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Smithsonian Folklife Festival
The Silk Road

Nomad Performance Competition in
Central Asia

by Jean During

Two bards take their place before an audience of several hundred onlookers, who squat in a loose semicircle on a grassy hillside. One of the bards ceremoniously addresses the gathering in an elevated rhetorical style, then sings a lyrical poetic text while strumming an accompaniment on a small lute. The other bard follows, repeating the same performance sequence but with greater eloquence, livelier gestures, and crisper strums on the lute. Such oratorical contests, variously called aitys, aitysh, or deish in local Turkic languages, are one of the cornerstones of nomadic culture in Central Asia. An analogous event for virtuoso instrumental soloists is called tartys.

The rules of the contest vary widely and depend on the particular genre in which the competitors excel. For example, bards may improvise poetic verse without ever using the sounds "p" or "b," or reply to the verse of a competitor using the same rhyme scheme. Virtuosos on strummed lutes like the dombra or komuz may try to outdo one another in complex fingering techniques and hold their instrument in eccentric postures — upside down, behind the neck, with crossed hands, and so on — while continuing to play it.

Each bard tries to outdo the other in strength, eloquence, and humor. Strategies are numerous. Mockery is one, but watch out for the reply! A single word can cause a technical knockout, and indeed, the public watches such contests as if they were viewing boxing matches.

The power of the bardic word has always been useful to persons in authority both to defend their own supremacy and attack the position of an adversary. Just as the great religions have ascribed the power of the sacred to the physical sound of particular words and syllables, nomadic spirituality, rooted in an intimate relation with the natural world, maintains the magical power of words and music through the vocation of the bard. Like shamans, bards are often regarded as healers who can summon spirits and as living repositories of cultural memory. For one who performs such a vital social role, qualifications are crucial. And what more democratic way to certify excellence than through competition? All of the nimble qualities of mind and body required to endure and flourish in the harsh conditions of the Inner Asian grasslands are exuberantly summed up in the nomadic performing arts and their quintessential traditional showcase, the aitys.

Adapted by Theodore Levin from a text by Jean During, a director of research at France's Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. Currently based in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, he also serves as Program Manager of the Aga Khan Music Initiative in Central Asia.