Библиотека нематериального культурного наследия Республики Башкортостан
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(Gennady Molodtsov)

Kurai is the most famous and popular Bashkir national instrument. It is not only a symbol and pride of the Bashkir people but also a national brand.

«Where Bashkir is, there kurai is», – the popular saying goes.

In 2018 kurai was officially registered as a Bashkortostan territorial brand, having received a patent from the Federal service for intellectual property. For the first time the idea of registering the brand was expressed by a reputed kurai player, teacher and public figure Azat Aitkulov. Since then a lot of archival materials, confirmation and evidence about the origin of this wind instrument exactly in Bashkortostan have been collected. It should be noted that the kurai is played to perform the anthem of Bashkortostan (the melody «Republic» to the music of Farit Idrisov). The symbolic image of the kurai flower is also present on the national coat of arms and flag of the republic.
Azat Aitkulov, People's Artist of Bashkortostan:

«I am Bashkir, I was born Bashkir, and I will die Bashkir. I will serve kurai all my life. I communicate with the world through it. All the folk songs that have come to us are historical, they all have their own energy and aura, and none of them is similar to the other, just like we – people. Therefore, I treat them very carefully and, when I play kurai, I try to tell the world about the Bashkirs through music. This is an obligatory part of the program of my concerts, at which I always play live. Music, especially folk music, does not need words, you just play wholeheartedly and tell your story. Sometimes I play kurai for myself – it is not even a rehearsal, but a kind of meditation; it really calms and clears my mind».
Regarding the historical authenticity of Bashkir folk songs the kurai player notes that this can be traced easily. Take, for example, the period after joining the Russian state; the Bashkirs participated in almost all military campaigns undertaken by the Russian troops. Many of them are reflected in folk songs such as «Syrdarya», «Bayik», «Kakhym-turya», «Lyubizar», «Port-Artur», etc.

«It is clear that these songs were born after a strong emotional upheaval. Take, for example, the Patriotic War of 1812–1814, when the Bashkirs reached Paris. Kurai players necessarily took part in such campaigns; otherwise, how would these melodies reach us. History knows facts when the Bashkirs made a kurai for themselves from parts of enemy aircraft. It already happened during the Great Patriotic War», – says the kurai player.

It is also a peculiar fact that kurai players, unlike dancers and runners, mostly use deep, abdominal breathing. This helps to increase lung capacity, which also affects health. Kurai players tend to recover from various respiratory diseases more easily. On the other hand, smoking has a negative effect on the lungs; that is why many kurai players do not smoke.

«Kurai is an instrument that connects the Bashkir land, the world of Bashkirs with the Universe, with the cosmos. It protects and preserves our spirit, and we, as a people, with the sounds of kurai and songs performed to its accompaniment reunite with eternity», – says public figure and scientist of Bashkortostan Rashit Shakur.
Kurai is a very ancient instrument. As evidence of this we can cite such ancient Bashkir epics as «Akbuzat», «Kara yurga», «Zayatulyak and Khiukhylu», which have references to kurai.
One of the folk legends about the origin of kurai tells about an evil khan, who had a horn growing on his head... Each time he called young people who learned his secret when cutting his hair, so death awaited them. One of the youths managed to escape. On the mountain he heard the sounds emitting by the plant, cut it off, and played a melody that told the whole country about the evil secret of the khan.
Perhaps that is why it is believed that kurai players are not just musicians who entertain the people but also history keepers. The ability to tell stories associated with a one or another melody that the kurai player had to know by heart was considered important.

Bashkirs were well aware of the power of words and music; therefore, during the national holidays (iyiyns), kurai players and sesens (singers-storytellers) occupied the most honorable places.

The art of kurai playing was carefully preserved and passed on from generation to generation. The names of outstanding kurai players of the past are known – these are Kubagush-sesen (16th century), Bayik-sesen (1710–1814). When Bayik-sesen was 102 years old he met Bashkir warriors returning from Paris with a victory, playing a melody on the kurai, which he had composed specially for this. This melody has come to us under the name «Bayik».

It is believed that kurai has a peculiar timbre and sound production that cannot be confused with any other instrument. At the end of the 19th century Russian ethnographer Sergei Rybakov wrote in the «Russian music newspaper»: «The sounds of this instrument – quiet, melancholy and soulful – reproduce the dreaminess of Bashkir melodies quite well».
Wind instruments similar to kurai are widespread throughout the world, but the Bashkir kurai has characteristic differences that distinguish it as a national instrument and brand of Bashkortostan.
The traditional Bashkir kurai is made from the stem of the umbelliferous plant of the same name. Its scientific name is Pleurospermum uralense. The stem of the kurai is straight, about two meters high. The plant blooms in July and begins to dry out in August-September. At this time it is cut at the root and stored in a dry, dark place. It is believed that the kurai grown in a meadow in the mountains is much more melodious and durable than the one that grew near water. A few decades ago each kurai master made his own kurai, relying on individual preferences. Nowadays musicians are more focused on the classical standards of length – it's about eight palms. The following proportions are calculated from this length: four fingers – the first hole, the remaining holes are separated from each other at a distance of three fingers. If these proportions are observed, the kurai turns out to be sonorous, with a good sound and timbre, and it is kept as the apple of the eye. Some kurai players even have a kurai wrapped in snakeskin in their collection. This is also one of the ways to preserve kurai in a good state.
In museums there is a variety of kurai instruments made of various metal alloys. They were used in military field conditions. In the old days making kurai from silver or even copper was considered very prestigious. Nowadays among the Bashkir musical instruments there is also a kurai made of wood veneer.

«This umbelliferous, smooth inside and outside stem, with no edges and stem nodes is a real Ural kurai, a delicate stem that grows only in our region», – such a definition is given to the instrument by the academician of the Academy of sciences of the Republic of Bashkortostan, professor Gaisa Khusainov.
The demand for reed kurai is huge, but the artificial cultivation of musical reed in the republic is not organized. This does not upset the kurai players. Bashkir musicians use other natural materials to make an instrument, for example, sheets of beech, hornbeam or birch veneer.
One of these musicians is the late Vakil Shugayupov, an outstanding master of musical instruments, Honored Art Worker of the Republic of Bashkortostan, winner of the «Soul of Russia» award. During his lifetime he was called the «Bashkir Stradivari» for his ability to make and restore national musical instruments.

In 1981 the master made a discovery, starting to make the Bashkir musical instrument kurai from a planed veneer. The master patented his discovery; since then the mass production of kurai began.
Vakil Shugayupov
However, only natural reed kurai can give an incomparable sound, says professional kurai player and master from the Khaybullinsky district Rif Dilmukhametov.

Both the master's father and grandfather played kurai. Moreover, the name of his uncle, Ishmulla Dilmukhametov, is known all over the world. It was they who taught Rif to cut kurai. However, he came to the idea of mass production of the instrument after 20 years of teaching. Not all of his students had an opportunity to play their own kurai. This reason pushed the master to become an entrepreneur and to do everything so that modern talents do not have problems with musical instruments. Rif Dilmukhametov received state support in the amount of 280 thousand rubles for these purposes.

«Play, my kurai,
A song that goes straight to the heart,
Glorifying without end
The Urals and our entire region...»

(Salavat Yulaev)
Kurai is a wind instrument, part of the Bashkir folk instruments. Outwardly it most resembles a flute, but the sound is completely different, with a characteristic hoarse timbre. Its deep, enchanting sound, as if wrapped in the breath of majestic wooded mountains and endless feather grass steppes, cannot but touch the listener's heart.
«Kurai is the only instrument that in its timbre is very close to the human voice. Playing it is also a breathing practice, thanks to which a person reaches harmony with the Universe. Kurai is very useful both for the one who plays it and for the one who listens. One sound is played like on a flute, and the second one is sung. The result is such an interesting polyphony, and even in some places there is a split of up to three voices. Therefore, the sound abilities of kurai are very vast – from subtle lyrics to drama and patriotic pathos», – said in one of his interviews popular kurai player and leader of the «Kuraisy» ensemble Robert Yuldashev.
Robert Yuldashev and Eric Mouquet
Virtuosos have learned to imitate on kurai the sounds of nature – the voices of birds and the wind's sound. In most cases kurai players also accompany their playing with throat singing. This type of performance is called «ozleu». If kurai player has the skill of throat singing, then he is considered a master of the highest class.

«I often hear the words that kurai is a very simple instrument. Yes, it is. As they say: everything ingenious is simple. There is nothing complicated about it, but thanks to the music and the performer it becomes brilliant. It turns out that we do not glorify kurai, but on the contrary, thanks to kurai we grow and develop creatively», – says the head of the department of traditional musical performance of the Ufa state institute of arts named after Zagir Ismagilov Artur Gaisarov.

«There is another peculiarity of the kurai. Professionally speaking, kurai is a diatonic instrument. In simple words, it does not have black keys, only white ones. If this is translated into music, then we have С, D, E, F, G, A notes. There is no B note in the first octave, but in the second octave, due to the fact that it is a wind instrument after all, all the notes are overblown, and the B note appears. Therefore, we take the full diatonic, and to say that the kurai does not make the B note is at least ignorant. It would be more precise to say that the seventh step in the first octave is absent», – the musician explains.
«The lacy Bashkir melody in his performance was exquisitely intertwined into an unusually beautiful pattern that caressed the ear, recalling the wide steppe, the singing of a lark, the hot sun, the fragrance of sweet-smelling herbs and flowers... And there was no strength to tear myself away from such beauty!» – People's Artist of Russia Irma Yaunzem about kurai player Yumabai Isyanbaev.
Despite its long history kurai remains not only the oldest but also the most popular musical instrument in Bashkortostan. In 1998 the Union of kurai players of Bashkortostan was created in Ufa, which in 2016 was renamed to the Union of kurai players of Russia. The purpose of the organization is to preserve and develop national instrumental creativity and to support musicians. Today the Union, which has more than 150 kurai players in its ranks, is headed by Artur Gaisarov.
Today's kurai players cherish the memory and traditions of the performing art of eminent kurai players of the last century, such as Yumabai Isyanbaev, Ishmulla Dilmukhametov, Karim Diyarov, Gata Suleimanov, Mukhtar Batalov, Khabir Baitimirov, Adgam Iskuzhin and others.

Until now the story that happened to Yumabai Isyanbaev in 1925 in France is passed from mouth to mouth. The kurai player was invited to Moscow, where a group of artists was formed to go to Paris. He took a reed with a root on the trip. When it was his turn to perform, the musician went on stage and made a kurai right in front of the audience and started playing Bashkir folk melodies. When Yumabai Isyanbaev started to play the «Bayik» melody, a French lady took the gold ring and put it on the kurai player's finger.
Ishmulla Dilmukhametov was a favorite kurai player of the entire Bashkir people, a recognized virtuoso of playing kurai in the 20th century. The revival of playing kurai in combination with «ozleu» elements for the masters of the past is associated with his work.

An outstanding musician and teacher Gata Suleimanov made a great contribution to the revival and development of kurai. He raised the level of performing to a new, professional level by opening a kurai class at the Ufa school of arts in 1971. He became the founder of the theory and methodology of playing on the folk instrument and later wrote and published a textbook about playing the kurai.

Kurai players Rishat Rakhimov, Azat Aitkulov, Yulai Gainetdinov, Ishmurat Ilbakov, Ramil Gaizullin, Rasul Karabulatov, Robert Yuldashev and others are now the recognized virtuosos of playing the kurai.

The «Kuraisy» ensemble directed by Robert Yuldashev performed on many world stages, including the famous «La Scala» theatre and the Grand Kremlin Palace in Moscow. The musician collaborated with such artists as Vladimir Spivakov, Nikolai Noskov, Garik Sukachyov, Pelageya and many foreign stars. In the summer of 2019 the musician performed in Moscow with the leader of the French band «Deep forest» Eric Mouquet. For the first time the team presented in Russia the composition «Brassy Sunrise», based on Bashkir folklore motifs. The project originated more than two years ago when Eric Mouquet visited Bashkortostan at the International festival of arts «Heart of Eurasia» and got acquainted with the republic's national culture.
There are two monuments to kurai in Bashkiria so far. One of them is installed on the top of the Tugazhman mountain near the village of Turkmenovo of the Baimaksky district. The monument was opened in 1993 and is dedicated to the 80th birth anniversary of the legendary kurai player Gata Suleimanov. The initiator of its creation, the author of the sketches, the installation's organizer was the local self-taught artist Midhat Bairamgulov. The 15-meter monument is a metal stem, on top of which there is a 19-petal kurai inflorescence. As the author says, each of these petals personifies 19 prominent kurai players who were born in this region.
Another cultural object – fountain «Monument to kurai» – was installed near the «Iskra» cinema in Ufa in 1974. It represents a naked boy playing the kurai. The author of the monument is Margarita Alexandrovna Solovieva-Efimova.

The boundless love and respect of the Bashkir people for the kurai was also expressed in the monument to composer Zagir Ismagilov, installed in the park near the Bashkir opera and ballet theatre. The bronze sculpture depicts Zagir Ismagilov sitting on a chair in a state of creative inspiration. He holds kurai in his hands.

An improvised art object depicting kurai sprouts has recently appeared on the site of the Bashkir gymnasium No. 20 in Ufa.
Author (compiler): A. M. Agliullina, 2019