Ensemble Bürler, Volume 1 (Face Music, 2000)

 I truly appreciate Face Music's continued explorations of the music of Central Asia: these ancient lands offer many surprising and breathtakingly beautiful musical traditions. Traditions, I would add, that are ignored by most other labels. Ensemble Bürler hail from Kazakhstan, the immense former Soviet republic that straddles Afghanistan to the South, Mongolia and China to the South-East, and a half dozen other former Republics to the North-West.  This nation of almost 17 million people sits on 1.7 million square kilometers of some of the oldest inhabited lands on this planet, making it an obvious place for musical exploration.

The Ensemble is actually a trio of young people keeping alive various musical traditions, a throwback to old Soviet cultural programs (programs that we in the West could learn from!). The only accompaniment to the two male and one female voice is the dömbra, a two string lute that is strummed fiercely, often echoing the melody. All three singers are exquisite, capable of some amazing vocal gymnastics, and all also prod an amazing amount of musical virtuosity out of such a simple instrument as the dömbra.

The music combines Persian and Mongol influences with a heavy dollop of Southern Russian styles. Basically, the harmonic structure sounds rather Russian, but with the legato technique of Persian styles, with melodies related to the Mongols. Trying to describe an unfamiliar music is rather like trying to describe love, but to make a long over-analysis very short, I love this music. The music soars, with long sustained notes and very pretty melodies. "Elge selem," a song in praise of the people of the land, is a stellar work by Gulshat Ashimkanova, the female member. Her voice has the power of a Western opera star, and the calm conviction of a backwoods folk singer. The slightly less spritely "Zhan-kisa" features Shanajdar Nursalijev singing like the most trained blues singers you've ever heard; the most talented of this amazing trio, he weaves amazing dömbra playing with a deep, rich voice. The third member, Jerkin Ashimkanov, is excellent as well, like on the joyous happy "Gigigai." Mix the three, and the Russian group singing influence comes through strongly, as on the dark ballad "Samaltau."

The recording is generally excellent, and the liner notes are quite comprehensive. I've noticed on the newer Face Music discs that, while the liner notes continue to look rather academic, there is a greater emphasis on using more interesting photographs to enhance the package: the booklet's rear shot of the inside of a traditional Kazakhstani yurt (tent home), in all it's glorious patterns and colours, is a nice touch.

The more I listen to what there is in the world, the less I realize I have heard. What the Ensemble Bürler bring to these ears is simply superb, a breathtaking soundtrack to a land nobody knows. A stunning disc.

Big Earl Sellar