Walking around Bishkek in the summertime, you get the sense that it’s a youthful city. School children run down the streets laughing while young families push strollers through parks and promenades. Don’t get me wrong, the city has its fair share of babushkas (to whom you must always give up your seat on the marshrutki), but as I walk around the streets teem with energy. And what do young people do on the weekends but go to music concerts?
Gulzada is a Kyrgyz singer who combines elements of traditional Kyrgyz culture and music with pop and jazz, and she played in Bishkek in mid-June in support of her new album, Tolgonuu. The concert was at Ala-Too, a well-know entertainment complex in Bishkek. Not only does the venue house multiple restaurants and reception halls, but there is also a 1000-seat amphitheater in back. This past Friday evening, diners, concert-goers and wedding guests all filed onto the grounds, and though Ala-Too is a little challenging to reach by bus or marshrutka, any taxi driver will know exactly what location you’re referring to. The amphitheater was large and bright, and my 500 som ($10) “fan zone” ticket bought me standing room right in front of the stage. Though I was pleased to be so close to the action, I was very relieved when we were allowed to take some empty seats in the upper balcony as the show was about to start. And it’s a good thing, too, because the concert was over two hours long!
As an orchestra of traditional Kyrgyz instruments began to play, Gulzada took the stage in a costume inspired by traditional Kyrgyz dress: a long orange dress, braided hair under a large fur hat, and heavy silver jewelry. The first half of the program was dedicated to this fusion of tradition with contemporary pop melodies. The stage was decorated with projections of ancient Kyrgyz runes, traditional instruments played modern arrangements, and both the musicians’ costumes and Gulzada’s many costume changes showcased a wide variety of traditional dress. Gulzada spoke entirely in Kyrgyz throughout the show, and from what I am told, her lyrics mostly depict stories and tales of national themes and heroes. The highlight of this half was the chorus of older women in matching costumes who joined Gulzada onstage for a few songs as the crowd enthusiastically cheered and clapped along.
The second half of the concert featured a jazz band in jeans and t-shirts, Western-style costumes, and multiple back-up singers. Many of the songs were punctuated by confetti cannons, shooting flames, and backup dancers, but I was less enthralled with this half of the program. Before, I had been captivated by Gulzada’s powerful voice and the beautiful sounds of instruments foreign to my ears. Though the singing was just as strong in the second half, the jazz band sounded dull in comparison. Perhaps my attention span was overextended one hour into the event, or maybe it was the cheesy moves of the backup dancers, but I suspect that a concert where you can’t understand any of the lyrics is made even less interesting when the other aspects of the performance no longer intrigue. The audience was still into it, however, and each song ended with a parade of concertgoers bringing flowers up to the stage and presenting them to Gulzada, who graciously accepted each bouquet with a “Rahmat.”
After the concert ended, the crowd filed down through one of the outdoor restaurants, and I stopped for a bite to eat on the way out. If you do want to visit the Ala-Too venue, I don’t recommend going just for the food, as it was mediocre and expensive. Aside from that however, it was a great evening. Gulzada put on an impressive show; she is a charismatic performer, and the fusion of traditional and contemporary genres was incredibly compelling.
Гулзада: «Арт-шоу Толгонуу»/Gulzada “Art Show Tolgonuu”
Ала-Тоо Борбору/Ala-Too Center
ул. Абсамата Масалиева/Absamat Masaliyev St
tickets 500-1800 som ($10-36)