Kyrgyzstan may be better known for its welcoming people and spectacular nomadic mountain scenery if it is known at all, however there is no shortage of talent emerging from this small Central Asian country. Open Central Asia speaks to a young and upcoming talented musician from the Kyrgyz capital, Bishkek, to follow the story of Azamat Sydykov.
Open Central Asia: Azamat, what age were you, when you first started playing piano?
Azamat Sydykov: Because of the fact that both of my parents were musicians (my mother, Alymkan Sydykova for many years served as Dean of Choral Conducting at Beishenalieva State University of Arts while my father, Djumakadyr Kanimetov, is the Artistic Director and Principal Conductor at Kyrgyz National Opera and Ballet Theater), I was raised in musical environment. I think it was my unavoidable destiny, therefore, to end up studying music sooner or later. So, officially I began to learn music when I was 7. But in fact it happened much earlier.
OCA: How did your parents react to that?
AS: It all turned out very smooth. Firstly, my mother didn’t have a single intention to raise another musician in her family, but I really liked to sing since my early childhood, and ironically it was because of my mother that I was surrounded by musicians, who heard my voice and kept on telling me that my future was in music.
OCA: How did you decide what instrument you wanted to play?
AS: One of our neighbors was a famous violinist, and she told my mother that her biggest mistake in life would be stopping me from going in for music. That’s why she decided to enroll me in a violin class. This, however, was not the most pleasant experience for me – pretty soon I had broken my first violin. But the tragedy of realising that the violin wasn’t “my” instrument didn’t last long. My mother took me to another teacher and another school, which ended up becoming my “destiny”. That’s when I first saw a glorious and magnificent instrument, which reminded me of Pegasus, the grand piano. From the very first moment I felt no doubt in my strong sympathy for that instrument.
OCA: Where did you study in Kyrgyzstan and in other countries? Tell us a little about your creative development.
AS: The place where I first became familiar with my future profession was at the republican secondary special music boarding school named after M.Abdraev. I finished 8 classes there under the untiring supervision of the brilliant teacher and musician, Svetlana Krivopalova. The Abdrayev School became a very important stage for me, because this is where I got my strong musical foundation, which helps me in my professional life to the present day. I think you can estimate the strength of Kyrgyzstan’s musical education possibilities by this fact. After Abdrayev, when I was 14, I went to Moscow to continue my education there at the Central Musical school. After the Central School I entered Moscow State Tchaikovsky Conservatory, where I studied another 8 years. The Moscow period gave me a great experience and several brilliant tutors, such as Anatoly Ryabov (a widely known and respected pianist, who contributed greatly to Kyrgyz music), Yuri Lysychenko and Andrey Pysarev. In Moscow I found the teacher who I would call “a tutor for all my life” – Nikolai Petrov – a legendary figure of the 20th century.
OCA: Now you live and work in the USA. How did you end up here?
AS: This story is a long one, and it’s connected with a very important and hard set of events in my life. In 2010 there was political confrontation in Kyrgyzstan, a revolution, and following this disorder spread all over the country. I was in Moscow back then and of course I was very worried and scared for my relatives in Bishkek. At that moment by the long arm of coincidence I got acquainted with a well-known American composer and conductor, Joel Spiegelman. Joel, being always interested in Russian culture, was kind of a “cultural emissary” in past times during the Cold War between USSR and USA. He had an admission to visit USSR and represent his art there, communicating with local composers, therefore enhancing relationships between two countries at least in the sphere of art and culture. So, Joel wrote to me on Facebook, and we started our dialogue. Before long he offered me the opportunity to visit Kyrgyzstan with a range of charitable shows. He had some acquaintances with ambassadors in Central Asia – and an American ambassador for Kyrgyzstan as well, who liked our idea, and just two weeks later we found ourselves in Bishkek, making it all work. The first thing that we noticed was how sad and full of despair were the locals. We could feel the spiritual vacuum of people who never wanted that unrest to happen. Holding several symphonic concerts in Bishkek we hoped people could finally find a place free from negative thoughts, where they could have a physical and mental rest. Then right after our concert on 10th of June, 2010, we heard more bad news, this time ethnic clashes in Osh: the city was almost ruined. Again I felt a strong sympathy for my country and decided that I wouldn’t sit still. I wrote a request to the American embassy to help me with financing a range of concerts in Osh. We headed up for south of the country in the beginning of September. The interim government of Kyrgyzstan was almost begging us not to go there because of the dangerous conditions, but who else could do that, if even the government was afraid to? I even think they were trying to stop us because they realized that we were doing it before anyone else. This was a convoy of art and peacemakers, who weren’t afraid to show people that they still had something else besides grief and destruction. Our plan was, as before in Bishkek, to rebuild trust between people who live on the same ground. The best reward for us was to see how people cried with happiness at our concerts, how yesterday’s enemies were hugging each other with grateful and excusing words. I was a young person of only 23 or 24 years back then, and I could say that these events determined my future aims, helped to define myself not only as a creative person, but also as a citizen. From that day I found myself and I’m an active member of public dialogues. This is what I use the scene for: I stand for truth and peace, I talk about freedom and the rights of people, and I work for all the world to hear me.
OCA: What happened next?
AS: Not long after all these events Joel called me to inform that he gave my records to some American professors. By the end of September Mannes school of music (New York) called me in personally to say that they loved my work and would be glad to see me taking their examinations. Then there was a period of preparations, obtaining visas and all that needed to be able to visit USA – and Joel was the one helping. I think it’s pretty logical that I still call him my grandpa. In spring of 2011 I came to audition. What I saw in the USA amazed me: all that freedom and openness of minds! I felt a strong wish to stay. Mannes school soon offered me a full scholarship and of course I accepted their proposal. Then there was an additional scholarship for further education, then a masters’ degree, then a year of working in universities. After finishing my education there I heard: “Azamat, you should stay here. Your abilities are critical for us.” I decided to stay. Finally I got my documents for a permanent visa.
OCA: So, could you call yourself an “American citizen” now?
AS: My position is that all creative people are global citizens. The world actually is not as big how as we often think of it. We are all connected by the internet, telephone communications and an ability to fly all over the world. Permanent ideas exchange, international competitions and festivals – that’s what helps us to stay together. All my practice and creative progress than I gained in USA, Russia and Kyrgyzstan – all my life and work experience – for me represents a kind of a bridge between these countries. And I can feel the strength of this cultural exchange in the results of my own work. So first of all I’m an artist. And we tend to stay at places where we feel comfortable. I have colleagues who can’t stand living in the USA, but they like Germany, Switzerland or China. I’m trying to say that creative people choose places when they are able to fulfil their potential. And my success belongs also to all those people connected with me, who contributed their efforts through me.
OCA: Do you still feel special about Kyrgyz culture and how does it influence your current life and art?
AS: No doubt I do. For me, a man can love and respect himself only when he knows his belonging. For me to be a Kyrgyz is to belong to all the great things that my people have in their history, to our nature, traditions and culture. People should always seek their spiritual base. And that base is what you have in your soul, what you know about your nation’s great people. Who am I and what do I belong to? I met many Kyrgyz people who were ashamed of where they belonged to, because of conflicts, war or corruption. I told them these were not the things you need to think about when we talk about a nation’s essence. Every nation has its own problems. And I’m proud to be Kyrgyz because I belong to Chingiz Aitmatov’s nation, for example. And for those Kyrgyz people who don’t know who that is – I advise them to fix that as soon as they can. (Chingiz Aitmatov is a worldly known Kyrgyz writer and diplomat)
OCA: Is there anything that you do to popularise the Kyrgyz culture in USA?
AS: Together with my friends we opened the “Kyrgyz American Foundation”. This organization represents some kind of a result of all that I’ve done for my life. Our foundation is the only one of its kind by now and it unites people out of any political context, but on the basis of a person’s interests – art, science, culture and education. The relationship between the USA and Kyrgyzstan used to be exceptionally strategic before, but today with the growing number of Kyrgyz people who come to the USA to make a living we see how it lacks other spheres of cooperation. There are a large number of children born into Kyrgyz families in USA, who are growing and associating themselves with American culture only. And the thing is that they want to know their roots too. That’s why we made this centre – to give them an opportunity to learn their language, to become familiar with their music and culture. We’ve already organized several historical events. The latest one was a concert, “SOUNDS OF KYRGYZSTAN”, in Merkin Concert Hall, which was the first one to represent Kyrgyz national music in New York.
OCA: What can be done for young musicians and specialists from your country to help them become successful?
AS: People should be allowed and able to go to another country to experience it. I remember what I wrote on twitter: “We need to gather 200 talented Kyrgyz artists and deport them!” And this phrase drew such a big response. I believe every citizen of a Central Asian country knows all our society’s problems not worse than me: religious fundamentalism, corruption, tribalism and et cetera. How do we stop that? What can be done? Revolutions and takeovers are not the best choice, and we can see a proof to that by the modern experience of many conflicted countries. The right decision lies in the need to enhance education, sciences and art. We need experience that other countries can give us, we need to learn from them as much as we have energy to. Because knowledge is that special power that can show people difference between the light and the dark. That’s why I’m telling you that no one should be stopped from getting an education. And these are the purposes of my social activity: to help people get knowledge. I dream of our people being able to respect themselves just as Chingiz Aitmatov wrote about. With that kind of respect, together we can fight any problem. And education can help to find it.
OCA: How do you think, what is the most valuable experience that, vice versa, Central Asia can teach the west world?
AS: It’s the successful experience of building a multicultural society. This ability is priceless in the modern world and that’s why we need to be proud of it. Years of harmony, freedom and religious consent – that’s what is our biggest achievement, and I believe that there will be times in future when Eurasia will be the one who could ever tell how to reach that conditions. And again – education is what can help to save and enrich our multicultural doctrine.
WWW.OCAMAGAZINE.COM #25 SPRING 2017 text by Margarita Aab