Wu-Stan Clan: Central Asia’s ancient rap tradition

“It’s all about improvising. Who has the sharpest verses with the most musicality and rhythm and wisdom and wit?”

That’s Ala­gu­shev Bal­ai, a Kyr­gyz inter­viewed thir­teen years ago by the author Peter Finn. He’s describ­ing aitysh, Cen­tral Asia’s adver­sar­i­al, ad-libbed per­for­mance tra­di­tion that’s half music and half sick flow.

Didar Qamiev, born 1988, is a cel­e­brat­ed mem­ber of Kazakhstan’s new gen­er­a­tion of akyns.

Aitysh is a con­test between two par­tic­i­pants, or akyns. They sit across the room from each oth­er, impro­vis­ing rhyth­mic, rhyming rebut­tals on sub­jects sug­gest­ed by the audi­ence. Though good-natured and often comedic, aitysh has teeth. When one akyn needs to diss anoth­er, noth­ing is off lim­its: there’s a long-stand­ing cus­tom that allows akyns all forms of slan­der. They make back­hand­ed polit­i­cal state­ments, crit­i­cise each other’s style, flirt, and flat-out insult one anoth­er.

“Dur­ing an aityshakyns sing their songs in turns,” said Bal­ai. “It is a musi­cal dia­logue, like a debate. When one akyn starts an argu­ment, the sec­ond one should con­tin­ue it start­ing a new rhyme or fol­low­ing the competitor’s one.”

The akyn’s goal is to con­vince his audi­ence that’s he is the bet­ter per­former. Just as in a rap bat­tle, a crowd of onlook­ers is cru­cial in decid­ing the vic­tor.

The tra­di­tion is art­ful too, and often cut­ting­ly satir­i­cal. Pol­i­tics and morals have alwasy been cen­tral to aitysh, and it’s as philo­soph­i­cal as Dylan, as grit­ty as Nas, and — some­times — as ego­ma­ni­a­cal as Kanye.

No one seems to know exact­ly where aitysh came from, but it’s been a fix­ture for at least a thou­sand years. In the pre-Sovi­et days of major­i­ty illit­er­a­cy, akyns played a vital cul­tur­al role. They were the agents of social and his­tor­i­cal iden­ti­ty, but also helped each gen­er­a­tion to expound its zeit­geist, cel­e­brate its heroes and hold its lead­ers to account.

Dur­ing the Sovi­et peri­od, unusu­al­ly, aitysh wasn’t entire­ly scrubbed from Kaza­kh and Kyr­gyz cul­ture, but req­ui­si­tioned as a way to adapt old leg­ends to the new rulers.

“A lot of atten­tion was paid to akyn and the com­mu­nists used it as a pro­pa­gan­da loud­speak­er,” said Bal­ai. “Akyns sang about Lenin and the rev­o­lu­tion and the achieve­ments of the par­ty.”

It was dan­ger­ous to be an akyn in Com­mu­nist Cen­tral Asia.

“Dur­ing the Sovi­et peri­od, akyns and their poet­ry were strict­ly con­trolled,” the young per­former, Aaly Tutkuchev, told author, Elmi­ra Köchümkulo­va. “The KGB told them to write down the text of their poet­ry before they went out to sing in front of peo­ple.”

So tight­ly did aitysh come to be asso­ci­at­ed with com­mu­nism, that by the col­lapse of the Sovi­et Union the akyn art was almost extinct. Accord­ing to Finn, Kyr­gyzs­tan had only four akyns left in 1991. An influx of West­ern music — some of it, let’s hope, from Queens­bridge and Comp­ton — gave aitysh all the cachet of mor­ris danc­ing and oom­pah.

As the new nation states matured, how­ev­er, young peo­ple began to redis­cov­er the tra­di­tion. Across the board, by the ear­ly 2000s, Cen­tral Asia’s cul­tur­al her­itage gained a new impor­tance. In 2003, UNESCO added the akyns to its list of intan­gi­ble cul­tur­al her­itage. In 2001, Kyr­gyz pub­lic fig­ure, Sadyk Sher-Niyaz, estab­lished the Aitysh Pub­lic Fund, a char­i­ta­ble organ­i­sa­tion that pub­li­cis­es the art and has trained over a hun­dred new akyns.

Now, Kyr­gyz and Kaza­kh akyns par­tic­i­pate in the demo­c­ra­t­ic polit­i­cal process — pass­ing from vil­lage to vil­lage to deliv­er a com­men­tary, soap­box-style.

“Akyns have always giv­en heart to the Kaza­kh peo­ple in times of hard­ship and mis­ery,” Kazak akyn, Didar Qamiev told the researcher, Jangül Qojakhme­to­va. “Dur­ing the Great Patri­ot­ic War, in 1943, an aitysh in Almaty raised people’s spir­its and hopes. Con­tem­po­rary aitysh enlight­en peo­ple and enrich them spir­i­tu­al­ly.”