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.”

Banking on Islam: Central Asia’s future in the world of Islamic finance

Unsur­pris­ingly, things changed in Cent­ral Asia after the end of the USSRLike Rus­sia, industry was privat­ised and mar­ket cap­it­al­ism embraced. How­ever a less obvi­ous trans­ition is the uptake in Islam­ic fin­ance (IF) facil­it­ies, both as a com­mer­cial source of invest­ment and liquid­ity, and private bank­ing ser­vices.

The fin­an­cial dis­trict in Almaty, Kaza­kh­stan, where Islam­ic has its first foothold in Cent­ral Asia.

Accord­ing to Reu­ters, Islam­ic fin­ance growth world­wide has been double-digit since 2000, and this trend is mani­fest­ing in Cent­ral Asia with the emer­gence of new facil­it­ies and incor­por­a­tion into wider glob­al IF net­works. Islam­ic fin­ance is struc­tured by, and com­plies with, sharia law — espe­cially in con­sid­er­a­tion to the goods and ser­vices it funds (for example, pork or alco­hol) and the pro­hib­i­tion of par­tic­u­lar forms of interest. These insti­tu­tions have grown in tan­dem with a glob­al reviv­al of Islam­ic iden­tity since the late twen­ti­eth cen­tury, and a dis­il­lu­sion­ment with ‘west­ern’ bank­ing forms and the per­ceived reg­u­lar­ity of their fail­ure to suc­cess­fully under­write risk. In tan­dem, the Soviet policy of reli­gious sup­pres­sion once enforced in Cent­ral Asia was lif­ted after inde­pend­ence, cre­at­ing a region­al renais­sance of Islam­ic obser­va­tion and expres­sion across this Muslim major­ity region, which fur­ther facil­it­ates the enthu­si­ast­ic embrace of IF.

To vary­ing degrees oth­er Cent­ral Asi­an nations have embraced Islam­ic fin­ance (most not­ably Kyrgyz­stan), but Kaza­kh­stan leads the way in the devel­op­ment of IF. In 2009 Kaza­kh­stan became the first former-Soviet nation to issue IF guidelines, and in 2010 the first Islam­ic fin­an­cial insti­tu­tion — Al Hilal Bank — was gran­ted a license to trade through an inter­gov­ern­ment­al agree­ment between Kaza­kh­stan and Abu Dhabi. Since then, a pre­vi­ously con­ven­tion­al bank — Zaman — became an inter­na­tion­ally recog­nised Islam­ic Fin­ance insti­tu­tion, and in 2015 the gov­ern­ment out­lined its policy object­ives for the future of IF, with optim­ist­ic tar­gets set for 2020. Kaza­kh­stani gov­ern­ment­al sup­port for Islam­ic Fin­ance has included grow­ing mul­ti­lat­er­al cooper­a­tion with more estab­lished IF reg­u­lat­ory bod­ies, includ­ing the Islam­ic Fin­an­cial Ser­vices Board (IFSB), the Account­ing and Audit­ing Organ­isa­tion for Islam­ic Fin­an­cial Insti­tu­tions (AAOIFI), and the Inter­na­tion­al Islam­ic Fin­an­cial Mar­kets (IIFM). Fur­ther­more the Islam­ic Devel­op­ment Bank (IDB) has com­mit­ted to fin­an­cing invest­ment in infra­struc­ture and indus­tri­al pro­jects val­ued at $1.5 bil­lion, demon­strat­ing the impact of glob­al IF net­works.

Undoubtedly, the com­par­at­ively recent rein­sti­tu­tion of Islam across Cent­ral Asia has con­trib­uted massively to the uptake of Islam­ic fin­ance, a new reli­gi­os­ity (not neces­sary con­fined to Islam) equally per­vad­ing the pop­u­la­tion and the insti­tu­tions that uphold these society’s struc­tures. How­ever more prag­mat­ic inter­pret­a­tions of IF’s rise in the region have been mooted by for­eign schol­ars. Sebasti­an Peyrouse high­lights the poten­tial polit­ic­al bene­fits accrued by estab­lished Islam­ic states (includ­ing the Gulf States and Malay­sia) through the use of IF as a vehicle for closer eco­nom­ic, polit­ic­al and religious/ideological rela­tions. On the oth­er hand Dav­in­ia Hog­garth at Chath­am House high­lights IF as part of a wider ‘multi-vec­tor’ strategy which, in Kaza­kh­stan espe­cially, seeks to reduce eco­nom­ic reli­ance on any single for­eign part­ner by embra­cing invest­ment from a max­im­um num­ber of sources. Although cur­rent estim­ates sug­gest that Islam­ic fin­ance is of min­im­al scale in Cent­ral Asia, the con­sequences of its growth undeni­ably are not lim­ited to com­mer­cial and fin­an­cial interests, and IF’s growth will surely be tracked intently by inter­na­tion­al busi­nesses and gov­ern­ments alike.

Observ­ers must be real­ist­ic when not­ing this upwards IF trend. After all, even as the Cent­ral Asi­an nation with the deep­est rela­tion­ship with Islam­ic fin­ance, Kazakhstan’s tar­get for total IF bank­ing assets by 2020 is only 3 – 5 per­cent of the nation­al , while IF assets today make up only one per­cent. How­ever Reu­ters’ out­look for Islam­ic fin­an­cial invest­ment ranks Astana as a top rank des­tin­a­tion, with mul­tiple inter­na­tion­ally trad­ing banks includ­ing Al Baraka and May­Bank show­ing interest in Kazakhstan’s bour­geon­ing Islam­ic fin­ance mar­kets. The major­ity-Muslim pop­u­la­tion of Cent­ral Asia is cur­rently an untapped cus­tom­er base for IF insti­tu­tions, while gov­ern­ments across the region are real­ising the invest­ment oppor­tun­it­ies of IF as an altern­at­ive to Rus­si­an and Chinese sources. Though young, Islam­ic fin­ance seems likely to expand through­out Cent­ral Asia in the com­ing years.