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Kyrgyzstan: Behind the Mask of a Provocative Performer

Kyrgyz singer Tata Ulan focuses much of his music and message on spirituality and politics. (Photo: Courtesy Tata Ulan)

The music video is all one take. Standing behind a podium bearing the state seal of Kyrgyzstan, wearing a felt kalpak hat and armor like the national epic hero Manas, a masked figure hectors the audience over a bounding beat:

"In 20 years what has the state given its children? / Sold out wisdom, turned to business, wisdom’s on the street now! / What do my Kyrgyz need? You're a Muslim, you need religion! / What do my Kyrgyz need? Pure Kyrgyz language is what you need!"

The song is "Ne Kerek?," or "What is Needed?" and the masked man is Tata Ulan, one of Kyrgyzstan's most innovative – and provocative – performers. “Ulan is absolutely original,” said Bermet Imanalieva, editor of the culture website Limon.kg. “He raises issues that are very topical in Kyrgyzstan.”

Some call him a nationalist. Others embrace him as a talented young artist. Though his messages often take sides, he eschews politics. What's certain is that Tata Ulan -- born Ulan Kalybekov -- has melded Kyrgyzstan's recitation tradition with Russian- and Western-style pop like no one before him. It's also clear that his lyrics, which criticize Western mores, Western dress, and a non-Muslim way of life, have hit a nerve for Kyrgyz listeners.

“Our country loves opposition, people who stand against something,” said Imanalieva. “Some may criticize him, but the common people understand and respect him.”

In person, Ulan cuts a less aggressive figure than in his videos. Thirty-one and bright-eyed, and with deep acne scars on his face and neck, he speaks articulate, educated Russian. Although often characterized as a rapper, that is not a description Ulan -- or members of Bishkek's rap scene  -- agree with. Whereas Kyrgyzstani rappers have been inspired by American and Russian influences, Ulan builds on the Kyrgyz bard tradition, an influence clearly audible in his singsong rhythms and tidy couplets.

"Our bards only sing over the komuz [a traditional Kyrgyz lute]. I took our melodies and combined them with beats, and it creates a totally new style, a new genre," he told EurasiaNet.org.

Ulan's capacity to innovate is perhaps a product of his upbringing. Raised in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in a secular family of artists, he studied acting in Moscow at the prestigious Shchepkin Institute.

Writing his own lyrics, producing his own songs, and directing his own videos—Ulan is also a clever self-promoter. When asked about the mask, which he wears even in televised interviews, he has a principled and a practical reason. "I wear the mask so that I won't be ruined by praise, because no one recognizes me," he said. He went on to concede with a smile: "Also, when I came into this business I needed a PR hook: It's show business, after all."

Yet as much as Ulan's success stems from his artistic talents and his promotional instincts, it is his insistence on addressing sensitive issues that has made him a cultural figure.

The dominant message in his songs, he says, is spiritual. An adherent of the Muslim revivalist movement Tablighi Jamaat, he has gone on seven proselytizing missions.
Based on his interpretation of Islam, Ulan takes positions many regard as reactionary and misogynistic. He is passionately in favor of headscarves for women, a highly sensitive issue in contemporary Kyrgyzstan. In the video for "Ne Kerek," Ulan holds up two female dolls, one wearing a hijab, the other a miniskirt and tank-top, and says: "One Kyrgyz girl guards the honor of the Kyrgyz / One Kyrgyz girl brings shame to our people."
In another early song, the Russian-language “Brother Muslims," he denounces “the pervert Europe” that “defends the rights of sexual minorities/increasing the mass of abnormal communities.”

Ulan also displays the passion of a convert when it comes to Kyrgyz language. Growing up in Almaty, he attended a Russian school. His first language was Russian, and literary Kyrgyz was something he had to learn on his own.

"In order to learn my language, I started to read Manas," the Kyrgyz epic that since independence has become something of a state ideology, he said. "I had never spoken Kyrgyz, at least not well. And I couldn't write the language at all. But then I read Manas, and immediately I started to write."

He is now a fierce advocate of the language. "If you grew up in the city and don't speak Kyrgyz, you're a myrk," he says in "Ne Kerek," inverting the insult native Bishkek residents use for non-Russian speakers who move to the city. It is statements like this that prompt accusations of nationalism.

On this one point, Ulan grows angry. The accusation that he is a nationalist, he insists, is perverse. "Only an ignorant person, who lives in my country, doesn't speak my language, doesn't respect my culture, would call me a nationalist," he said. "If you're Kyrgyz, you should know the language. If you don't speak Kyrgyz, how can you even write in your passport that you're Kyrgyz?"

The theme underlying Ulan's songs is that of confronting crisis: Kyrgyzstan is a country that has experienced two revolutions in five years, and which is haunted by the June 2010 ethnic clashes in and around Osh.

But despite the country’s troubled, recent past, he remains optimistic. "Whatever is happening here, it means it was determined by Allah. When a person lives in poverty, when he grows up it means he understands what it is to be hungry, and what it is to be full. Allah has given us this, so that our society would understand what it is to be hungry. But it won't be eternal. A time will come when a new generation, a normal generation, will come to power," he said.

For now, the question is whether Tata Ulan and those like him – pious and taking pride in Kyrgyz culture – will be able to find common ground with the rest of the country.

Nate Schenkkan is a Bishkek-based journalist.

Kyrgyzstan: Behind the Mask of a Provocative Performer

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