There was a time when I dismissed traditional art as a medium for socially engaged practice. As a young community artist, I thought only contemporary forms could explore current issues. Like all prejudices, this was rooted in ignorance: I knew almost nothing about traditional arts. It was researching the Scottish fèisean movement that opened my eyes to their riches and potential. That was nearly 20 years ago, as a case study for Use or Ornament? It was the first external account of a Gaelic arts movement that had begun in the island of Barra and spread quickly across Northern Scotland. The fèisean introduced children and young people to Gaelic language and culture through summer schools, and then through regular music tuition and performances. There was much to admire—you can read the report here—especially an open-hearted confidence that welcomed all youngsters, whatever their heritage, and gave them traditional music as a living practice they could add to, not simply replicate. I began to understand how inconsequential was the medium of community arts, compared to the values, purpose and practice of the artists involved.
That experience came back to me last month in Kyrgyzstan, when I met the people of UstatShakirt. The group’s name combines Kyrgyz words for ‘master’ and ‘apprentice’ and symbolises its goal of reviving traditional music among young people. Founded in 2005, and supported by the Aga Khan Music Initiative and the Swiss Embassy in Bishkek, among others, UstatShakirt has developed a cohort of young masters who are now passing on what they have learned to the next generation. The latest stage has been to train teachers in music education so that 30 schools now offer traditional music and drama classes.
During the trip, I visited schools in towns and villages where I met many young people and watched them perform music and drama. Their happy confidence in talking with strangers about their culture said volumes about the work’s value. Here, as in the fèisean, was an optimistic openness to the world—jokes about mobile phones found their way into ancient stories. They were equally engaged with other cultures, playing of Kazakh and classical pieces alongside Kyrgyz music. UstatShakirt wants to nurture respect for the diversity of culture not some narrow nationalism.
In one remote village, close to the Chinese border, I watched a class of seven year olds show what they could do with the komuz, Kyrgyzstan’s iconic instrument. Boys and girls in traditional costumes sat side by side, contributing equally. As I watched them play—and compete to show off their knowledge—I remembered what I’d been told a couple of days earlier about the rise of conservative religious values in the region. The quiet commitment of these musicians, teachers, parents and supporters was protecting a space of tolerance for the next generation. No one was making grand statements about gender equality, self-expression or creativity. They were simply enacting those values in everyday life. Art is before it does; perhaps most human things are.
Although UstatShakirt’s Facebook pages are in Russian and Kyrgyz there are some great photos: