Very few people have mastered the skills needed to perform the epic. In the past century just 126 have been officially recognized as Manaschi.
In the early 20th century, Jusupahun Apay from Akqi County in Xinjiang visited Sagymbai Orozbakov – the then recognized master of the Manas – to learn from the great singer. The apprentice in turn became a master.
In the first half of the 20th century, Ebirayim Akinbek and Balvay Mamayi were among the few senior Manaschis able to complete the eight-chapter epic. Guided by their example, Jusufu Mamayi, the only singer alive who can recite all the chapters of the epic, has made a great contribution to preserving and passing on this unique cultural heritage.
Being a great performer is not just a question of knowing the plot, characters and sequence of events portrayed in the epic. It is also about mastering the complex rhythms and gestures that accompany the telling of the tale. Only the most talented folk performers who master the full range of skills receive the title of Manaschi.
The qualities of a Manaschi can be summed up in five points:
First, Manaschi must have a genuine passion for Kirgiz poetry and the Manas.
Second, they need outstanding memories, and must begin learning the epic from an early age. Jusufu Mamayi started to recite the Manas at the age of 8. By the time he was 16 he had mastered the entire epic.
Third, the performers must also be creative, able to improvise and give spontaneous and lively performances. To achieve this, Manaschi must have an encyclopedic knowledge of Kirgiz lore and traditions.
Fourth, there must be real interaction between performers and audience. The singers do not simply recite the 200,000-line epic, but also add their own experiences and feelings.
Finally, many people believe the Manaschis have been chosen and blessed by God. Jusufu Mamayi, for example, became obsessed with the Manas after dreaming about a hero of the epic when he was 10 years old. He began humming the tunes, even in his sleep, and became unwell whenever he stopped singing. Local people regarded him as a saint. The idea that Manaschis are blessed by God is related to traditions of Shamanism that still survive in Kirgiz life, now overlaid with the vibrant Islamic culture of this unique ethnic group.