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