A Brief History of Azerbaijani Music…


Among the “traditions savantes“ from the middle to the Far East, the music of Azerbaijan is one of the least known. Articles written about this musical style are restricted to short encyclopaedic entries or accompanying notes on the back of a record. Nevertheless, the music of Azerbaijan has a firm place among the most elaborate musical traditions of this region, stimulated by the ancient art of modes or “maqāms”, a tradition practised from the Mashrek to the confines of the desert of Gobi. Furthermore, its music has influenced the whole of Trans-Caucasus.

Few peoples have used music with as much fervour, worship and joy as the Azeris. They are profoundly passionate about music, and have time and again, brought forth excellent musicians, even in as remote a place as the mountainous Karabakh.

 One of the reasons of why this tradition is so little know in Europe is to be found in the political and cultural isolation of the Trans-Caucasus. Culturally, the Azeris have remained for a long time in a position of retreat; they have never been interested in founding a reputation of their music abroad. They were content to have a number of academics among their composers, some “people’s artists” a handful of musicologists and ethnologists in order to assure acknowledgment by the central authorities, as well as to converse with sister nations. Something very similar can be said about Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, and Tajikistan, whose musical traditions share the same fate as that of Azerbaijan. This isolation, however, also had its benefits, since Azerbaijan was able, more than other oriental countries, to preserve its musical authenticity. This doesn’t mean that Azerbaijan and its musicians would have refused to integrate foreign concepts into their own, or that it remained closed towards the outside. A famous example is Bül Bül (1897-1961), the traditional singer who studied bel canto at Milan, and eventually would sing the works of his compatriot Hâijbeyov, who in turn introduced the “Mugam” (the art of Azeri musical modes) into western opera. But despite a very active environment and numerous attempts to fuse traditions, Azerbaijan has been able to preserve its cultural and ethnic identity. 

Art Music and Popular Music 

The traditional music of Azerbaijan can be divided into two main parts: a “professional” part, in other words, one reserved to highly qualified and trained musicians, and a popular part, whose use does not necessitate a particular qualification. The first domain is that of the art of Mugam, as well as that of the bards (´âshuqs), whereas the second comprises the so-called folk music. A third domain can be assigned to urbane centres and their entertainment music, which includes elements of all domains, as well as western influences. 

The “musique savante” or professional music can be divvied up roughly into two zones: the north of the country and a part of Karabagh with a special preference for the art of Mugam, while the south is famous for the cultivation of the art of the bards.

Both traditions have close ties, of course. However, there are certain differences: Contrary to the music of the bards, Mugam music can also be purely instrumental. An instrumental solo, a very important part of Mugam music is very rare in the art of the ´âshuqs, reserved for a few exceptional virtuosos. The art of the bards therefore consists almost exclusively of song, whose leeway for interpretation is rather narrow. Its tradition is purely oral, while Mugam is often based on ancient texts. To work out the specificities of all Azeri musical traditions is, however, extremely complicated, since they all follow a very dense structure that is sometimes hard to comprehend with western concepts of music in mind. 

Geographical History 

Azerbaijan covers most of the region known as Caucasus, as well as the northwest of the Iranian plateau. In 1828 the land was divided up into two parts, one part constituting a province of Iran, while the other was annexed to the empire of the czars, right up to the birth of the USSR in 1920. This whole region was under Turkish influence for several centuries, so that a large majority of the population spoke one of the Turkish dialects.

Azerbaijan is an old home of Iranian culture, with its worship of Zarastrus and the practice of the “religion of fire;” its name ”atra pajân” (the land of the living fire) evokes the spontaneous flames emerging from its petrol fields. The region withstood the conquests of Alexander the Great, as well as the initial Arabic hordes. The Turks only entered the region in the 10th and 12th century, with the vogue of nomadic seldjuqs, who dispersed themselves in the whole of northwest Iran. Long after the Turkish administration was established (middle of 11th century) its regions remained for a long time under Iranian culture, until the Persian language became the official language of the Seljukian court.

After the invasion of Genghis Khan’s hordes in 1220, which culminated in the fall of Baghdad in 1258, the Mongolian dynasty of the Ilkhan established its capital in Marâghe, and afterwards in Tabriz, in the south. Under this rule Azerbaijan lived a prosperous existence. 

To cut this long and complicated story short: the Azeris are the result of a mixture of Turks and Iranians (disregarding Caucasian and Armenian elements for the moment), and although the Turkish language has established itself, there remained the refined Persian culture in the cultivated and aristocratic cycles. The relation between these two nations was forged because of the Turkish origin of the sovereigns of Persia, as well as the strong religious tights through Islam of the Shiites as of the 16th century. Another important factor was the shared hostility against the Ottoman Empire, which united Iranians and Caucasians.

The relations between Persian and Azeri music, therefore, are very profound: we can consider each tradition as major braches of the same tree. 

 (Source: Jean During, La Musique Traditionnelle de L’Azerbayjan et La Science des Muqams. Baden-Baden & Bouxwiller, 1988.)