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Sounds of Azerbaijan

Assessment of Resources for Study and Research

Undergraduate Researcher

Mila Butler - University of Oregon Undergraduate Studies


Subjects: German and Scandinavian Studies, Russian, East European,and Eurasian Studies, International Studies with an interest in Post-Soviet identities through music in the South Caucasus.

Introduction to Mugham

Mugham and Azerbaijan 

While Azerbaijan is little discussed in the news, this convergence of traditionally ‘Eastern’ and ‘Western’ cultures has made Azerbaijan a vital link between the Middle East and Central Asia. Through the work of poets and musicians, Azerbaijani music has traced the impact of the Ottoman and Russian Empires on the people of Azerbaijan as well as the distinction of Azerbaijani nationalism from other former Soviet Republics (Central Asian in particular). When referencing 20th century encyclopedic sources, the intangible heritage of Azerbaijan can be found in connection with more well-known instruments and musical genres of neighboring Iran, however there are some English language resources that have been central to this investigation of academic material on the topic of Azerbaijani music. The best books available include Song from the Land of Fire: Continuity and Change in Azerbaijanian Mugham by Inna Narodiskaya, a Russian ethnomusicologist who works as a faculty member at Northwestern University in Illinois, and From Mugham to Opera by Aida Huseynova, an adjunct lecturer at Indiana University who specializes in the formation of modern mugham and its related significance in contemporary Azerbaijani culture. Of course, this study would not be complete without exploring the roots of the tar and other key national instruments in Azerbaijani ashig music. A glossary of these instruments can be found within this guide. The purpose of this extraction is to highlight the current state of English language resources on the topic of Azerbaijani music. By putting together a guided introduction to mugham and Azerbaijani compositions, I hope to express to the academic reader how further study and understanding of Azerbaijani culture is a treasure trove for exploring not only the history and migration of music from the Islamic world into Central Asian culture, but the convergence of powerful historic shifts in language and revolutionary music that the story of Azerbaijan tells. 

Persian poetry flourished in Azerbaijan during the 12th century. Nezami, one of such poets from the city of Ganja, wrote about Sunni spirituality and love through narrative tales called ghazals. He wrote long poetic verse in the Masnavi style, creating five such books that are well preserved artifacts of this poetic genre. Among the stories, Leyli i Majnun has become the most influential to the contemporization of Azerbaijani poetry. Indeed, 12th century medieval romances would become the basis of much Azerbaijani folklore and poetry. The best resource for the political background of Azerbaijani music comes from Inna Naroditskaya in Song from the Land of Fire: Continuity and Chance in Azerbaijani Mugham 

The Russo-Persian War conceded territory of Azerbaijan to the Russian Empire in 1828. After the Russian Revolution of 1917 destabilized the Empire’s grip on its Southern territory, Azerbaijan, Armenia, Georgia and Eastern Turkey were condensed to form the Transcaucasian Democratic Federative Republic. As the Ottoman Empire fought to regain territory after World War I, the TDFR was quickly destabilized by foreign intervention. From 1918-1921 Azerbaijan became a parliamentary republic known as the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic - Baku a hotbed of interest from Western Oil companies looking to invest. Jazz was introduced to the urban music scene in Baku by musicians sponsored by Western companies. This period of sovereignty was short-lived, as the young country was unable to compete with the Soviet military’s advances. During the 20th century Baku was intensely Russified and secularized. After 80 years under Soviet power, however, most Azerbaijanis consider themselves ethnically tied to Azerbaijan’s Islamic  

Mugham of the Past - 12th Century - 19th Century

Mugham of the Past - 12th Century - 19th Century 

Azerbaijani mugham has been hailed as a cultural landmark of the small country. As such, readers can explore the history of this shifting genre as it came to be. Development in the 11th and 12th centuries led to the establishment of Azerbaijani mugham's historical canons, which were recorded by philosophers of the time including Abu Nars Farabi and Abu Ali ibn Sina. (Goyushov) Indeed, Nagorno-Karabagh is considered the “cradle of Azerbaijani poetry and literary culture” (Najafizadeh 20) as it has produced some of the most important figures in Azerbaijani literature. The tonal-melodic structure of mugham from this time period was outlined in treatises in the 13th-15th centuries. Classical poetic genres like qasīde, ghazal, masnavī and so on, which preceded the formation of written literature in Azerbaijan and Ottoman Turkish are considered the main influences on the modal structure of the region’s diverse folk genres. Selection of poems used as the basis for the "gigantic musical monument" of 12 mughams and 6 avazes was produced under these circumstances. (Goyushov) 

To understand the development of Azerbaijani composition, one must recognize that regional politics split Persian maqam into geographically distinct genres before Azerbaijani music had a national distinction. The maqam traditions of the Middle East in Iran, Iraq, and Turkey are well established branches of the art form that share instrumentation and formative roots with Azerbaijani mugham. The development of each genre has also been influenced by centuries of local culture. “The Classical Iraqi Maqam and its Survival” in Colors of Enchantment: Theater, Dance, Music, and the Visual Arts of the Middle East by Sherifa Zuhur is a fantastic reference for tracing the Arabic lineage of the genre.  

As the guidelines were further established, Azerbaijani mugham was taught traditionally by ear from an early age through formal apprenticeships. For Western audiences, it is important to understand that microtonal scales are the basis for modal improvisation in Azerbaijani music. Traditional mughams are performed as solo pieces or in small ensembles featuring light percussion which most often accompanies plucked and bowed string instruments and vocals. Mugham is a foundation on which composed pieces are developed. It is comprised of a combination of melodies, themes, motifs, and rhythmic gestures (Naroditskaya) that weave improvisational sections with complex articulations of composed vocal and instrumental lines. Another split in the foundation of Azerbaijani music is reflected by the differentiation between ashig and mugham. Geographically, ashig is associated with the Gazakh (Azerbaijan), Nakhichevan, and Nagorno-Karabagh regions. (Naroditskaya) It is known as the more rural of the folk genres, born from traveling storytellers and played on the tar - a long necked Persian lute. In the documentary about Alim Gasimov’s contributions to mugham adapted for 20th century audiences, the musician recollects listening extensively to ashig music growing up. Two “genres” of classical poetry help an outsider differentiate between ashig and mugham.  Dastan is essential to ashig, counting the number of syllables per line. The most prominent types of dastan are bayati, geraili, and goshma. (Naroditskaya) 

Structural Traditions of Azerbaijani Mugham

Modal Structure and Poetic Composition  

The poetic form ghazal, comprised of a complicated classical verse, is essential to mugham construction. A ghazal is most often associated with classical love stories written in the 12th century by Azerbaijani poets like Nizami, Shirvani, Fizuli, Natavan, and Vagif. Love appears doubly as sensual love addressed to a woman, and spiritual love sung to God. According to Goyushov and Naroditskaya, the influence of Islam extends past musicality into the complex ideologies and theologies expressed in the modal improvised styles of mugham throughout history. Mugham is, at its essence, a form of spiritual composition expressed through a multitude of modes. “Mode” is an 18th century European concept related to musical scales. The term “modal” is used in literature regarding mugham to distinguish these scales from the standard set of intervals in European musicology. Rast, shur, chahargah, segah, shushtar, humayun, and bayati-shiraz are recognizable modes. For all of these the corresponding compositions are rooted in these modes. Bayati-shiraz functions as its own set of compositions in rast, shur, and segah modes. 

It is difficult to use European interval theory in comparison with mugham as they differ at a foundational level. Within one octave there are seventeen enharmonic tones, which can be grouped into “two equal tetrachords plus a whole tone” or “five simple sounds, five dieses, and five flats.” (Naroditskaya 41). According to musicologists, these rules are more flexible than European intervals (Naroditskaya 39). Inevitably, the rules around notation and structure of each mode have been changed repeatedly throughout history and continue to do so. With each generation of musicians, mugham is molded into new musical landscapes - a tangible evolution of musical forms and interpretations. In contemporary Azerbaijani music, pianos and electric guitars are used for genre-blending compositions that flirt with common intervals of mugham. By phrasing melodies around fleeting ornamentation, mugham in this contemporary format is the suggestion of the presence of these “in between” notes. 

Of the most common modes, bayati-shiraz or bayati is the most notable for its ties to the Islamic heritage of mugham. Bayati began as an Azerbaijani folk genre, from which the mugham mode and compositions bayati-shiraz, mahur-hindi (mode rast), (orta-mahur (mode rast), bayati gajar (mode shur), mirza gusein segah (mode segah), and so on are derived. (Naroditskaya 38) These compositions feature rhythmic structure from recitation of the Qur'an. As fixtures of the ethnomusicological canon, these compositions represent how Islamic influences on Azerbaijani culture have remained crucial to 20th century Azerbaijani music as elements of Quranic literature that were preserved through the secularization of the 20th century. 

Contemporary Mugham 1908- present

Contemporary Mugham 1908 - Present 

Mugham - Opera of the 20th Century 

In the early 20th century, Azerbaijani nationalism developed mugham for two distinct uses: inspired symphony orchestra pieces created for the national and international classical music repertoire, and a folklore resurgence in Baku that prompted musicians like Alim Qasimov to embrace the art of the past, pushing the limits of the genre and reorganizing the rules of instrumentation to popularize mugham and send it into the world to represent Azerbaijani culture.  

Baku became a hub of classical music composition in the 1920s, with prominent Azerbaijani composers like Useyir Hajibeyli and Muslim Mansurov using mugham themes to create a distinctly Azerbaijani sound in symphonic music and opera. Hajibeyli, known as the first composer of staged operatic mugham, redefined the genre with the composition of Leyli and Majnun in 1908. Leyli and Majnun combined European opera with stylistic elements of mugham composition structure to create a retelling of the famous story for an international audience. The success of Hajibeyli’s “first opera in the east” helped Baku become a center for performing arts in the Soviet Union. Mugham opera magnifies the syncretic nature of Russian East-West identity and inclusion of “oriental” Islamic culture of its Southern republics in art and music throughout history. Hajibeyli’s use of ashig appeared in 1937 in his opera in five acts: Koroglu 

In the contemporary landscape, musicologist and author Aida Huseynova has been instrumental in continuing this tradition of classical-mugham fusion with the detailed historical canon of Azerbaijani musicians in her book Music of Azerbaijan: from Mugham to Opera and her work with the Silkroad Ensemble from 2008-2009. During this time, Silkroad’s Mark Morris reproduced and toured his own production of Hajibeyli’s Leyli and Majnun for Western audiences outside of Azerbaijan. The story of Layli and Majnun is based on a 7th-century Persian love story. Love stories make up most of the emotional narratives from which mugham’s modal structures are derived. Influenced by storytelling culture of the Persian ashig, love and loss are demonstrated on instruments like the zurna whose cries imitate the human voice and the emotional richness and plaintiveness of the plucked 11 string tar. 

Mugham in the Post-Soviet World  

In 2003 Mugham was recognized as a Masterpiece of Rare and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity by UNESCO. Firengiz Alizade runs the biennual event celebrating the style of music in Baku, the Baku World of Mugham Festival. Along with organizations like the Baku Jazz Festival, Mugham has adapted to fit modern contexts as both a vehicle for contemporary folk composition and for interpreting Western styles like Jazz and Pop by artists like Rain Sultanov. 

Besides mugham’s influence on Azerbaijani classical and jazz composition, hip hop in Azerbaijan shares roots with another ancient form of poetry, the meykhana. A Persian word denoting the place where poets came together to socialize and recite poetry, “it is an oral form of poetry that is recited spontaneously without any preparation, effort, or premeditation” (Aslanov) in the form of improvised stanzas sung back and forth without missing a beat. This form of meykhana was developed before the 20th century, banned during the Soviet Era for being a platform for government criticism, and re-popularized during the early 1990s. Performances of meykhana at large social events and weddings are held as a masterful form of poetry in Azerbaijan today, despite the differences between contemporary pop - hip hop and this traditional form. Themes that are featured in the meykhana “Pul” by Balasadig Aslanov include the reality of reclaiming Azerbaijani identity in post-Soviet times, hardship and money. Perhaps the shifting reality of the early post-Soviet period encouraged a deep resurgence in traditional dialogue about Azerbaijani culture.  

In the early 2000’s Azerbaijani youth were popularizing a western form of hip hop lead by groups like Dayirman. Instead of poverty, this music centered around patriotic themes of destiny building and luxury in the modern world of Azerbaijani youth. Using the words of folk music in Sari Gelin”, Dayirman’s music stayed firmly rooted in Azerbaijani identity while subverting the text by including images of American actress Marilyn Monroe. The group also commented on the history of urbanization, a 20th century brain drain of cultural talent to the crowded capital of Baku (Blair and Aghayeva). Pride in regional Azerbaijani culture and identity is reflected in these and other songs of the early 2000’s, foreshadowing the direction that Azerbaijani youth would take in the coming years. Representing less of pop culture and more of traditional culture, the singers in this meykhana lament about how their craft is only used for competition and their platform only exists ceremoniously at weddings. (Eurasianet) 

Works Cited

"Dastgah". in Yar-Shater, Ehsan. 1985. Encyclopædia Iranica. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul.

Dessiatnitchenko P. 2018. "‘An elder in punk clothes’: purged frets and finding true mugham in post-Soviet Azerbaijan". Ethnomusicology Forum. 27 (2): 136-156.

Mazo, Margarita. "Russia, the USSR, and the Baltic States." In Myers, Helen. 1992. Ethnomusicology. New York: W.W. Norton.

Najafizadeh M. 2013. "Ethnic conflict and forced displacement: Narratives of azeri IDP and refugee women from the Nagorno-Karabakh war". Journal of International Women's Studies. 14 (1): 161-183.

Najafizadeh, Mehrangiz. 2015. "Poetry, Azeri Idp/refugee Women, and the Nagorno-Karabakh War". Journal of Global South Studies. 32 (1): 13-43.

Senarslan, Anna Oldfield. 2008Women aşiqs of Azerbaijan: tradition and transformation. Ph. D. University of Wisconsin--Madison.

Sultanov, Rain. 2015. Jazz history of Azerbaijan, the: lives, facts, festivals. Baku : Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the Republic of Azerbaijan. Partially condensed article about the Jazz History of Azerbaijan: With them begins the history of Baku Jazz is accessible via Baku Jazz Festival webpage.




Works Cited

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