MASTER OF SOUND: The story of Madiyar Zhapabayev, a musical-instrument maker from Kazakhstan
My name is Madiyar Zhapabayev; I am 29 years old. I was born in South Kazakhstan, in Aschysay, a village nearby Kentau. There were no artisans in my family, but my father’s younger brothers work with wood.
In 2012, I graduated from the art department of Abay Kazakh National Pedagogical University in Almaty. After completing my studies, I began to work at Almas Mustafayev’s workshop where I made my very first musical instruments.
My university teacher Zholaushy Turdygulov had also had a tremendous impact on me: in terms of instrument-making, as well as overall approach to craft.
When I started making dombras,* I decided to take dombra lessons and learn how to play it. I believe that every master should know how to play so that they can create an instrument, really feeling its sound.
* Dombra (or dombyra) is a traditional Kazakh long-necked plucked string musical instrument
Making musical instruments is a very delicate and painstaking work: every single detail requires closest attention. It takes accuracy, too: you cannot make it thicker or thinner than it should be, because every element directly influences the sound of the future instrument. You have to feel everything. I can make any instrument but I enjoy making dombra and prima kobyz* the most. These are also the most popular ones on the market.
* Kobyz is an ancient Kazakh two-string instrument
It takes about five to seven days to make an average dombra. In our work, we use different kinds of wood: birch, walnut, maple, rosewood, local and African elm, and Canadian quilted maple. Foreign materials are delivered to us upon special order. For the outer parts of the instruments we usually use local Tien-Shan spruce. Birch and walnut are the most comfortable woods to work with: they are easier to carve, more flexible, and they turn out really beautiful after cleaning.
The most challenging aspect of my type of craft is that you have to be very careful and accurate at every stage of the process, to make sure the sound of the finished instrument is clear and pleasant to hear. Besides, dombras differ depending on whether they are used to accompany songs or to perform kuys.* Who is going to play it — a man or a woman — matters too, depending on the musician’s voice. A song dombra is not always suitable for kuys. Therefore, when taking an order, we always ask what the dombra would be used for. Depending on the purpose, we try to reach the right sound. High quality sound is the most important thing in our craft.
* Kuy is a traditional Kazakh instrumental music genre; kuys are usually written for dombra
I am often asked to make instruments for new small ensembles. I made various Kazakh folk instruments for them: dombra, dabyl, asatayak, sherter. I also worked with such music companies as Turan, Hassak, Alatau Sherleri. Sometimes I receive orders from Kazakhs living in neighbouring countries: China, Mongolia, Russia.
Origins of our Kazakh and nomadic culture lie deep: there is evidence that dombra and kobyz were ancestors of many other musical instruments, such as violin, for example.
Sometimes people get tired of traditional patterns and seek novelty. “I want something unique,” I hear from my customers sometimes. Then I try to introduce modern details to the instruments I make for them.
I am a member of the Union of Artisans of Kazakhstan. From the moment I joined, we have visited and participated in numerous festivals, masterclasses, exhibitions, and competitions, honing our skills and exchanging expertise. Thanks to the Union, we have greatly improved the quality of our products; I got to meet some of the best masters and to learn from them. For all that, I am grateful to the chairman of the Union Aizhan Bekkulova. I participated in Sheber competition four times, three of which I won.
A couple of years ago, I opened my own workshop in Almaty. Now there are six of us working there. Our doors are always open to everyone who wants to learn our craft, and we are happy to share our expertise as much as we can.
Every artisan has their own style. For instance, an ornament or a dombra head made by one master cannot be repeated by another. Therefore, one can identify the hand of the master behind the instrument by a single glance. In general, the author’s unique style is mainly characterised by these two elements: the ornament and the head.
We, masters, are happy if our customers are happy: when they hold the dombras in their hands and touch the strings, when they perform on the stage and win prizes with these instruments. Whenever they travel abroad with concerts, or win in national song and kuy contests, first thing they do is call us to share the words of gratitude. And that is what inspires us the most.