Winter 2004 (12.4)
Ashug Pari Majlisi
Women Performers of Legend and Folk Poetry
by Anna Oldfield Senarslan
One Friday morning not so long ago, I found myself piling into a minibus along with other women. We were cramped into a rather confining space - all twelve of us - plus my video camera equipment and a mountain of traditional Azerbaijani string instruments known as "saz". I tried to settle in and make myself comfortable for the four-hour long ride from Baku to Neftchala (southeast Azerbaijan near Salyan). It was pouring down rain, which made the trip even longer; but as my companions began to sing, recite poetry, and talk about "hava" (saz tunes), the time began to fly even as the minibus crawled along.
The occasion? I was accompanying a group of performers of the Ashug Pari Majlisi on their trip to play a concert in honor of their founder, the folk poet Narinj Khatun, who had recently celebrated her 74th birthday. As we drove through the dreary day, the journey was lightened by the spirit of this talented group of performers, whose excited talk and bursts of song all centered on their common love for traditional ashug music and poetry.
Left: Gulara Azafli (from Tovuz, who currently lives in Baku) with Narinj Khatun (from Neftchala) during a performance. Photo: 1980s. Courtesy: Gulara Azafli.
Upon arrival, I witnessed the great respect with which local dignitaries met this group. Hundreds of admirers had crowded into the auditorium in anticipation of the three-hour performance.
The Ashug Pari Majlisi is an organization of women ashugs and "el shairlari" (folk poets who write in the ashug style but don't accompany themselves on the saz). The group was born out of the vision and hard work of Narinj Khatun (Narinj Aziz gizi Jafarova), a remarkable poet, who had succeeded in publishing verse in regional newspapers when she was still in her early teens.
Back in the early 1980s, Narinj Khatun traveled around Azerbaijan as well as to the Azerbaijani communities in Georgia and Armenia to galvanize women ashugs and folk poets. This was the first time this had ever been done and Narinj Khatun worked tirelessly to promote her fellow artists' talent. She named the organization after Ashug Pari, Azerbaijan's first great woman ashug (believed to have lived from 1811-1835), who was the center of a community called a "majlis" where ashugs refined their skills by playing and competing together. According to Narinj Khatun, women artists had few possibilities to perform and publish at that time, but Ashug Pari Majlisi provided support and gave its members opportunities to perform, travel to concert venues, appear on television, and see their poetry in print.
Above: 1. Members of Ashug Pari Majlisi and friends at their first television appearance in 1985. First row, from left: (1) Ashug Kifayat, (2) Director Amir Husein Majidov, (3) Ulduz Sonmaz. Back row: (1) unknown, (2) Gulara Azafli, (3-4) unknown, (5) Chichak Mammadova, (6) Farida Hajiyeva, (7) Aziza Jafarzade, (8) Fatima Israfilova, (9) Fargana Mehdiyeva, (10) Zivar Azizgizi, (11) Zulfiyya Ashigli. 2. Members of the Ashug Pari Majlisi in Borchali (Georgia) with Georgian ashugs and poets. Courtesy: Gulara Azafli.
Bolstered by well-known cultural figures such as writer and folklorist Aziza Jafarzade [See this issue] and poet Husein Arif, Ashug Pari Majlisi quickly earned the love and respect of Azerbaijani audiences. Today under the wise and loving guidance of Ashug Gulara Azafli (daughter of Mikayil Azafli, one of the most famous Azerbaijani ashugs of the 20th century), Ashug Pari Majlisi continues to hold live concerts and perform regularly on television. They have also recently published a new book called Ashug Pari Majlisi, which is a collection of their writings.
Left: Ashug Gurbaji. Photographed by the poet Husein Arif, probably in the region of Tovuz in the northwestern Azerbaijan. Courtesy: Farida Hajiyeva.
Ashug Pari Majlisi has more than 60 members. They are a diverse group of women whose ages range from 16 to 60 plus. They are mothers and grandmothers, professors, professionals, and housewives. Some are well-known established performers; others are novices just starting their careers.
The women ashugs come from all over Azerbaijan, including Karabakh and the surrounding areas, some of which are now under Armenian military occupation. Some have come from Goycha, an area now located in Armenia, from which the Azerbaijani population was forced to flee around 1988. Like Borchali in Georgia, both Karabakh and Goycha had strong local ashug traditions.
In addition to traditional songs (taken from dastan and from the poetry written by ashugs of the past), the poets of the Majlis produce new poetry on a variety of themes, including philosophical and spiritual topics, love for family, the beauty of nature, love for their Homeland, and sorrow for the many tragic events Azerbaijan has suffered over the recent years. The Majlis provides numerous venues for women to perform, as well as serving as a school for the arts, where younger artists can learn from older masters, where new poems are enthusiastically discussed by all, where new creative possibilities are discovered, where all members have a chance to discover themselves and blossom as creative artists and performers. In addition, the group provides strong emotional support.
It's not easy for the group to stay active under the current economic conditions in Azerbaijan. In the past, the Ministry of Culture mostly supported many of their activities, such as concerts, music recordings, television appearances and books.
These days, they mostly have to find their own funding. The Majlis operates by gathering money from its members and occasionally from sponsors, but lack of adequate funding curtails their ability to publish and perform more often.
Members make their own costumes and design their own stage props. But many of them are supporting families and cannot afford to publish books of poetry and song or produce cassettes or CD. The cost of renting a large hall these days is so exorbitant that the price of the tickets would demand more than the average person could afford. And yet, because of the determination and hard work of its leaders and members, Ashug Pari Majlisi persists.
Above: Ashug Pari Majlisi. Baku 2004. Left to right: Saadat Buta, Zohra Khalili, Shargiyya Zangilanli, Rafiga Goychali, Fargana Mehdiyeva, Parvana Zangazur, Gulnigar Rahimli.
Left: (left to right) Gulnara Azafli, Ulduz Sonmaz, Pakize Musakoylu, Aybaniz Lachinli, Fanara Mohubbatgizi.
The importance of this union in promoting the living tradition of ashug art cannot be underestimated. By remaining in the public eye, the group provides an important model of strong, creative women and inspires young women and girls to become involved in traditional culture. Younger members have told me that they grew up dreaming of becoming a member of Ashug Pari Majlisi.
Although the organization depends upon the tireless volunteer work of its members, the performances are of the highest professional level and often leave one breathless. As Gulara Azafli described so aptly: "Ashug art is beautiful and our women ashugs are beautiful.
Together, they are even more beautiful." Watching these talented women performing in national dress, playing saz with expert mastery, and reciting powerful inspirational poetry in honor of Narinj Khatun on that rainy November day, I found myself hoping that someday not only Azerbaijan, but the international community would be able to appreciate the depth and passion, which goes into bringing this ancient art to life in the present day.
Above: Young ashugs, (left) Latifa Cheshamli and (right) Kamala Gubadli. Both are members of the Ashug Pari Majlisi.
Focusing my video camera, zooming in on fingers flying over the saz fret board, I set to work trying to make my own, small contribution to this goal. Author Anna Oldfield Senarslan is in Baku on a Fulbright Scholarship from the University of Wisconsin where she is working on her doctoral dissertation to investigate Women Ashugs of Azerbaijan. Anna is also working with Shovkat Jabbarova and other members of Ashug Pari Majlisi to set up a Web site to feature ashug music and poetry. They hope to launch it by late spring 2005.