The folk performer who embodied the spiritual code of Kyrgyz art dies, 53
The surviving popularity of the komuz as a living instrument, rather than a museum artifact, and the flourishing tradition of Kyrgyz folk music is in no small way thanks to Malik Alikeyev, who died on January 17.
He carried his komuz, the three-stringed instrument integral to Kyrgyz folk music, everywhere he went. There were few singers more popular or accomplished in Kyrgyzstan than Malik Alikeyev, but he remained a man of the people till the very end. Whenever he was asked to give an impromptu performance, he could not refuse.
Alikeyev’s death, which arrived after a lengthy battle against illness, came as a shock. He gave his last concert less than two months ago. Few suspected anything was amiss, although he could barely walk at the time.
Speaking of Alikeyev’s determination to perform even while in intense discomfort, his mother, Kalemkash, who tried to dissuade her son from going onstage, said she now understood that her son “wanted to bid a final farewell to the Kyrgyz people.”
Alikeyev has been laid to rest in his home village of Kopuro Bazar in the Talas province.
Alikeyev was only 17 when he shot to fame overnight in 1986. His rendition of the folk song "Molmolum," based on verses written by the celebrated early 20th century poet Barpy Alykulov, was immediately and widely embraced. That first performance of the song was greeted by a roar of applause and throaty demands for encores. Similar scenes would repeat when Alikeyev sang “Molmolum” at concerts in the decades that followed.
To the wider Kyrgyz public, Alikeyev is most associated with renditions of well-known folk tunes “Arzykan,” “Talasym,” and “Sardal Kyz.” Asked to explain his appeal, Alikeyev once said simply that he tried to “touch people’s hearts.”
Roza Amanova, a fellow folk singer, saw something deeper in Alikeyev’s craft. His voice, she said, “embodied the spiritual code of Kyrgyz art and took the people who listened to it somewhere special.”
Alikeyev at times combined singing with being a tokmo akyn, an improvisational poet.
Verbal battles known as aitysh, featuring male and female poets, are particularly popular in rural areas. The spectacle of a pair of top-tier tokmo akyns humorously, teasingly and flirtatiously duking it out makes for blockbuster television.
The Kyrgyz folk music scene is a crowded one. Few have managed to transcend the generation gap and the background noise of an increasingly commercialized industry. Alikeyev was an outlier. Perhaps the only other artist to manage the same was the master improviser akyn, Elmirbek Imanaliyev, who died in 2020.
How he pulled it off is no mystery. In an era where performers are hungry for quick success, resorting to mimicry is commonplace. The result is a bland music scene of songs that sound unerringly like one another.
Amid all that, Alikeyev was always a beacon of originality and artistic sincerity. Simply put, he made folk songs cool. “Molmolum” is not just everyone’s favorite folk melody – it is one of the most popular songs in Kyrgyzstan period.
The surviving popularity of the komuz as a living instrument, rather than a museum artifact, and the flourishing tradition of folk music is in no small way down to Alikeyev.
That being so, it is particularly striking that Alikeyev and his contributions to Kyrgyz public life should have been largely ignored by the state for so many years. When he needed help the most, as he struggled with an agonizing hip condition that limited his mobility, Alikeyev was overlooked.
It was only in 2020, more than three decades after becoming a star, that he received the state-bestowed title of Honored Artist of Kyrgyzstan. When asked how he felt about this, he was characteristically humble. It was better to receive the tribute late than to get it early and live tormented by the thought that he had not truly deserved it.
“People always told me that I was already an honored artist in their eyes, and that was enough for me.”
Nurbek Bekmurzaev is a writer in Bishkek.