The Cool Kazakh Wave

In the last decade, high-quality entertainment in the Kazakh language has become a source of national pride in Kazakhstan, writes Ph.D. candidate Leora Eisenberg.

A quick scroll through Kazakhstani YouTube gives you an idea of the sheer variety of Kazakh-language entertainment in the country today. Gakku TV, the Kazakhstani version of MTV, features domestic songs, videos, and web-series. JUZ Entertainment, the popular Kazakhstani record label, has music videos and concert recordings. Domestic television channels regularly upload their TV series.

Russian-language content has been popular since Kazakhstan’s independence—but this recent explosion in its Kazakh-language counterpart is a recent phenomenon that I call the “cool Kazakh wave.”

Although Kazakh-language content has existed since 1991, its quality has been dubious—and its content often a tool for government support or demonstrative of “national” (read: ethnic) overtones. Such material falls into the canon of “patriotic content,” an expanded definition of “patriotic entertainment,” which Marlene Laruelle has defined as an “entertaining version of Kazakh history, adapted from reality shows, to discover national heritage through a combination of patriotism and enter­tainment.”

As I define it here, “patriotic content” goes beyond reality TV to include any media which promotes government policy or national history, culture, or pride. The “cool Kazakh wave,” however, is of noticeably higher production quality than most Kazakh-language content produced until now. It features far less overt “patriotic content”—which motivates Russian-speaking and Kazakh-speaking Kazakhstanis alike to consume media in Kazakh.

Contemporary Kazakhstani Series and Music

This history of Kazakhstani and Kazakh-language television and music as patriotic content goes back to the Soviet era and extends to the present day in shows like the Russian-language mini-series AstanaMy Love, described by Peter Rollberg as a “dramatization and visualization of ideological and cultural officialdom.” Patriotic content is easy to find in music too: Dannette Johnson, for example, has demonstrated that just over 60 percent of Kazakhstani music videos in 2006 contained some sort of “national” or “patriotic” imagery!

Man standing on a city street.

Galymzhan Moldanazar is popular for his Kazakh-language indie music.

Screenshot via MOLDANAZAR music

Despite its prevalence, though, patriotic content is not always well funded. Arman Shurayev, a director at Kazakhstan’s KTK channel, has said that “to produce one hour of programming, one can easily spend $200,000 in Russia… Here in Kazakhstan, for the same hour, I can spend maximum $10–15,000.”1

Although Kazakhstani society has become increasingly Kazakh-speaking since the fall of the USSR, more Kazakhstanis still know Russian than Kazakh, making Russian-language programming more profitable (and thus, often higher quality). As a result, certain Kazakhstani channels have historically broadcasted content from Russia or privileged domestic Russian-language content—a weakness amidst state policies of Kazakhization. Further, the Kazakh language that is used in Kazakh-language scripts is often unrealistic, perhaps because of the poor post-Soviet development and translation of Kazakh, or because such series often concern themes that are overtly ethnic or patriotic in nature, likely necessitating a “purer,” if also more stilted, version of the language.

The same issues are present in Kazakh-language music. Although a fair number of Kazakhstani musicians have released Kazakh-language music on patriotic themes, none of their videos has been particularly popular among Kazakhstanis: the production quality is low and the music tends to be more traditional—putting it squarely in the canon of patriotic content, but not interesting to youth. Domestically produced music, then, becomes less appealing to them as they are increasingly exposed to Western music (and often consume it in English).

The Cool Kazakh Wave in Music

Although it is hard to pinpoint the beginning of the cool Kazakh wave in music, the very popular Kazakh-language indie music that Galymzhan Moldanazar wrote in the early 2010s signaled a move toward globally popular styles and high production quality. The most recognizable product of the cool Kazakh wave, however, is likely the group Ninety One, which took the internationally recognized brand of K-pop to create Q-pop, its Kazakh-language equivalent.

In an interview, Dulat Mukhamedkaliev, a member of Ninety One, explained its success: “it’s Eurasian, Kazakh pop music that meets all global standards… [T]he main goal of Q-pop was to make the Kazakh language into a trend. And for youth to finally be able to consume content in their native language.” Indeed, Yerbolat Bedelkhan, the CEO of JUZ Entertainment (Ninety One’s record label), said that “our music industry lacks high-quality modern or hip-hop music with texts in our native language; that’s why the guys took the audience easily.” Ninety One is creating a product for a Kazakh-speaking audience using a high-quality, popular format, largely precluding the inclusion of patriotic content.

  • 1The idea of Kazakhstani content being inferior to Russian content was present in the Soviet era as well.
People backlit against glass

An image from the music video for Mooz, a song by the Kazakh boy band Ninety One. 

Screenshot via Juz Entertainment

This need for high-quality Kazakh content is recognized far beyond Ninety One and its record label. Gakku TV’s former producer, Timur Balymbetov, observed that “now even Russian-speaking musicians write music in Kazakh. They know that the public specifically wants to listen to pop in Kazakh”—and the channel’s goal is no less patriotic: “to give the youth Kazakh music,” here in the form of a hip TV channel with high-quality Kazakh-language products, modern musical styles, and less patriotic content.

Instead of belonging to the traditional canon of patriotic content, the performers featured on Gakku TV, Ninety One, and others make the Kazakh language into a trend by following “global standards,” whether they be Korean or Western, and adapting them to the needs of a Kazakh-speaking audience.

The Cool Kazakh Wave in Web Series

The Ministry of Culture, too, has understood both the need and the demand for high-quality Kazakh-language web series. Mirat Miyatov, a screenwriter of Gakku TV's first web series, Bir toqsan (One Semester/Term), noted in an interview that the Ministry of Culture requested the creation of “such a series about school.”

Miyatov claims that he was inspired by the Argentine series Rebelde Way, an internationally popular 2000s soap opera about an elite high school. I suspect that Bir Toqsan drew at least some inspiration from K-dramas, which have become increasingly popular among Kazakhstani youth. Given the success of Q-pop, it would make sense to create a “Q-drama” if the goal is to provide high-quality content to the Kazakh speakers among them.

Bir toqsan focuses on high school drama, rather than on themes of patriotism—allowing for the existence of cool content in Kazakh itself to be a cause for pride.

Bir toqsan’s plot is fairly banal: a handsome, Western-educated history teacher, Samat, is hired as the homeroom teacher of a particularly unruly class. Over time, he courts the school’s English teacher, Raushan, while putting up with pranks, drama, and lack of motivation. The series ends with the students taking the UNT (Unified National Testing), the entrance exam for Kazakhstani universities, and attending a graduation dance, where several of them, including Samat and Raushan, confess their love. The end of the series paves the way for Tagy bir toqsan (Another Semester), which tells the story of Samat and Raushan’s next class of students.

Despite the banality of its plot, Bir toqsan functions, in the words of Ninety One, as “Kazakh content that meets all global standards.” It gives Kazakh speakers, especially youth, high-quality content in their own language. Its having been modeled after Rebelde Way suggests that such media is taking its cue from other shows that meet “global standards,” whether from Korea or Argentina.

Kazakh-language series that are not part of the cool Kazakh wave feature an abundance of patriotic themes: Kenesshiler (2014), for example, concerns itself with the drama between the workers of a public service center in Nur-Sultan, displaying their upstanding character and the idealized efficiency of Kazakhstani bureaucracy. Korshiler (2015), a series about various families living in an apartment building, features a family of ethnically Russian characters who speak exclusively in Kazakh and make their apartment into a mini-yurt.

Bir toqsan focuses instead on the lives of attractive, relatively affluent city youth who run Instagram blogs, pull pranks, and listen to music in Kazakh. These young urbanites are not discussed in terms of their being Kazakh—it’s implicit in the fact that they inhabit an authentic, relatable Kazakh-speaking environment. In creating this stratum of beautiful, well-off, Kazakh-speaking urban youth, Bir toqsan depicts an imaginary world that Kazakh-speaking youth want to see on TV and in other works of the cool Kazakh wave. Indeed, Bir toqsan focuses on high school drama, rather than on themes of patriotism or pride in the Kazakh language or culture—allowing for the existence of “cool” content in Kazakh itself to be a cause for pride.

By portraying the lives of “cool” Kazakh-speaking urbanites rather than promoting patriotic content, Bir toqsan can afford to feature remarkably realistic Kazakh dialogue. Though Bir toqsan is not the first Kazakh-language TV show to feature realistic Kazakh, it is among the first to do so in combination with high production quality and a realistic plot. Indeed, the characters often blend Russian and Kazakh and code-switch, as is standard among most Kazakh speakers, especially urban ones like those in the show.

Nevertheless, many Kazakh-language shows, especially “patriotic” ones, resist using Russian vocabulary in order to support state policies of Kazakhization or the purity of the language. The cool Kazakh wave, then, does not mean “only Kazakh,” linguistically: instead, in rejecting the stilted Kazakh used in other Kazakh-language series, Bir toqsan is making itself more accessible and relevant to the Kazakh-speaking youth of today, who do mix Russian and Kazakh.

Cool Kazakh Content as the New Patriotic Content

Bir toqsan and Ninety One may represent the next phase of Kazakh-language patriotic content. Gakku TV’s massively popular Kazakh-language web series has abandoned many of the negative stereotypes associated with Kazakh-language productions, much like Ninety One has abandoned the stereotypes of low-quality Kazakh-language ethno-rock/pop. Given its international standing, such music has motivated Russian-speaking Kazakhstanis while simultaneously encouraging Kazakh-speaking Kazakhstanis to consume more content in their preferred language. (Bir toqsan hasn’t been around long enough to be able to make these evaluations, although I suspect that the same claim holds true.) In this way, the cool Kazakh wave does have patriotic intentions, even if it doesn’t feature overtly patriotic content—which is often the reason behind its creation, as Ninety One has said of its music, and Mirat Miyatov has suggested of Bir toqsan.

Both Bir toqsan and Ninety One represent a larger cultural movement to break free of the idea of media as an overt tool for nation-building through “patriotic entertainment,” instead creating content that the people, especially youth, look forward to as a representation of a more relatable—cooler—onscreen reality that will make them both prouder of their language and more eager to consume domestic Kazakh-language content. In other words, Kazakh speakers are looking for content that is both high-quality and authentic.

This doesn’t mean that the Russian language will die out in Kazakhstan or that Russian-language media will disappear. But the cool Kazakh wave will surely strengthen state policies of Kazakhization: Kazakh and Russian-speaking youth alike will not only gain greater exposure to the Kazakh language through the sheer increase in the availability of content, but will also be more motivated to do so as Kazakh-language series and music become serious competitors to the Russian-language content they’ve consumed for years.

Ph.D. Candidate in History, Harvard University

Leora Eisenberg is a Ph.D. student in Russian and East European History studying Soviet Central Asia and Soviet language policy.