If there is a magic flute in the world, it must be the sebezge (sybyzgy) of the Kazak people, for when it is played, two sounds can be heard at the same time: a melody and a drone.
The magic lies in how it is played. The player usually sings a sustained low sound first, and as the vocal part continues he sends air into the tube of the flute to let the throat and flute sound at the same time.
Few people have heard of sebezge, for it is seldom performed on stage. But in northwest China's Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, many Kazak herdsmen play it to allay loneliness.
Fifty-four-year-old Beyilhan is one of them. More than 30 years ago, he was herding horses for his production team in Yanqi County of Xinjiang. Afraid that wolves might attack the horses, he used to guard them all night.
During those long nights, Beyilhan often played the sebezge by himself. The prairie and horses were his only audience. "I started to play sebezge when I was 11," said Beyilhan. "It took me one year just to produce a sound on it."
Though the fingering of the sebezge looks simple, it is actually difficult to grasp the position of the lips and tongue which are vital to producing the characteristic overtones of sebezge. And even more difficult is the combination of blowing and singing.
"In playing sebezge, you have to use your hands, tongue, lips and throat together," said Beyilhan.
The timbre of sebezge is not mellow and is rather throaty. When Beyilhan plays it, the deep vocal and the ethereal flute blowing remind one of the sound of winds blowing across the prairie.
The exact origins of the sebezge are unknown. In his "Compendium of the Turkic Dialects," the classical Turkish encyclopaedia, Mahmud al-Kashgari (1008-1105), a great Muslin Turk scholar of his time, explained that sebezge was "a kind of flute." So it is at least 1,000 years old.
Traditionally, sebezge is made of a kind of thick reed that grows in shady valleys. There are also wood or brass ones.
While being made, the sebezge is slipped into a sheep's larynx, so that it won't crack in dry weather. Then, three to five holes are added on the body.
According to legend, once a shepherd boy heard a strange sound from behind as he was herding his flock up a hill. Fearing a beast, he dared not turn around and hastened home.