Songs from Kyrgyzstan


By Elmira Khmkulkz

Elmira completed her PhD in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization at the University of Washington in 2007, and is now teaching at American University of Central Asia (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan) in the Anthropology Department.

Below is a description of Kyrgyzstan and a selection of Kyrgyz (Kirghiz) songs. For basic information on Kyrgyzstan and other countries of the world, visit The CIA World Factbook.


Kyrgyzstan, a Central Asian country bordering China, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan, is slightly smaller than South Dakota in size and one of the most mountainous countries in the world. About 80 percent of the country is mountainous, with the highest peak, Jengish Chokusu, reaching 24,400 feet, almost 10,000 feet higher than Mt. Rainier. The country is landlocked and located far from any ocean. Since it is so mountainous, the country is not highly populated, especially in comparison to China, which has over a billion people and is the most populous country in the world. Kyrgyzstan has only about 4.5 million, which is a few hundred thousand less than the population of the state of Washington.

The most numerous people in Kyrgyzstan are the Kyrgyz, who speak a language related to Turkish (spoken in Turkey). Other peoples include Russians, Uzbeks (another Turkic people), Ukrainians and Germans. Kyrgyz, Uzbeks, and other Central Asian peoples are historically Muslim, so about 75% of the people are Islamic. Also because the country is so mountainous, Kyrgyz sheep and cattle herders learned to move with the seasons down from the mountainside when winter snows began, and up to higher elevations during springtime. Because the Kyrgyz were traditionally nomadic and moved with the seasons, they kept their stories in the form of unwritten songs. Carrying notes, books, papers, and things to write on and with is much more difficult for people on the move. So the Kyrgyz and other nomadic peoples of Asia made up songs, memorized them, and passed them along from generation to generation. Many of their songs have been sung for hundreds of years, but were written down only this century. As with other peoples, the Kyrgyz sing about the past, the landscape, and how people should treat each other. Mountains, seasons, wildlife, herding, and other aspects of the nomadic lifestyle all enter into traditional Kyrgyz songs. More information on the Kirghiz and their national epic Manas.

The following was written by Elmira and edited by Kurt Engelmann: About my costume: In the past Kirghiz women wore different traditional costumes. Married young women wore different costumes than unmarried young women. Elderly women had their own dress and head dress. The headdress I am wearing is worn by unmarried young girls. The color of the dress is usually white, blue or red. The owl feather is to protect from evil spirits and evil eyes. About the instrument: The komuz is one of the main traditional instruments of the Kirghiz. It is a very light and simply made instrument with three strings. Singers carried the instrument on horseback. Traditionally, strings are made from animal intestine. Many people learn how to play the komuz on their own, without studying at music schools. Even young children learn without any written music, just by hearing the tunes. Here is the program of Kyrgyz (Kirghiz) songs:

  1. "Songs of Advice" by the Kirghiz oral poet Toktogul (1864-1933). Kirghiz oral poets composed songs of advice when they got old and sang them with the accompaniment of the traditional three-stringed instrument komuz. Songs of advice teach the young to be honest, modest, generous, kind, and respect the elders. The songs address various topics, such as childhood, youth, old age, good and bad, characteristics of a good and bad woman, wealth, life and death, nature, and other social etiquettes. In his songs of advice, the oral poet Toktogul says that one should be satisfied with what one has. The first lines of the songs are as follows:

    Saying that your stallion is bad,
    Where will you find a good fast running horse?
    Saying that your brothers are bad,
    Where will you find good relatives?
    Saying that you little wealth,
    Where will you find a lot of wealth?
    When a tribal leader is cursed,
    He will turn hostile to his people.
    When a rich man is cursed,
    He will become intoxicated with his wealth

  2. "Sary-Oy" : one of the most popular traditional love songs, Sary-Oy is the name of a mountain pasture in northern Kirghizstan. A young man is longing for his beloved girl saying:

    Over the mountains of Sary-Oy,
    Birds are flying,
    However, when
    I go there and look for you,
    I cannot find you.
    Why don't the birds land on the Sary-Oy mountains?
    And why don't you, my beloved come to that place?

  3. "To My Beloved," the next selection, is also a traditional love song in which a young man writes a letter to his beloved girl who lives far away in the summer pasture. The girl does not reply to his letter. The young man is shy to inquire about his beloved girl from those people who go back and forth between her summer pasture and his. He misses her very much and compares her voice to the voice of a nightingale, and her youth to summer flowers.

  4. Recitation of an episode from the Kirghiz national epic "Manas". The epic has different styles of singing. Traditionally, it is sung without an instrument by male singers as well as women singers. The hero Manas was born at a very difficult time when the Kirghiz were defeated by the Kalmuks, a Mongolian tribe. Manas fought against the Kalmuks. He gathered all the Turkic tribes who went astray and established the Kirghiz nation. This episode is about the battle between the Kirghiz and the Kalmuks. The hero Manas leads his people in the battle and wins. The epic has been sung whenever the Kirghiz have had hardships and starvation high up in the mountains, especially in winter times. They prayed to the spirit of Manas, and asked his spirit to help them. The singing of the epic was not for entertainment. In the past it was sung to heal the sick.. The nomadic Kirghiz worshiped the spirits of their ancestors and they still do. Because it is sacred to the Kirghiz, there is NO APPLAUSE after the Manas is recited.

  5. "Molmolum": one of the popular songs of the well-know Kirghiz oral poet, Barpy (died in 1949). He dedicated this song to a beautiful girl with the name Molmol. Barpy laments the fact that he does not have enough horses and sheep to give to the girl's parents as dowry. The Kirghiz have a tradition of giving horses and sheep to the girl's parents as a sign of respect, respecting her mother's milk. Barpy admires Molmol's beauty by saying the following words:

    The beauty of one's face is with the charm,
    The beauty of one's waist is with the silver belt,
    The beautiful girl Molmol whom I love,
    Will become famous with this song.
    Your lips are like the red flower,
    Your glance sets a fire to my heart,
    Your hair is like the silk of Margalan,
    Your dreams are like that of a innocent child.

  6. At the end he says to her:
    Would you accept my self, instead of cattle?
    Please, at least show yourself like the moon which comes out from the white clouds

    Elmira Khmkulkz, PhD
    Anthropology Department
    American University of Central Asia (Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan)

Other Resources

Kagan Arik, a graduate student in the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization has written a nice piece on the Kirghiz and their national epic Manas. The May 1993 issue of the National Geographic has an article on Mongolian nomads. Microsoft Encarta 98 has a section on Interactivities in which there is a part devoted to World Music. It has a game about matching musical instruments to countries. It doesn't have anything from Central/Inner Asia, but students could compare the Egyptian 'ud to the instruments on the web page.

The REECAS Center has a video on the "Generous Manas" (the hero of the Kyrgyz epic). It may be a bit advanced for sixth grade, but it has many great scenes of Kyrgyzstan. For more information, contact the REECAS Center at (206) 543-4852.

For general information on Kyrgyzstan, there is a book at the REECAS Center that is part of the Then and Now Series covering the former Soviet Union country by country. The series was put out by Lerner Geography Department, Lerner Publications in 1993, and it's geared toward Middle School students. Contact the REECAS center for more information.

Kazakh and Kyrgyz animal tales have been translated and compiled by Professor Ilse Cirtautas,, who teaches Turkic languages at the University of Washington. This unit was distributed as part of the Nomadism Mosaic.

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