This interview is part of the Youth Fusion Elders series which highlights the importance of intergenerational dialogue and offers the reader a chance to learn from the experience of those who have been long-time and effective leaders in the peace and disarmament fields. The Youth Fusion elders initiative is inspired by a number of cultural traditions that affirm those community members who have considerable wisdom and experience.
In this interview, Kazakh composer Tolegen Mukhamejanov speaks about his personal story and experience of becoming an active member of the Nevada-Semey movement. Mr Mukhamejanov highlights the role of arts, music, and culture, which served him as a bridge to nuclear disarmament.
Marzhan Nurzhan: How did your involvement in nuclear disarmament begin?
Tolegen Mukhamejanov: I was born in the Beskaragai area, the Semipalatinsk region, in the small village of Begen. Some of the most memorable childhood memories were the difficult events that took place in our region. On a clear, cloudless day, it suddenly was as if 1000 Suns exploded, we did not know what happened. Then, instantaneously, we heard some sound and an earthquake happened. We did not understand anything. We, the villagers, were taken out of the village. Organized, we watched a bright flash of the Sun and the appearance of a mushroom cloud. We were told that some kind of weapon will be tested.
Later, in Almaty, it was announced that a gathering in the Writers’ Union will be held, which was initiated by our wonderful poet, public figure Olzhas Suleimenov. I decided to attend it and for the first time, I learned the truth about the events that took place in our region – the test of nuclear weapons. Honestly, then I, probably for the first time, realized that we were an experiment, that we were tested on the most powerful weapon ever invented by mankind. Of course, I was shocked, because I remembered: how early my father passed away and I became an orphan at the age of 13, that at the age of 27 my older brother passed away and my older sister passed away really young as well, my good friend committed suicide when he found out he could not be a father. There were a lot of such tragedies. This meeting and this truth, which sounded there, touched me to the depths of my soul, I cried. When I was leaving the meeting, I realized that I could not be uninvolved in what was happening.
MN: What inspired the creation of the song Zaman-Ai which became a national anthem of the people’s anti-nuclear protest in Kazakhstan? Which feelings does this song convey for you personally and for Kazakh people? What led you to become an active member of the Nevada-Semey movement?
TM: I came home, sat down with the instrument, and a melody was born. Sure, it was not instantly born, but at least the idea to translate all those feelings that stirred my heart, the memory that I had since childhood, into music appeared. I invited my friend, a poet Ulugbek Esdauletov, to my place, showed him this melody. The first words he said were: “Let’s write a song!” Literally, a few days later, he came to me with the lyrics. My wife and our friends began to sing this song. This is how the song “Zaman-ai” was born.
One day, I got called and said that Murat Auezov wanted to meet me. A meeting of the coordinating council of the “Nevada-Semey” movement was planned at the Writers’ Union, which was created, and I was invited to this meeting. Murat Auezov told me at the meeting: “Tolegen, we know that you are from Semipalatinsk, that you were at the meeting and we would like you to write a song dedicated to our movement.” I replied that I had already written the music, then the lyrics appeared and now there is the song “Zaman-ai”. They were surprised and greeted my words with enthusiasm. I was asked to go to the Abay district of the Semipalatinsk region so that we could learn this song with the locals and so this song could be sung at the meeting. The very next day, accompanied by Mels Yeleusizov, an active participant in this movement, I went to the Abay region. We gathered about forty people, there were kids, there were elderly people too, and together we began to learn this song.
For me, it was somewhat like an exam, since I was learning the song with the people, who personally experienced all the difficulties. I saw their eyes, their faces and they took the song as their own. We recorded this song on a household cassette recorder, to the accompaniment of an out-of-tune piano. When the meeting took place, according to the plan, when the participants walked between two fires, this song was supposed to sound. I was very worried and went far into the steppe and returned only after the meeting ended. I remember the emotions of the participants of the meeting, how they greeted me. They said if I was with them when this song was played, they would rip me to shreds. Because it made a tremendous impression on them, even in the low quality sound that came out.
When we returned to Almaty, I recorded a song with our wonderful singer Rosa Rymbaeva. When I listened to the recorded song, I was shocked and it took a while to come to my senses. Later, the members of the ”Arai” band, which worked with Roza Rymbaeva, said that every time this song was performed, the people stood up, as if an anthem was being played. And indeed, this song became the anthem of the “Nevada-Semey” movement.
For me, this song is a very big moral award and I am happy that I made my small contribution to the Movement that subsequently achieved the closure of a nuclear test site for the first time in the world.
MN: In which way did your profession as a composer play a role in influencing the public about nuclear testing connecting the issue through arts and culture, in particular via music?
The song’s fate was not easy, and I remember the moment when, on the occasion of the holiday on November 7, the Movement decided to organize a column in the parade. A meeting of the coordination center was organized, which was chaired by Olzhas Omarovich, at the meeting it was decided to go not just in a column, but to go with this song. And with us, Olzhas Suleimenov called the first secretary of the city party committee, who said an unambiguous categorical “No!,” since they had their own plan. Then, Olzhas Suleimenov told the first secretary of the city party committee that if they do not let this song sound, we will stand in a column in front of the podium and chant, so we basically will stop the demonstration.
The next day I was invited to the secretary of the regional party committee and asked to bring a tape recording, but turned out there was no suitable player. As a result, we went to the Union of Composers and I sat down with the instrument, played, sang and I remember how the secretary of the regional party committee Kadyrova Zaure Zhusupovna, a wonderful woman, was very inspired, supported the performance of this song and called the secretary of the city party committee on ideology and asked to accept me and to finally approve the song. I arrived, he listened to me and put me in touch with the secretary of the Central Committee of the Party by phone, who asked me to read the lyrics. He was quite surprised, even shocked that we are not afraid to go out to the demonstration with “such a song.” I must specify that at that time there was indeed serious and strict censorship. His verdict was: “It is absolutely impossible for this song to sound!” After such a conversation, there was no longer any chance for this song to sound at the demonstration.
I remember we were walking in a column, and in front of the podium, as Olzhas Omarovich said, we started chanting. After that, for a long time, this song did not sound at big concerts. Because it was a summoning song, its lyrics reflected the pain and tragedy of our people.
Because I was the author of the song “Zaman-ai” I was invited to write music for the “Polygon” film. To write music that emotionally reflects the idea of the film, I had to watch hundreds of hours of video recordings of explosions, see the results of these powerful explosions, crippled children, and experience everything that happened during these tests. Working on the film, my childhood memories, all this give me a clear understanding that nuclear weapons are a catastrophe that could end the existence of our human civilization.
MN: As the 30th anniversary of the closure of the Semey test site approaches on August 29th, how do you regard the current public’s viewpoint about the nuclear legacy of Kazakhstan, especially through the intergenerational lens, in contrast to the initial movement actions? How can you transfer your experience and knowledge with regard to nuclear disarmament to younger generations?
TM: I happened to take part in all kinds of conferences and various actions aimed at nuclear disarmament. At the same time, no matter how much we want to achieve this, nuclear disarmament is probably a dream that cannot be fulfilled in the near future. Because nuclear weapons have become a deterrent to a big war. Unfortunately, such a powerful weapon as nuclear serves as a kind of guarantor of peace, since even the most insane people who want to achieve their interests through war understand that a war that includes the use of nuclear powers will not bring victory, on the contrary, it will lead to the extinction of our civilization. Everyone has this understanding. Nuclear weapons undoubtedly are the ultimate evil but at the same time, it is the evil that serves to deter the outbreak of a big war.
Certainly, we must do everything to avoid the proliferation of nuclear weapons, so that the amount of nuclear states is limited and no new states with such weapons appear. I believe that, especially among the younger generation, there should be an understanding of this threat. Life is changing so quickly now, and perhaps young people do not have that life experience and understanding that our generation has. To bring them to this understanding, we all must do what we can. As a composer, I will do this through my music. To share with young people a perception of the beautiful, an understanding of Good, so that they have responsibility for the actions they do in life. There is a very common phrase: “Culture will keep the peace!”. The same phrase can be continued: “If we preserve the Culture.” Hence, we, the artists, must consolidate and do everything so that the world cultural experience becomes the property of, first of all, youth and young audiences.
MN: As an artist on one hand and holding various positions related to culture, such as the president of International Association “Peace Through Culture” and co-chair of the World Forum of Spiritual Culture, on the other hand, how do you envision the role of each country’s culture in achieving a nuclear-free and more peaceful world?
TM: For such purposes, together with our colleagues and associates from the sphere of culture and art, we have created the movement of the World Forum of Spiritual Culture, because we understand that it is Spiritual Culture, associated with the non-material culture created by humanity, that is capable, through spiritual enlightenment and understanding of one’s self, to lead to preservation of Human and Humanity. People should hear each other, understand each other and perceive not only their own interests but also the interests of other people, in order to find a common point of view in order to find a way out of any situation and conflict in peace. To change the world, you need to change the world in yourself. We are a single human civilization, creatures of the Creator, we are all together and there is no other way!