Winter 2004 (12.4)
The Poet Minstrels of Azerbaijan
by Anna Oldfield
It's like a conversation with God, Professor Maharram Gasimli explained, as a young "ashug" student began to play "Ruhani" (which means "spiritual" in Azeri) on his "saz", and sure enough, as the musical theme developed, I could hear the metallic notes of the traditional string instrument seeming to search for a connection, revel in the glory of what had been found, and then return to the original theme refreshed and renewed, like a mystic returning home from a mountaintop experience of enlightenment.
Suddenly, I understood what I had read many times but had never fully comprehended. Ashug music is not just entertainment. It is a spiritual experience - a unique way in which the Azerbaijani people commune with the Infinite by means of music and poetry. A chill ran through me as I nodded in agreement - it was like "a conversation with God". And this was only the first day of class.
In 2002, I had originally enrolled in the graduate program at the University of Wisconsin as a student of classical Russian Literature. Never would I have dreamed that two years later I would be awarded Fulbright Fellowship for 10 months to do research in Baku, studying traditional poet - minstrels called "ashugs" who are the inheritors of an oral tradition, which dates back to pre-historical Turkic Shamanism.
I first became interested in ashug art from reading the great heroic and romantic epics such as Koroghlu (Son of a Blind Man) and Ashug Garib (the story of a poor minstrel who falls in love with a rich man's daughter). These works are the heritage of peoples throughout the Turkic-speaking world. I was impressed by the sophistication and narrative complexity of these works and amazed that these lengthy epics had been passed via oral tradition for hundreds of years and were still being performed today.
Studying the Turkish Ashug tradition (a close cousin of the Azerbaijani tradition) with Professor Sarah Atis at Wisconsin, I learned that the singers of these traditional epics also compose original songs on contemporary topics. I realized that Turkic oral narrative, which both preserves the past while being responsive to the present, has a depth and richness that is as complex and fascinating as any written literature.
Women Ashugs - Are There Any?
Left: Amina Eldarova, the first woman folklorist to study ashug art. Courtesy: Azad Ozan Karimli.
But one question had always puzzled me. All the ashugs that we had read about in Western literature were men. Weren't there any women ashugs? Professor Atis knew that there were a few in Turkey but had heard once that there were many women ashugs in Baku. Because of the lack of information about Azerbaijan in the United States, no one knew for sure.
I was intrigued. Was it true? Were there many women minstrel performers in Azerbaijan? And if so, why Azerbaijan? And did their performances differ from that of male counterparts? How were women ashugs viewed by society? Was the tradition continuing? Were young women becoming ashugs? I had a million questions.
One of the greatest challenges for scholars in the U.S. who are interested in Azerbaijani culture is the scarcity of information. While a few Western musicologists have studied ashugs of Turkey and Southern Azerbaijan (Iran), information about the ashugs of the Republic of Azerbaijan (Northern Azerbaijan) is rare. Information about women ashugs - anywhere - is virtually nonexistent.
After gathering what bits and pieces of information I could find on the subject, and with an enormous amount of help from friends, colleagues and scholars in the U.S. and Azerbaijan, I gradually began to discover that there was a tradition of women ashugs in Azerbaijan that dated back to the early 19th century. It had started with a spunky, young woman from the region of Jabrayil (now under military occupation by Armenians) called Ashug Pari. She was famous for her quick-witted repartee, her masterful poetry, and her ability to compete successfully against men in improvised poetry contests called "deyishma".
While still in the States, I was able to obtain a copy of "The Art of the Azerbaijani Ashug" (in Russian), which was written by Azerbaijan's first ethnomusicologist (and student of Uzeyir Hajibeyov), Amina Eldarova. The text was informative about the tradition, but it did not discuss women's contribution to the art. I learned that there was an organization of woman ashugs called Ashug Pari Majlisi, based in Baku, but I did not know about their activities.
Ocean of Resources
Above: Bozalganli Ashug Gadir, Ashug Mirza Bayramov, Ashug Husein Bozalganli (sitting), Garachi Oghlu Ivraham (Ibrahim), Ashug Sadig Sultan, Gazakhli Telli Mahammad. Courtesy: Azad Ozan Karimli.
Every piece of information that I could gather contributed a piece to the puzzle but left me with more questions than answers. Fortunately, I was awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to travel to Azerbaijan and research the topic.
Armed with stacks of questions and a one-summer Azeri language course from Indiana University, I gathered my husband and four-year-old son and headed for Baku. It was like arriving on the shores of a vast ocean after following a tiny trickle of water in a desert. I found that books, videos, cassettes, even DVDs of ashugs - featuring both men and women - were everywhere. Ashugs were on TV, on the radio. We even ran into one of them while strolling on the Boulevard next to sea.
My whole family has become involved; my husband has helped enormously with videotaping and digital editing, while my son has patiently sat through many long concerts and has even constructed a small saz out of plastic and rubber bands.
We traveled to Kurdamir (a mid-sized town in central Azerbaijan about three hours west of Baku) to meet Ashug Ahmad, who at 86, is one of the oldest living ashugs in Azerbaijan. We've also seen performances of some of the youngest ashugs, age 10 or so, at the annual Children's Ashug competition in Baku.
Left: Ashug Bozalganli Khaligverdi. Courtesy: Azad Ozan
I have been fortunate to begin working with the wonderful and talented members of Ashug Pari Majlisi, with many of Azerbaijan's foremost experts in ashug music and literature, and with musicians and scholars in a diverse variety of fields. In addition, my affiliation with Azerbaijan State University of Culture and Arts has given me a chance to take classes in traditional Azerbaijani music and folklore, and to learn first hand from Ashug Ahliman, Ashug Samira, Ashug Shargiyya, and a very talented group of ashug students.
But what I enjoy most of all is watching ashug performances and seeing how passionate the live performers are who love this music and consider it to be the "spring of life" itself. In the few months that I've been staying in Baku, I've learned a tremendous amount.
My initial research has also made me realize how much more I still need to learn to even begin to truly understand this deep and complex art form which is so intimately tied to Azerbaijan's past, present, and future. I've been deeply impressed by the respect that Azerbaijani people have shown to their traditions and heritage, and how attracted they are to their own musical folklore. For an American, it is truly marvelous to see young people deeply engaged in learning such a demanding traditional art, which requires years of musical training and the memorization of hundreds of poems. It speaks well for the health and dynamism of this living tradition, despite the immense pressures stemming from globalization and popular culture.
I have just begun my research here, and I can see that I will have a busy and exciting year ahead. I hope that by the end of my stay, I will have a greater insight into this living folkloric tradition and the dynamic role that women play in keeping it alive.
One of the great pleasures of working in Azerbaijan has been experiencing their warm hospitality, and the help and support that I have received from everyone that I have encountered. It's a pleasure to do research here, and scholars who make their way to Azerbaijan will not only find beautiful and meaningful traditions, but immensely talented people who are eager to share them.
Azerbaijani folklore is preserved in so many different genres, from carpet weaving to culinary arts and the ancient dances called "yalli" which are still performed in villages. I hope that as the international community becomes better acquainted with Azerbaijan, more people will be motivated to travel here to appreciate and study the richness of traditional culture that Azerbaijan has to offer the world.
Anna Oldfield Senarslan is a PhD candidate at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, in the Department of Languages and Cultures of Asia. She is currently spending a year of dissertation research at Azerbaijan State University of Culture and Arts on a Fulbright/IIE Fellowship, accompanied by her family.