Ancient Instruments And Modern Media Tell A Tale Of Women Warriors

Mar 9, 2018

A group of female musicians, from the nations of Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, and Kyrgyzstan, are visiting our region to perform a new multimedia production based on the epic story 40 Girls, or Qyrq Qyz — an oral tale from the region that dates back centuries.

It's the story of a teenage girl from a wealthy family who tells her father that she doesn't want to get married. Instead the girl, Gulayim, asks her father for a piece of land, where she builds a fortress where the 40 girls train to be warriors. 

Men weren't allowed to enter the fortress, and the young women trained themselves in archery and horseback riding.

In the end, as the story tells, the women leave their fort to defend their land against Persian invaders, and they establish a rule of justice and compassion.

Watch a trailer for the production below:

The 40 Girls tale has been told for generations among the men and women of Central Asia, and filmmaker Saodat Ismailova says the story still has some lessons in it for a modern world.

"It's a story of women, of young women, of their power and strength and courage," says Ismailova. "And I guess that it has a strong echo in the world in general today."

Ismailova is from Uzbekistan, and she's brought over some of Central Asia's most accomplished traditional musicians to perform  in a multimedia production of photography, music, film, poetry and choreography.

The production that is being performed in Stowe includes film and photography from Central Asia.
Credit Saodat Ismailova

"The oral tradition is going away," she says. "And since nobody has time to sit and listen to someone recite for hours and hours, I thought, OK, let's use the tools of today, but tell the same story."

Ismailova's film for the project includes footage from the ancient fortress where it's believed the 40 girls lived, and those scenes are cut with experimental images of fire, flowers and the wind-swept high steppe of Central Asia.

Her past work has shown at the Berlin and Seattle international film festivals.

For this production she's gathered seven musicians. Some have performed around the world, and some of the younger artists are just starting their careers.

"I keep telling the girls, 'your tool of war in this case is your instrument. That's how you spread knowledge, that's how you spread your culture,'" says Ismailova. "And I hope  that they will develop personally, or in group, and that this project becomes kind of a motivation and a push for their future."

"I keep telling the girls, 'your tool of war in this case is your instrument. That's how you spread knowledge, that's how you spread your culture.'" - Saodat Ismailova, filmmaker

Ted Levin is a professor of music at Dartmouth College, and he's been working on-and-off with Ismailova for about 15 years.

A few years ago Levin saw a short film Ismailova directed on the 40 Girls and the two of them have been working to expand the production; to bring in live music and theater to tell the story.

Levin co-founded the Silk Road Project with Yo Yo Ma, and he's spent most of his career working to bring the music and culture of Central Asia to a wider audience.

And he says today, where there's more talk of building walls than there is of reaching across borders, a production like 40 Girls can help connect us.

"I think artists can play an important role in bringing attention to the beauty that's there in other cultures' music and their art," says Levin. "And I view it as part of our role as artists, as musicians, as educators to do this work. And to make our contribution to building a world in which there's more respect for difference."

Tokzhan Karatai plays the kopyz, a shamanistic instrument with two strings made from horse hair.
Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR

Tokzhan Karatai is from Kazakhstan and she plays the kopyz, a shamanistic instrument that is about the size of a viola, with two strings made from horsehair.

Karatai holds the instrument in her lap and plays it vertically, like a cello.

Karatai says this production of 40 Girls, which uses ancient instruments, to tell an ancient story, will also give American audiences a better understanding of an often misunderstood part of the world.

"Kazakhstan is not an Islam republic. Absolutely. So you're free in your religion," says Karatai. "This project is very, female, it's about feminism. Of course today it is 21st century so we're free. We are able to do whatever we want."

Over the past few decades, Central Asia has experienced significant political upheaval.

When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan and Kyrgystan, all became independent countries.

The region sits between China and Russia, and borders Iran and Afghanistan, so the United States has interests.

And there have been border tensions in the region. So for the musicians, who come from different countries, and speak different languages, the production has forced Karatai, and the rest of the women, to examine their own prejudices and assumptions.

"In this project we're not separate. We're one. We're 40 Girls," Karatai says. "So we're not like separate. So this is the point, and in the beginning it was quite difficult. But now we can feel each other."

Qyrq Qyz premiered last week at Hopkins Center for the Arts at Dartmouth, and it will be performed this Saturday at Spruce Peak Arts in Stowe.

It then moves on for two performances at Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York.