Aitys (Aitysh in some sources) is an ancient art of improvisation. It was added in December to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) World List of Intangible Cultural Heritage.
“Two performers (‘akyns’ or ‘aityskers’) compete with each other to improvise verses on topical themes in a battle of wits that alternates between humorous ripostes and penetrating philosophical reflections. The winner is the performer considered to have demonstrated the best musical skills, rhythm, originality, resourcefulness, wisdom and wit,” according to the UNESCO website.
The best akyns in Kazakhstan are presented with the Golden Dombra, a special award given in early December before Independence Day. Last year’s main prize went to Aspanbek Shugatayev, representing Pavlodar. The year was a very successful one for him, as he also claimed the title and a large cash prize at the contest dedicated to the 550th anniversary of Kazakh Khanate.
Growing up in a traditional Kazakh family, I remember my parents laughing in front of the TV while watching two men sitting on a scene, playing dombra and spontaneously uttering alternating rhymes. At the same time, the audience clapped and smiled. Actually, I never paid attention to the things they were saying nor even tried to understand them. Later, I started noticing competitors received excellent prizes for winning, such as cars, apartments, cash and something more significant – respect and fame in society.
I once asked my parents what was so special about aitys. They noted it was something very entertaining, as the performers improvised about everything from the daily routine to political issues. Aitys made them laugh and at the same time started them thinking about the topics raised. They also appreciated the talent necessary to excel at the art. Because it is a competition, the akyns make fun of each other; both they and their listeners need a sense of humour and a sharp mind.
Some young people even compare aitys with rap battles, where performers also invent fast, smart rhymes. In that case, the dombra is replaced with beats.
Akyns have always been very respected in the Kazakh society and are highly praised at family celebrations. Everywhere they go, they are treated in a special way.
None of my relatives, friends or acquaintances has ever been involved in improvisation art and looking at the way Western trends blend into Kazakhstan culture, I thought aitys would disappear. That assumption was apparently incorrect.
Merey Yermukhanov is a 26-year-old amateur and aitys enthusiast, as well as an expert in Zhas Otan, the youth wing of the Nur Otan Party. He also considers himself a blogger. One of his biggest hobbies is the art of improvisation.
“There is a certain contingent of people, mostly young people, who are successful in this field. New akyns appear consistently, so I do not think that there is a risk that it would die as a genre,” he said in a recent interview for this story.
Yermukhanov first became involved in aitys at 11 during a contest among school students. Despite being the youngest akyn, he was lucky enough to win a prize. His grandfather was highly respected mullah and used to translate poems from Persian.
“Well, the abilities come with practice. As a child, I loved written poetry. After the first contest, I began to go to Zhas Kanat, a single festival among school children every year. They had an aitys nomination. I used to compete there until I won it,” he said.
Yermukhanov continued to participate as an undergraduate. Several of his competitors became somewhat professional akyns and won national contests.
“It is something I can do and when there is a possibility I am ready to compete with anyone, it does not matter whether he is professional or amateur,” he added. “I just like that I can do it and it is rare. Improvisation is a quite complicated genre. I write poems and when you practice aitys, writing poetry becomes not as difficult. In the altruistic approach, I can say that I make a contribution to our national art.”
He commented on the qualities a person should possess to master aitys skills.
“In my subjective opinion, he has to read a lot, be aware of all the relevant news and also be an analyst in some way. Of course, he has to be proficient in the language and have reactive thinking. A sense of humour is a must; he can even search for unique phrases bringing something fresh into the genre. On the big stage, akyns should talk about acute social and political issues, surprising the audience and judges with the quality of their poetry,” he explained.
“Only Kazakhs have such coherent improvisation as a part of a literary genre and way of life of the people. It makes aitys so special and unique and continues with the centuries. Akyns were respected at the times of Khans as well,” said Yermukhanov.
He named Serikzat Duysengazin as one of the best and most-praised akyns among those he knows. He also thinks Zhandarbek Bulgakov, the holder of the 2013 Altyn Dombra, is one of the strongest in the country.
“Duysengazin reminded me about my skills during the university years and tried to invite me to the events,” he said.
Yermukhanov was also asked about the most complicated part of the art.
“The most difficult thing… Now, perhaps, nothing is complicated. It is necessary to choose the right thoughts when answering. Also to keep away from a very prepared contender,” he said.
He also spoke about the best places to practice.
“Right now, I practice my skills at events such as the Dombra Party. It is a very interesting event, a kind of flash mob. People just gather and start singing and playing dombra. And that’s where I usually manage to organise aitys,” said Yermukhanov.
Dombra parties have become very popular throughout Kazakhstan and are also held in countries such as China, Great Britain, Portugal and Turkey. Started in Astana in 2012, they became quite known among the audience and in some cities were organised as a regular weekly event. The parties were created not only for aitys lovers, but for everyone who loves the sound of the dombra.
Yermukhanov also noted whether aitysker can be a full time job or profession.
“Top akyns can receive hundreds of thousands to several million tenge or cars in one aitys. Therefore, there are those who are keen about the genre and when it becomes boring, they go to the other spheres, such as journalism, literature and others. Some have time to do both,” he said.
He currently considers aitys more of a hobby, something for the soul and entertainment. Aitys definitely needs unique talent and there are always people who have the necessary qualities. The art is a great way for them to express themselves and demonstrate their abilities to the whole world.