The Accidental Nationalist: Son Pascal, Pop Music, Kazakh Language

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by Matthew Kupfer on 10/14/2012 · 8 comments

When Son Pascal uploaded his music video “Englishman in Shymkent,” a comical adaptation of Sting’s “Englishman in New York,” to YouTube earlier this year, he must have known that he was going to be star.

How could he not? Not only were the song and video brilliant, they also featured a long list of things bound to snatch the attention of the Kazakhstani public: catchy pop music, humor, a foreigner speaking Kazakh, and a good-natured parody of life in southern Kazakhstan.

Indeed, Pascal, who is Italian by nationality but lived in England, deserves credit for “Englishman in Shymkent.” Not only does the video show Pascal humorously failing to meet women and driving around Shymkent with a Kazakh grandmother, it also presents portraits of local residents, highlighting the ethnic diversity of the country. The video even ends by showing Pascal giving flowers to the Kazakh grandmother and then fades into a dedication: “Thanks to all Shymkent people for your love and hard work.”

You get the feeling that Pascal is a real nice guy, someone a Kazakh girl could be proud to bring home to her parents.

Alas, fame corrupts.

In August, Pascal released another video—equally catchy, equally feel-good, equally colorful, albeit with a down side. Pascal’s newest song is not simply a paean to the joys of life as a foreigner in Kazakhstan. Rather, it’s a reggae-pop anthem taking sides in one of the biggest and most potentially destabilizing debates in the country: which language to speak—Russian or Kazakh? 

Currently in Kazakhstan, Kazakh is legally regarded as the national language, while Russian is designated a second official language. But things are never as simple as they seem on paper. It is well known that Russian is more widely spoken in urban centers and the heavily Russian north. Kazakh is more widely spoken in the south and west.

Oh yeah, and people don’t always agree on which language should be officially spoken in the government and public sphere…etc, etc. Funny…seems like I’ve heard this story before…

Anyway, in his newest music video, “You Should Speak Kazakhsha” (i.e. Kazakh language), Pascal, joined by local rapper Gallardo, calls upon the people of Kazakhstan to speak the Kazakh language, wading into a debate that really is none of his business.

And, if it isn’t immediately clear that he means “speak Kazakh as opposed to Russian,” there’s another video to prove it. In the second installment of his “Paskal’zhan” Kazakh language-learning video series, we see Son Pascal eating a bowl of food at a get-together with Kazakh friends. “When you really like something, don’t say vkusno [“delicious” in Russian],” he says. “Vkusno is for losers. If you are Kazakh, speak Kazakh, and say damde.”

Wait a second…did Son Pascal just call Russian speakers losers? If they live in Kazakhstan, apparently he did.

I don’t think that Son Pascal really believes that Russian speakers are losers. And I certainly don’t think that he wants to see interethnic strife in Kazakhstan. Nor does he want to see Russian speakers disenfranchised. And I don’t believe Pascal is an ardent supporter of Kazakh linguistic nationalism.

Of course, it’s possible that Pascal does strongly identify with Kazakh nationalism, but my feeling is he’s really more of an accidental nationalist. He arrived in Kazakhstan, put out a good song, and then realized that there was a market for his kind of music. He saw that, in general, there are fewer foreigners in Kazakhstan who speak Kazakh and that Kazakh people enjoyed hearing him speak and sing in Kazakh. In short, he realized on which side his nan was buttered.

But, as the saying goes, “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.” Imagine if Pascal had moved to Kyrgyzstan in late 2009, recorded “Englishman in Jalalabad,” and later put out “You Should Speak Kyrgyzcha.” Then in June 2010, when interethnic conflict broke out in the south of the country between ethnic Kyrgyz and Uzbeks, Pascal would have found himself in the uncomfortable company of Kyrgyz nationalists who supported the language rights of Kyrgyz over the human rights of Uzbeks. Let’s not forget that one of the rumors that stirred up Kyrgyz anger towards Uzbek was the Uzbeks’ alleged desire for their language to be designated an official language of southern Kyrgyzstan. And this rumor, as well as others, didn’t just lead to a minor interethnic scuffle. Nearly 500 people lost their lives in four days of ethnic pogroms that destroyed large swaths of what then was a beautiful city.

Thankfully, Pascal is in Kazakhstan, an ethnically diverse country that has managed to largely prevent ethnic conflict (so far). But it’s still a useful thought exercise to consider what Pascal’s music might have meant in a less stable country.

In the end, my biggest criticism of Son Pascal is not that he is supporting a greater role for Kazakh language in Kazakhstan. The language question will continue to spark heated debate in Kazakhstan for years to come with or without Son Pascal. But this is a question for the citizens of Kazakhstan and their leadership to resolve. A twenty-something Italian singer-songwriter—who, as he recently admitted in an interview with Global Voices, is just starting to study Kazakh—can’t solve it. And he should understand that his job is to stay out of the debate, unless he feels that someone’s human rights are being blatantly trampled upon.

But this wasn’t a song called “You Should Increase Access to Government Services For People Who Can’t Easily Access Them Because They Only Speak Kazakhsha.” Instead, it tells people in Kazakhstan to speak Kazakh because—essentially—all the cool kids are doing it.

I have a sense of how Pascal feels, because he and I aren’t actually that different. I’ve recorded videos of myself playing the Kazakh dombra and uploaded them to YouTube. I enjoy getting positive responses to them from people in Kazakhstan. It’s fun. Granted, Pascal is about ten times more talented than I am, but I think the emotion is the same.

However, the desire to be loved by others is dangerous. It’s dangerous when it makes you change who you are, take positions you otherwise wouldn’t take, express opinions that aren’t really your own.

To Son Pascal, I say that if you really believe that Kazakhs should stop using Russian language in favor of Kazakh, if you really feel that you, a foreigner, can tell Kazakhs how to feel pride in their background, you’re playing with fire. And it’s not your fire to play with.

But if you don’t actually believe that, it’s time for you to face the music and reconsider what you are saying, who you are supporting, and why.

Image from Son Pascal Vkontakte page


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This post was written by...

– author of 10 posts on Registan.net.

Matthew Kupfer is a writer focusing on Russia and Central Asia. A graduate of Brandeis University, he is a student of the Russian language and an enthusiast for the politics, cultures, and histories of the post-Soviet region. In 2010, he was in Osh, Kyrgyzstan during the interethnic unrest and blogged about his experiences in the conflict zone. He has also published an essay on women's leadership in the future of Kyrgyzstan, studied Russian in St. Petersburg, carried out extensive research on the 2010 Osh unrest, and written articles for EurasiaNet.org. Currently working for a think tank, he writes in his own capacity. Follow him on Twitter at @Matthew_Kupfer.

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{ 8 comments }

Narcogen October 14, 2012 at 8:43 pm

He knows there’s a law on the proper display of the Kazakh flag, right?

I figured a true patriot would.

Keith October 15, 2012 at 4:26 am

I think somebody is having a bit of a sense of humour breakdown here. A lot of people in Kazakhstan don’t speak Kazakh, but they should. Including the Europeans, like those shown travelling in the bus in Son Pascal’s likable video, who evidently don’t disapprove with the sentiment.
It is _not_ talking about these things and burying your head in the sand that leads to unchecked inter-ethnic strife. Making talking Kazakh seem appealing and fun, and not just the preserve of the nationalists and aul-dwellers, is clearly the point of Son Pascal’s video, and he does a good job of it.

Matthew Kupfer October 17, 2012 at 6:34 am

Keith, I’m going to have to disagree with you here, although I hear what you are saying. I’m not taking issue with the promotion of Kazakh language in Kazakhstan in this post, I’m taking issue with the fact that a foreigner (who doesn’t speak Kazakh) is doing it and using an authoritative and judgmental tone. I wouldn’t have taken issue if he had written and recorded a song called “Speaking Kazakh is Fun” (I still would have found it strange, but I probably wouldn’t have written this post). And I wouldn’t have taken issue with his language-learning videos if he didn’t say Russian is for “losers.” What I disapprove of is a foreign musician using his artistic medium to take sides in a controversial, potentially destabilizing discourse when he has no real business involving himself in it.

Also, I wouldn’t necessarily assume that, just because there are European people in the video, there are lots of non-Kazakhs enthused about Pascal’s opinion. I think you can get people to “support” a lot of different things if you let them participate in a music video.

Kazakh October 18, 2012 at 9:22 am

I absolutely agree that it is a very controversial subject that even Kazakhstani people often do not like to discuss themselves. Also, we see results of foreign political interference in other post-soviet countries, and therefore attitute to foreigners have worsened in Kazakhstan. There is a historic, cultural and political background of this problem and things that would seem funny in some countries can have aggravating consequences in others.

steven October 16, 2012 at 8:35 pm

I have to agree with Matthew here: Son Pascal is an opportunist. Nothing wrong with that: plenty of people end up in Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan to exploit the opportunities that don’t exist in their home country, or to feel special/loved/wanted. But he shouldn’t tell Kazakhstanis what to do, especially when he doesn’t speak more than 20 words of Kazakh himself (which, granted, he does repeat all the time). If he really is a good musician, he can make hits without the support of the nationalist crowd. Son Pascal is here to stay, that’s for sure, but I hope for him he doesn’t turn into the next Tomas N’evergreen.

Matthew Kupfer October 17, 2012 at 6:43 am

I think Steven has added something very valuable to this post: the question of opportunism. Though the connotations of the word opportunism are often negative, there’s nothing wrong with taking advantage of an opportunity to advance oneself/one’s career. We all do it. But one has to consider whether taking advantage of that opportunity is ethical, especially when one is working in another country. I feel that Pascal’s choice was not ethical.

By the way, Steven, you might have to fill me in on Tomas N’evergreen…

Peter October 17, 2012 at 9:07 am

Tend to agree with Keith here, as I have re other articles of this type. The Kyrgyzstan reference is close to irrelevant, because, as the article itself notes, the context is different.

Maybe Pascal’s kusno is for losers is a bit of a “Romney Moment” but You Should Speak Kazakh is a brilliant tune, recorded it seems with the help of local artists. I doubt they have a nationalist agenda although I guess we would have to ask them to find out. Also, we don’t know if non-Kazakhs give a flying nut about the clip. We are assuming they do/don’t: projecting.

The video appears mixes Russian AND Kazakh and makes a funny comment about a country that is linguistically bifurcated, but not to the point of ethnic violence. You say SP doesn’t make a difference to this debate so why write about him then? Boredom? Kazakhs and Kyrgyz parody their own languague issues: watch KVN and other things. Is the onely difference that he is Italian and therefore a provocateur for joining in the fun?

If Pascal was singing you should speak [insert endangered Andean languague in South America] he would probably be being patted on the back.

Benoit November 3, 2012 at 4:50 pm

I’m a foreigner and learning Kazakh language for several years and I totally support Sonpascal!

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