The Analyzing Kyrgyz Narratives (AKYN) Research Project by James Plumtree, American University of Central Asia

Versions of the Kyrgyz epos Manas have been collected and studied for over a hundred and sixty years. Reasons for this research have varied. Foreign scholars collected the first variants of stories connected to the legendary hero Manas and his descendents for linguistic purposes in the mid-nineteenth century.[i] As a Tsarist expedition made the first sound recording of a performance, connoisseurship of written variants appeared with an emerging class of Kyrgyz literati.[ii] Nationalistic interests of these local intellectuals, and the Soviet focus on folklore, coincided with the aim to produce a complete narrative. Post second world war political concerns led to the publication of a harmonized epic, with features deemed problematic removed.[iii] Throughout these periods, the extinction of the living oral tradition has frequently been predicted. In post-Soviet Kyrgyzstan (1991-), the resurgence of oral performances has been met with the frequent claim that ‘true manaschis’ (chïnïgï Manaschïlar), performers of the Manas epos capable of the traditional oral improvising, have been replaced by ‘manaschis by the book’ (jattama Manaschïlar­), those who merely memorize a printed version.[iv] Wishing to examine this issue, in Fall 2017 a group of researchers connected to the American University of Central Asia (AUCA) in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, responded to my initiative to collect and study new variants of the Manas epos.

AUCA, Bishkek Kyrgyzstan (photo credit to the university)

The Analyzing Kyrgyz Narratives (AKYN) Research Group began recording contemporary manaschis to see whether they could perform in the ‘traditional manner’. I expected that recording a performer performing the same section of the narratives on different occasions would determine whether he or she was a jattama or chïnïgï Manaschïlar. I also hoped that the variants could be used to see if the Lord-Parry theory of oral-formulaic composition was applicable in contemporary Kyrgyz oral poetry. Since the usual aim is to collect the entire version of the Manas narrative by a performer, the variants collected by AKYN could be used to study a performer’s craft, linguistic toolkit, and, when compared with earlier variants by earlier performers, establish influence. Consequently, AKYN recorded three independent performances concerned with the birth of Manas by two manaschis – Talantaaly Bakchiev (1971-) and Dolot Sydykov (1983-) – listed as prominent performers of the epic in Kyrgyzstan’s successful 2013 application for the tradition to be listed as UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage.[v]

Manas cultural heritage reenactment (photo credit

The six recordings were made in the AUCA recording studio. While modern performances of the epic typically feature various manaschis performing the narrative in seven syllable lines in a spoken-sung manner, one after the other in front of an (at times, responsive) audience in a replica yurt, the AKYN recordings, wishing to study textual variation within each performer, opted to record each performance on separate occasions in front of a small (and seemingly silent) audience in a modern recording studio. To promote study of the materials, students and non-AUCA affiliated scholars were involved in the organization, recording, and transcription of the performances – material that is in the process of being made available online.[vi]

Since the analysis of Dolot Sydykov’s variants is in progress, for this post, I will focus on our findings from our studies of the three variants we recorded as described above performed by Talantaaly Bakchiev.

Epic performer T. Bakchiev in the project recording studio (photo credit author)

Analysis of transcriptions made from the three different performances narrating the birth of Manas established that Bakchiev was not reciting a memorized text, but, rather, creating a ‘new’ text with each performance. Such a finding was supported by the three different depictions Bakchiev presented in each of the recordings for a sacrifice to honour the newborn hero Manas – each used different vocabulary. The transcriptions also allowed close examination of single words and larger phrases across the three variants to see how Bakchiev constructs the text of the narrative in performance.

For example, analysis of his use of a single word revealed Bakchiev’s training in the tradition. Study of his use of the common Kyrgyz word ‘мына’ revealed that in each of the three versions, he only used the word at the start of the typical seven-syllable metrical line. The sole exception was in the atypical prose introduction he gave at the start of the first recording to establish for a new audience the content of the performance to follow. This metrical stability with regards his phrasing can be indicative of his proficiency and training in Kyrgyz oral poetry.

Close view of epos text files (photo credit author)

Study of the three variants also allowed us to determine re-occurring formulas. With the assistance of computer software designed to spot repetitions in texts – with one creative use of plagiarism-spotting programs – repeated one-line expressions could be quickly noted. Frequent expressions, the most frequent being “айланайын кудурет” (107 times, 2.7% of the three Bakchiev recordings), reveal when Bakchiev needs to indicate a shift in the narrative, to stress a point, and/or provide time for himself to consider what to come next. (Usage of such expressions, of course, varies from performance to performance.) Longer repeated sections were noted, ranging from little more than a single line (not necessarily beginning at the start of a line) to a sizable number. Comparison of the first two variants Bakchiev recorded revealed his deployment of set formulas to establish the narrative. In the second variant (without the spoken prose introduction), the formulaic lines that open the first variant (with the spoken introduction) appear later. As the narratives continue, Bakchiev inserts such repeated phrases when necessary – even at a later stage in the variant with a spoken introduction.

Study of the variants also revealed the relationship between the performer and the tradition, and raises interesting questions about the connection between an oral tradition and other media. Formulaic expressions can also show quotation, and thus establish influence, from other performers. Often scholarship has relied on who a performer says is their influence. Bakchiev has repeatedly stated that Shaabai Azizov (1927-2004) was his mentor. Analysis of the third variant shows Bakchiev using phrases from another performer, the famed Saghimbai Orozbakov (1867-1930), who produced the first ‘complete’ narrative of the life of Manas. Bakchiev’s use of Orozbakov, who had died some forty years before Bakchiev was born, reveals an interesting feature of an oral tradition. Though Bakchiev has previously asserted that Orozbakov appeared in his calling dream and taught him how to recite, Bakchiev was familiar with Orozbakov’s performances via print, film and LPs. Bakchiev used Orozbakov’s version in his own performance. Our study has highlighted this interesting and underappreciated textual issue: the reuse by a later performer of an earlier performance by another manaschi. In addition to revealing Bakchiev’s influences, such details also show the position of early Soviet performers (and the legacy of the ‘harmonised’ version produced in the 1950s) in the post-Soviet independent Kyrgyzstan.

Kyrgyzstan celebrates Manas Epic Day 2017 (photo credit

The early results of this research prompt further investigation. A more detailed analysis of the Bakchiev variants will be published under the title ‘A Kyrgyz Singer of Tales: Formulas in Three Performances of the Birth of Manas by Talantaaly Bakchiev’, and a preliminary sketch of the oral tradition, ‘A Telling Tradition: Preliminary Comments on the Epic of Manas, 1856-2018’, is similarly forthcoming. I hope to deal with the corpus more substantially. Transcriptions of the AKYN-recorded performances will be made available at (with video recordings appearing later). It is hoped that a corpus database, currently in negotiation, consisting of all known variants, could be used to assess the linguistic and narrative similarities and variations among different performers, and could be applied to the study of other oral traditions throughout the region.


[i] The Memorial Feast for Kötötöy-Khan (Kökötöydün ašı): A Kirghiz Epic Poem, ed. and tr. A. T. Hatto (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1977); The Manas of Wilhelm Radloff, ed. and tr. Arthur T. Hatto (Wiesbaden: Otto Harrasowitz, 1990).

[ii] The Semetey of Kenje Kara: A Kirghiz Epic Performance on Phonograph with a Musical Score and a Compact Disc of the Phonogram, ed. and tr. Daniel Prior (with the assistance of Ishembi Obolbekov in transcribing the Kyrgyz text) (Wiesbaden: Harroswitz Verlag, 2006).

[iii] The four volume ‘harmonized’ version was published in 1958-1960.

[iv] For context, see Karl Reichl, ‘Oral Epics into the Twenty-First Century: The Case of the Kyrgyz Epic Manas’, Journal of American Folklore 129 (2016): 327-344, and, for how collection and circumstances have shaped the content of the epos, see my forthcoming ‘A Telling Tradition: Prelimary Comments on the Epic of Manas, 1856-2018’

[v] For the UNESCO listing, see; Bakchiev also appears in Nienke van der Heide, Spirited Performance: The Manas Epic and Society in Kyrgyzstan (Bremen: EHV Academicpress GmbH, 2015.


One thought on “The Analyzing Kyrgyz Narratives (AKYN) Research Project by James Plumtree, American University of Central Asia”

Comments are closed.