Reviving the Tradition of Epic Storytelling

May 19, 2021

For thousands of years Turkic nomads roamed the vast steppes and high mountains that encompass Central Asia, connecting modern Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and western China. Herding animals across this extensive landscape, these shepherds used epic poetry and other oral narrations to recount their daily lives, religions, legends and histories. The Kyrgyz Republic (Kyrgyzstan), one of Central Asia’s smaller states, is working to revive these forms of traditional cultural expressions.

A manaschi, or traditional reciter of epic poetry, narrates the Manas (Photo: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO).

The Kyrgyz national epic Manas often refers to the trilogy about adventures of its principal character Manas, his son Semetey, and his grandson Seytek. A foundational poem, recounting the origins of the Kyrgyz people, Manas has been referred to by scholars as the “Illiad of the steppe,” comparing Manas to Homer’s masterpiece (albeit Manas is nearly 20 times longer; the lengthiest recorded version clocked at 500,533 lines).

Addressing themes such as good versus evil, exemplary leadership, bitter rivalries and generations of warfare, the epic is a testament of what could only be described as the destiny of the Kyrgyz people. Woven around the central character Manas, the epic describes Manas’ efforts to unite the 40 Kyrgyz tribes against the assault and pillage of powerful neighboring tribes, and his journey leading his people through the Altai Mountains and, eventually, to the region of Alai.

Manas continues to be performed at important local and national events and festivals. During recitals, a manaschi will enter into a near-trance state, using special forms of narration, rhythm, tone and gestures to recreate the epic’s historical atmosphere. A narration of the entire trilogy can last for hours.

Reciting the country’s national poem is no easy feat, however. Even with detailed knowledge of the epic, a manaschi, or traditional reciter of epic poetry, who is capable of reciting long passages, is exceedingly rare. 

Fighting for the preservation of cultural heritage…

While the trilogy describes the historical memory of the unification (and origins) of the Kyrgyz people, detailed knowledge of the epic is in steep decline. A lack of accessible translations (as is often the case) has left the epic virtually unknown in the West. The declaration of the Kyrgyz epic trilogy as a treasure of Intangible Cultural Heritage by UNESCO in 2013 underscored the needs for additional efforts to protect and promote this tradition.

Kyrgyzstan is working to revive its traditional form of storytelling through documentation (Photo: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO)

Due to increased documentation efforts, interested parties do not even need to visit Kyrgyzstan to appreciate the epic. Recordings of multiple, renowned manaschi as they narrate the epic trilogy are available on YouTube in three playlists:

So, how does intellectual property (IP) fit into the picture? While the IP system does not provide a complete solution for the protection of traditional cultural expressions, the rights of performers, including performers of traditional cultural expressions, are protected as “related” or “neighboring” rights. This is due to the subject matter of these rights, which is mainly related to copyright.

Performers have rights in their performances of copyrighted works and traditional cultural expressions.  Depending on national legislation, performers may have rights in their sound and audio-visual performances, such as performances recorded in a music video or a film.  In many jurisdictions, the rights may cover fixed performances, as in a CD or a film, as well as live or unfixed performances. Specifically, performers may have the right to record, broadcast and communicate to the public their live performances. They may also enjoy exclusive rights of reproduction, distribution, rental, and making available of their fixed performances for Internet use. Remuneration rights for broadcasting and communication to the public are common to many laws. Some national laws also grant performers moral rights, which may be exercised to ensure attribution and prevent modifications of the performances that are prejudicial to the performers’ reputation.

Performances of traditional cultural expressions may also come under international related rights protection, such as that provide by the WIPO Performances and Phonograms Treaty (WPPT) and the Beijing Treaty on Audiovisual Performances (Beijing Treaty). While the WPPT provides protection for the aural parts of a fixed performance, that is, parts that may be perceived by the human ear, the Beijing Treaty provides protection for performances recorded in audiovisual media such as film and television. Under both treaties, the performers’ rights are limited in time to at least 50 years from the time the performance was fixed in a sound or audiovisual recording.

…from one generation to the next

Manaschi consider the trilogy a part of their people’s traditional knowledge, cultural heritage and identity, for which they take personal responsibility. Transmission of the epic from a master to a student is done orally through non-formal education. Recitation of the trilogy helps younger generations understand their own history and culture, nature and the importance of tolerance and multiculturalism. A younger generation has taken the portrayal of this traditional cultural expression to a whole new level.

The next generation of manaschi practice reciting the Manas epic (Photo: National Commission of the Kyrgyz Republic for UNESCO)

Enter Aibek Baiymbetov. Aibek founded the Holistic Development Foundation as a way to implement his ideas for the preservation of Kyrgyz intangible cultural heritage. With a goal of adapting Kyrgyz cultural symbols and meanings to more contemporary mediums, members work on a voluntary basis in the areas of animation, musical and theatrical performances, and cinema. His team animated an episode of the Manas epic, Uluu Ash (also available with English subtitles), the screenplay for which is based on the 1995 novel “Teniri Manas” by well-known Kyrgyz author and translator, Ashym Jakypbekov. The six-minute animation pays homage to the epic’s main event: Manas’ unification of the 40 Kyrgyz tribes bound by their common destiny.

Aibek is also a co-founder of “Kyrgyz Kairyk”, a musical ensemble of modern traditional music created by the Public Foundation "Music Without Borders". Working to preserve and develop the musical heritage of the nomadic peoples of Central Asia, Aibek and music expert, Altynai Abetekova, head of "Music Without Borders", are creating musical art through creative musical expressions in various forms and genres. The group composed the original score for the performance JARALYSH, or “The Origin”, which portrays the formation of the nation as is told through the Manas epic. The performance, a collaboration between the musical ensemble, a youth experimental theater and young Kyrgyz designers, incorporates some of the country’s most ancient musical instruments, only recently reconstructed on the basis of folklore data.

Looking for more information on WIPO’s work on traditional cultural expressions?

Visit the WIPO Traditional Knowledge website for more on WIPO’s work on intellectual property and traditional knowledge, traditional cultural expressions and genetic resources.

For information on the effective management of intellectual property in the context of folk, arts and cultural festivals, including as it relates to performances of traditional cultural expressions, see WIPO publication Intellectual Property and Folk, Arts and Cultural Festivals: A Practical Guide.

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