Elim-ai: An investigation

Previously I wrote that I would use the blog for writing practice, more specifically for writing things outside the scope of my dissertation. Today I am making an exception: this is an attempt to write coherently about the subject of my next dissertation chapter. My next chapter is about the poem/song now commonly known by the title “Elim-ai,” a text closely connected with the story of the Bare Footed Flight.

Before getting to the history of the Elim-ai song, let us observe just how close this relationship was in the last century.

The Text and the Flight

Let us begin with Mukhamedzhan Tynyshpaev’s 1927 article on the Bare Footed Flight. That article included the text of the song Elim-ai with a Russian translation. Tynyshpaev included the text (see below for his version) of the poem, which he introduced: “The historical disaster remains in folk memory with the following verses.”

About fifteen years later, the poem again appeared connected with the Bare Footed Flight in the 1943 edition of the History of Kazakhstan edited by Anna Pankratova: “In the music of the 18th century, as in the literature of the same period, we see the song and melody “Qara taudyn basynan kösh keledi” (“Over the Karatau mountains come the nomads) written about the event “Bare Footed Flight.” The music and words are full of bitterness and sorrow. They tell of the heavy oppression endured by the people.”

Some twenty years later still, now outside the academy, one finds the poem/song alongside the Flight once again in Esenberlin’s trilogy Kochevniki/Köshpendiler (The Nomads). In the 1986 edition, the song appears on page 241, supposedly a nationwide response to the tragedies suffered by the Kazakhs.

Presently, the connection is much more nationwide than Esenberlin imagined. Since 2004, every student hoping to attend university in the Republic of Kazakhstan must pass the so-called Unified National Test (ENT/ЕНТ in Russian, UBT/ҰБТ in Kazakh). The test is divided into several subjects, one of which is mandatory: the history of Kazakhstan. Thanks to this country-wide testing system, every citizen of Kazakhstan under the age of 30 knows by heart at least some details of the Bare Footed Flight. On that same test, one may have to produce the “fact” that Elim-ai was the name of a song produced by that catastrophe. Whatever the veracity of this connection, let us trace the origins of this “fact.”

The history of the Elim-ai poem/song can be traced through history to the middle of the nineteenth century. Its content, form, meaning, and associations have changed as it passed through the hands of  ethnographers, “nationalist” historians, and later Soviet-trained scholars before being enshrined in the heart of  twenty-first-century “Kazakh identity.” Following independence in 1991, the song has indeed metamorphosed into a kind of trademark of Kazakh-ness. Now (in 2014) one can stay at any of a dozen Elim-ai hotels, send one’s children to a similar number of Elim-ai nursery or music schools, cheer on the Elim-ai soccer team, enjoy a meal at an Elim-ai restaurant or cafe, or even use the Elim-ai cell-phone plan from Aktiv.

At least one reason for the popularity of the name is its meaning, though difficult to translate simply in English. Elim-ai in partial translation breaks down as “Oh, my El!” The final step of translation is the most difficult, since when one breaks open a dictionary, the word El denotes a state, a country, the homeland or fatherland, people or a people, the public, tribe, clan, a union, or more poetically an ally or friendly person.

Understanding the word El does not become easier with progressive delving into its etymology.  The Encyclopedia of Islam states that El “has undergone a wide semantic development,” from its first known occurrences in the Orkhon inscriptions of the early eighth century, whose meaning V. Thomsen explained as “empire” or, more precisely, “a people, or union of people, organized under a kagan.” We also see El used in the title Ilek Khan, possibly coming from “El-lig,” or “holding an empire.” El appears in the eleventh-century Arabic-Turkic dictionary of Maḥmūd Kāshgharī with the definition al-wilāya, or “district, territory.” Kāshgharī’s definition coincides with its use in the Ottoman Empire in place-names like Rūm-eli (“Rumelia”), meaning “territory conquered by Rome.”

So it is very difficult to conclude what, exactly, the title “Elim-ai” signifies. Soviet-era writers seem to have prematurely settled the issue, translating the song into Russian as Rodina moia, or My Motherland. However, Esenberlin’s Russian translator of Kochevniki/Köshpendiler offered the more poetic O, moi mnogostradal’nyi narod, (O, My Long-suffering People.)

History of the Text

To follow the history of this song, let us move in chronological order. The oldest identifiable text appeared in a collection published in 1885 in Orenburg, one of the administrative capitals of the Kazakh subjects of the Russian Empire. Petr Raspopov translated into Russian translation several Kazakh songs collected by Akhmet Zhantöreuly, an official within the Bukei Horde who graduated from the Officer School (Kadetskii Korpus) in Orenburg. Guessing the original Kazakh is made more difficult by the fact that Raspopov put the Russian translation into rhyming verse. Even so, as we will see, the text is clearly the progenitor of later versions:

С горы Кара-Тау идут караваны:
То, знать, перемена киргизской кочевки;
Верблюдов грузить молодых еще рано:
Нет клади на спинах, в носах нет веревки!
Тяжка нам разлука с родными, с семьею,
И жжет наши очи слеза за слезою.
И как наме назвать это время? Ужасно,
Что всякий лишь прошлое счастие знает!
Погода к тому же буранна, ненастна,
И пыль, и песок нам пути заметают.
Для нас непогодье теперь будет хуже,
Чем в зимнее время январская стужа.
В какую ж живем мы тяжелую пору!
Вернется ль когда к нам прошедшее счастье,
Все семьи в разброд, и в детях опоры
Родители больше не видят, к несчастью!
Там мать, там отец без детей остаются,
И слезы рекою все льются да льются!
Увы, сколько бедствий послал ты нам, Боже,
В гневе своем! И земля, что нам к ночи
Постель заменяет, не мягкое ложе.
Лежать ночью больно, идти днем нет мочи:
Подошвы распухли, хоть в степи и гладко.
Хотя бы плохую послал Бог лошадку!2

Raspopov gives the title as “Karatau” (cf. Karatau Mountains) with a subtitle explaining the poem refers to migrations following bad/unproductive years.

The next version of the song appears only in a 1911 book titled Түрiк, Қырғыз-қазақ һәм хандар шежiресi, which I mentioned in a previous post about Shakarim Qudaiberdiev.

“Қаратаудың басынан көш келедi,
Көшкен сайын бiр тайлақ бос келедi.
Қарындастан айрылған қиын екен,
Қара көзден мөлдiреп жас келедi.
Мына заман қай заман, қысқан заман,
Басымыздан бақ-дәулет ұшқан заман.
Шұбырғанда iзiңнен шаң борайды,
Қаңтардағы қар жауған қыстан жаман.
Мына заман қай заман, бағы заман,
Баяғыдай болар ма тағы заман.
Қарындас пен қара орын қалғаннан соң,
Көздiң жасын көл қылып ағызамын”.3

This version matches the Russian translation so closely, there can be no doubt that it is the same text. This text is the oldest version available in Kazakh. Qudaiberdiev gives the song no title, explaining that those who suffered from the Bare Footed Flight sang a song they already knew: “…және жолда айтылған қазақтың ескi өлеңi мынау…” — “…and on their way, the ancient Kazakh song they sang was this…”

Shakarim’s explanation makes it clear that the text predated the Bare Footed Flight, but the connection had been made. As we will see, the song’s adaptability to Kazakh catastrophes in the 20th century will illustrate the malleability of the song and its text.

In 1914, a poem under the name “Elim-ai” appeared in issue 52 of the journal Qazaq, written by Mir Yaqub (Mirzhaqyb) Dulatov. The poem appeared again in 1915 in a poetry collection published in Orenburg under the title “Terme.” The text of the poem in no way resembles the others,3 which isn’t so surprising considering the vagueness of the title (Oh, My Homeland!). A thorough study of the topic demands an investigation of any text under the title “Elim-ai,” but it seems we may safely dismiss this text’s possibility of describing the Bare Footed Flight.

The Text and the Music

The early Soviet era witnessed an era of renewed Russian interest in Kazakh culture, or more accurately, the problems of the lack thereof. Aleksandr Zataevich (1869-1936) was a European-oriented amateur composer from western Russia.4 A skilled pianist, Zataevich arrived in Orenburg in April of 1920 as part of a “concert brigade” and quickly found work teaching in a recently opened music school for the Muslim population. The Civil War was entering its final years and Orenburg soon became part of the autonomous Kirgiz (Kazakh) region of the RSFSR in October of the same year. Already in November, officials invited Zataevich to collect and publish traditional Kirgiz (Kazakh) folk songs, the results of which labor was a song collection in 1925, “1000 pesen kirgizskogo naroda” (1000 Songs of the Kirgiz (Kazakh) People). Without the aid of a recording device, musical ability with Kazakh instruments, or even a basic understanding of the Kazakh language, Zataevich collected fifteen hundred “songs” between 1920 and 1923. Particularly difficult to collect were the instrumental works played on the dombyra. Song no. 714 below showcases this excellently with an unrealistically simple and repetitive dombyra ostinato. Varvara Dernova, a Soviet musicologist who began her career with a deep analysis of Zataevich, criticized the composer-turned-ethnographer for actively “correcting” the folk music he collected with simplistic notation.

In this case, I feel confident that my own undergraduate training in music composition at Western Michigan University in combination with my own experience listening to Kazakh folk music gives me the necessary credentials to suggest that Dernova was being too kind. His notations of folk-songs are simplistic and confusing. Too often he relied on erratic time-signatures to represent the prevalent poly-rhythms while simultaneously neglecting to represent any but the most basic embellishments of the melodic line. Vernova’s dissertation rose from a study of his original research notations, from which she concluded that once Zataevich decided to highlight the “whimsical” nature of Kazakh melody, he simply excluded the tunes which did not fit that general hypothesis.

Zataevich and his work fall into the gaze of this project because he collected several songs titled “Elim-ai,” none with text attached, though each included a “vocal” line, one with dombyra accompaniment. Zataev included several pages of notes detailing the collection of the tunes and some interpretation of the un-included texts. In the case of Elim-ai, no connection is made with the Bare Footed Flight or more generally with the eighteenth century. Indeed, Zataevich explained that he collected No. 714 from a musician who explained its provenance as a tune sung by destitute Kazakhs forced to labor in the mines near Semipalatinsk in 1916.

I have transcribed Zataevich’s “Elim-ai” tunes below:

No. 444


No. 493


No. 714, with dombyra accompaniment


Not long after Zataevich published his encyclopedic magnum opus, Tynyshpaev presented his work on the Bare Footed Flight in a festscrift dedicated to V. V. Bartol’d, the orientalist then guest-lecturing in Tashkent. Tynyshpaev follows Qudaiberdiev exactly in his usage of the poem, explaining that the text relates to the Flight, but giving it neither name nor tune.

As late as the 1920s, then, the song Elim-ai and the text connected to the Bare Footed Flight remained completely separate.

In the early 1930s, the Kazakh polity had changed significantly. The Arabic script had been replaced by Latin, the borders had shifted drastically to exclude Orenburg, Omsk, and Tashkent while including Verny (Alma-Ata, today’s Almaty) and Ak Mechet (KyzylOrda, the capital of the Kazakh SSR until 1927). In 1933, the Union of Composers invited Evgenii Brusilovskii (1905-1982), a recent graduate of the Leningrad Conservatory, to move to the capital Alma-Ata and teach at the Kazak Music and Drama College.

Here it is important to note the changing face of Bolshevism/Communism in the 1920s and 1930s. During the early days following the Civil War, it was impossible to predict which aspects of imperial culture were sufficiently revolutionary to remain while the bourgeois portions were liquidated. However, the “cultural” production under Stalin in the 1930s very quickly returned to the “safe” Russian Romanticism of again lionizing such icons as Pushkin, Tchaikovsky, and Glinka. In this way, instead of allowing some indigenous Kazakh artform to take center-stage, the Soviet leadership quickly explained that the lack of Kazakh operas, plays, and other European artforms was a problem with an easy solution: hire Russians to write them! The level of ignorance of Kazakh culture reached such heights that some suggested the Kazakhs had no form of musical culture prior the arrival of the Soviets in 1917!

And so, not to put too fine a point on it, Brusilovskii, armed with Zataevich’s book of “authentic” Kazakh tunes, had all the resources necessary to write hundreds of Soviet-Realist operas. Brusilovskii admitted that he was willing to work in Alma-ata particularly because of his fondness for Zataevich’s book. Temirbek Zhurgenev, the Kazakh Commissar of Education, put the question directly: “Would it be possible for you to write an opera for us based on Kazakh folk music?” Perhaps Brusilovskii should have hesitated in his answer, because after replying in the affirmative, he was given thirty days to create the music for the opera which became the centerpiece of Kazakh national culture: Qyz zhibek. This process was undoubtedly made easier by Zataevich’s work, since Brusilovskii essentially harmonized already-existent tunes before delivering them to the librettist who then set the text.

Naturally we can ask the question: were the tunes selected by Brusilovskii according to their connection with the Qyz zhibek story? And more naturally we may reply: of course not. Rather, Brusilovskii selected songs whose characteristics he felt construed the themes of the lead figures in the tale. First performed in November of 1934, the story was praised for its emphasis of the class struggle.

Brusilovskii’s second opera Zhalbyr (1935) is the point to which this essay is racing, for in this work we have the actual origin of the song/text “Elim-ai,” though ironically without a connection to the Bare Footed Flight in the plot of the opera. The plot of the opera revolves around a group of rebels struggling under tsarist labor conscription in 1916, which suggests that Brusilovskii took the idea from the note Zataevich attached to Song No. 714. I have transcribed here an excerpt from the opera showcasing the leit-motif, the theme “Elim-ai.” Notice that, though the note to No. 714 inspired the opera’s plot, the composer clearly based the motif on No. 444.

Click here to listen to the opera excerpt at NoteFlight, where you can also hear the other Elim-ai tunes.

This dissertation chapter will also approach several other problems related to Elim-ai, including its supposed authorship by the legendary figure Khozhabergen, a statement made more precarious by its unequivocal stance on the poem’s title being “Elim-ai.” As we have seen, the text did not go with this specific title until the 1930s and its inclusion in the second Russian-composed Kazakh opera.


Over the Karatau come the nomads: The Kirgiz (Kazakhs) are changing camps; The camels are still too young to load: No baggage on their backs, no ropes in their noses! Grievous the separation from loved ones and family, And our eyes burn from tear after tear. What, then, should we call this time? It is terrible, That only past happiness is on everyone’s mind. Weather more inclement than blizzards, Dust and sand will blow us away. For us this weather is even worse Than the frost-covered fields of January. What awful times we live in! How will times of past happiness return, All the families scattered, alas the parents no longer see their children as support! There mothers, there fathers without children, And there a river of tears, weeping and weeping! Alas, so many disasters you sent, God, In your wrath! And the hard earth upon which We rest replaces our soft beds. Laying at night in pain, going in the day without strength: Our soles our swollen, though the steppe is smooth. If God could give us even a poor horse!

2 Translation

 “Over the Karatau come the nomads. With them comes a lonely camel. It is hard to be parted from one’s family, tears dripping from dark eyes. What kind of time is this? A crushing time, a time when all happiness and wealth is lost. The traces of our flight throws up a cloud of dust, greater than a blizzard in winter time. What kind of time is? A time of chaos, a time of panic and destruction. Leaving behind one’s family and home causes a flood of tears to flow.”

3 The untranslated text is below:

Ем таба алмай дертиңе мен ертеден,
Сол бiр қайғың өзегiмдi өртеген.
Тырп етпейсiң бас көтерiп көрпеден,
Енсең неге түстi мұнша, елiм-ай?

Өткен сағым, келер алдың бiр мұнар,
Қызылшылсың қызарғанға тым құмар.
Сақтан деген сөздi жан жоқ шын ұғар.
Жемге шапқан, қармақ құрса, елiм-ай!

Қандай едiң, қара кейiн қайрылып.
Қандай едiң, тұрсың одан айрылып.
Мүгедек боп қос қанатың майрылып.
Өксiп жаылап өгей ұлша, елiм-ай!

Мұны құр бос өлең десең, өзiң бiл.
Жұрт болмаймын өлем десең, өзiң бiл.
Не болса да көнем десең, өзiң бiл.
Босағада жүрген құлша, елiм-ай!

Түзелесiң қашан, жұртым, оңалып?
Тiл алмасаң, кетпеймiсiң жоғалып?
Қайтер едiң өткен дәурен оралып,
Жылы жүзбен мойнын бұрса, елiм-ай!?

Сол күнiңдi көрсем — менiң арманым,
Жоқтамас ем өзге тiлек қалғаным.
Сұм жүрегiм селк етпейдi жалғанын,
Бұл мiнезiң бойда тұрса, елiм-ай!

4 Here I follow Michael Rouland’s 2005 dissertation on Zataevich and his role in the creation of the Kazakh nation and national identity. “Music and the Making of the Kazak Nation, 1920-1936.” PhD Dissertation, Georgetown University.

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