Tengir Too: The rebirth of nomad music

The Soviets tried to destroy Central Asian nomad music, yet Michael Church encounters it in a mountain glade

Tengir Too look wonderfully picturesque as they play in their embroidered coats under a spreading tree by a rushing brook. The women sport feather plumes, while the men's high, felt hats set off the weather-beaten tan of their faces: instruments lie all around them on the ground. Their leader, Nurlanbek Nyshanov, goes first with a sweetly tremulous melody on his flute - an open-ended tube with four holes which he attaches to the underside of his upper lip, and which produces a hot-breath sound totally unlike the disembodied timbre of the Western version. Then two other flautists join in, sending up a delicate tracery of interwoven melodies: this is as complex as Kyrgyz nomad music gets in its pure traditional form. Then we get a rousing gallop from three sharply-strummed komuz lutes: they are the Kyrgyz answer to the guitar, perfectly designed to evoke flying hooves. The climax of the impromptu concert comes with a piece Nurlanbek has composed to reflect all the sounds of nature, from the rustle of wind in the grass, to small creeping animals, to a riot of instrumental birdsong while the brook fills the air with its sibilance.

I first encountered Nurlanbek at the moment he was talent-spotted by the outside world: at a civic reception in the Kyrgyz capital Bishkek, where Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Ensemble were making a stop. Ma signed them up for a visit to Washington.

Kyrgyzstan's music springs from the earth - out of the trees, rocks, and rivers which form the mountain terrain. Nurlanbek is passionately loyal to the animist faith. "People think of nomads as barbarians," he says. "But it's my generation of city people who are the barbarians. What they have done to nature and the natural world is indescribable. The old people who lived in yurts whom I knew as a kid - they were very soft, and fine. They had a wonderful relationship with children. When it was 40 degrees below zero, they'd go to their horses to take care of them at night." Respect for nature, he adds, was a crucial part of their worldview. "I wasn't allowed to cut living trees. We only used wood from fallen trees, even if that meant bringing it from far away."

Nurlanbek may now be an international celebrity, but he insists that he will not follow one or two well-known throat-singers down the road to cocaine-fuelled perdition. "When I'm tired or upset, I just get on my horse and go back into the mountains," he says. He stresses that his career has not been easy: since there was no academy for traditional musicians under the Soviet regime, he began his studies with Western classical music, which now feeds into his composition. "Even Mahler feeds me, as does all the Turkish, Iranian, and Chinese music I have listened to. But my art is still specifically the music of Kyrgyz nomads."

The group he has pulled together represents a radical departure from nomad tradition, which was essentially a solo one, but he insists the music he creates for them is in the same spirit. He may use three komuz lutes rather than one, but two are always there to provide drones for the solo on the third; he lets the shamanistic qyl qiyak sing out alone, with its uniquely haunting cello-like timbre. He even lets the jew's harp - in Asia sometimes used by horse-thieves to communicate across valleys - hold centre-stage. One of his rediscoveries is the wooden jew's harp, which has a rougher, more guttural tone that the metal variant. "To play this," Nurlanbek explains, "you really have to be in harmony with nature."

Tengir Too will perform at 2pm today at the Northern Rock Foundation Hall, Gateshead, preceded by a documentary and followed by a seminar (0191-443 4661)