Discussion of Central Asian integration usually centers on economic or security issues, but the new television show “Central Asia’s Got Talent” pushes how we should think about regional cooperation.
Since September, the show has aired on TV stations in Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan every Sunday. The show’s format is identical to others in the Got Talent series, though it’s structured to accommodate a balance between represented countries. Four judges — one from each country represented on the show — vote on each audition to decide whether a contestant moves on to the next round.
“[The show] allows all our countries to unite in a cultural space,” commented Nargis Kassymova, the head of Tajikistan’s TV Safina. “We are really excited about this project – its bright emotions and performances.”
People young and old have taken the stage to showcase their talents, running the gamut from traditional skills like singing and dancing to quirkier performances of magic and bodily contortion.
Musical performances span from covers of modern songs, like Aijan Nusubalieva’s performance of “Listen”, originally sung by Beyonce in the American movie Dreamgirls, to traditional sounds, like 18-year old Galamat Beisekozha’s original composition on the dombyra.
One of the most imaginative presentations came from Rustam Nuraliev, a 37-year-old from Uzbekistan, who decided to invert his country’s Guinness World Record for the largest serving of plov and instead cook the world’s smallest portion of the rice dish. The judges cooed over the smell and quality of ingredients while Nuraliev prepared plov in a tiny cauldron and teapot he welded himself. As Nuraliev stirred in tiny chunks of lamb, Kyrgyz judge Gulnur Satylganova dryly commented, “For the next show, make it bigger, please.” Without skipping a beat, Nuraliev responded, “Last time there was enough to feed eight people and still have half leftover.”
Russian serves as the lingua franca of “Central Asia’s Got Talent,” which might come as a surprise to experts who have observed the decline of Russian language in Central Asian countries. While this might be true subnationally, Russian language has demonstrated its usefulness at the regional level. It’s not that local languages are not allowed on the show; some of the contestants and judges speak Russian with heavy accents and introduce themselves in their native language. All materials produced for the show’s social media account are in Russian, with dubbing and subtitles whenever contestants revert to regional vernaculars.
The semifinal premiered on November 10; voting for finalists will take place through text message and and the “Central Asia’s Got Talent” website through November 13. Contestants are competing for a 10 million tenge ($26,278) prize, but each country will also have its own champion who will receive 3 million tenge ($7,883) awards.
As with political and economic integration efforts in Central Asia, Turkmenistan remains isolated from this regional collaboration, a result of the way its government tightly controls media programming. Even with Turkmenistan’s absence, “Central Asia’s Got Talent” is nevertheless an important example of regional cooperation. The show’s popularity demonstrates the need to take pop culture and mass media seriously when analyzing geopolitics in Central Asia.