound from it could carry across the steppe for up to 70 kilometers [ed: they used the metric system back then??].  I can only imagine the deep and impressive resonance this glorious instrument must have made in its day.

Large camel skin drum

Another sacred instrument is the Kobyz.  It is a carved wooden instrument with two strings traditionally made from horse hair.  The two resonance cavities were typically covered in goat skin.  This was an instrument used only by shaman, or traditional healers, to ward off sickness, death, and evil.  During Soviet times, a more modern version was developed that used metal strings that gave it a sound more similar to a violin.  This version was played in various folk music chamber orchestras of the day.

A well-preserved sacred Kobyz instrument

A carved wooden sculpture of Abai, one of Kazakhstan's most famous and prolific writers and musicians, quietly watches over one of the main exhibition halls.

The Circus

On Sunday, I was invited by one of my co-workers to the Circus!  She was taking her daughter and I thought it would be a lot of fun as well.  What was fascinating to me is how popular the Circus is here in Almaty.  It is such a part of the culture that the city has a permanent venue or ‘big top’ if you will that various troupes come through and perform every few months.  I thought it rather humorous that given the nomadic history of the Kazakhs, they had a permanent, sedentary circus venue in the city, whereas in America, our circuses tend to be nomadic and travel from town to town.  This particular circus troupe was from Moscow, and is fairly renowned in the region.

The Almaty Circus. I bet it is full of lights and colors at night!

Below are some pictures I took during the performance.  I have to apologize in advance as my meager point-and-shoot camera doesn’t capture action shots well at all.  Sorry for the blurriness!

Trapeze Artist

Magic show and disappearing act


People kept popping out of this car!

Below is a scene from the chimpanzee act that didn’t quite go as planned.  You could tell that the chimp had been around for a while as the gray in his face gave you a clue as to his age.  To me, he just seemed like he was tired of this same old act and couldn’t care less that the audience was watching.  His trainer, however, was less than amused.  I found the chimp’s obstinance pretty funny, however.

A rather old chimpanzee who was not cooperating very well!

Some crazy poodles barking and jumping their way through a bevy of tricks

It was a pretty extensive show, lasting about 2 & 1/2 hours in all.  It was a great way to spend the afternoon and I was very grateful to my co-worker for suggesting it.  Below are some shots I took as we exited the facility.  The circus forms part of a larger entertainment complex, with an amusement park and central sports stadium adjacent.

Circus entrance with a very cool gateway

The fountain outside the circus entrance

The picture above was my favorite of the day and seems like an appropriate parting shot for this week’s entry.  Till next time!

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