Various Artists, Anthology of World Music: The Music of Azerbaijan

Michael Heumann The Library Discography Haunted Ink Haunted Ink Review Archive The Inkbottle

Rounder Records
Released: 2003

Listen and Buy at CD Roots

According to the CIA World Factbook, the eastern part of Azerbaijan (which includes the capital, Baku) is one of the most ecologically devastated areas in the world. Oil spills, petrochemical pollution, DDT, and toxic defoliants have rendered this appendix on the Caspian Sea's air, soil, and water almost beyond repair. Why has all of this happened? Just look at a map. You'll notice that Azerbaijan is smack in the middle of several war zones. First, there's the "war on terror" zone. Azerbajian is north of Iran and Iraq, west of Turkmenistan and Afghanistan, and south of Chechnya. Then there's the oil war, a new "Great Game" currently waging between the United States, the Soviet Union, Turkey, the European Union, and the Arab states over control of Azerbaijan's oil reserves. Construction on a pipeline to send Azerbaijan's oil to Europe via Turkey is already underway. Finally, there's the actual war zone: Nagorno-Karabakh, a region in western Azerbaijan that was the site of a horrible war in the early 1990s and is currently under the control of the Armenian army. And I haven't even mentioned all the damage the Soviet Union caused when the Kremlin made Azerbaijan its personal refinery.

So, you see, this pollution is merely a product of Azerbaijan's proximity to both danger and greed. What, you might be asking, does any of this have to do with music--or, more specifically, the album under examination here, The Music of Azerbaijan? Well, a lot. The musicians performing on this album have taken the musical traditions and instruments of other Caucasian, Middle Eastern, and Central Asian peoples and have transformed these things into something similar to what you might hear in Iran or Uzbekistan or Armenia but also different enough to stand on its own. In other words, as the country of Azerbaijan struggles to deal with the external political, economic, and military forces trying to control the region, the musicians here (and, by extension, the people as a whole) have turned that struggle into art.

The majority of the songs here are taken from a tradition Arabs call "maquam" but the Azeris call "mugam." This is high art: complex pieces performed by masters who have been training and practicing these works for most of their lives. Some of these works are performed solo, while others will be performed by a small troupe of musicians. Some "mugam" include vocals, and some do not. The first track, "Mugam Bayati-Shiraz," is performed on a single tar (a two-stringed lute instrument) without vocals. It is the longest and, in some ways, the best track on the album. If you've heard any of the "mugam" songs from Uzbekistan and other Central Asian countries, then you'll be familiar with the tar and its use in this style. There's usually a fluid, beautiful, delicate quality to the instrument. Yet, for some reason, the tar I hear on this track is lacking any of that; it's a harsh, gritty, almost simplistic quality to this typically austere music. And then I realized: this is the "mugam" performed as a folk tune! It's faster, louder, and more aggressive than a traditional "mugam."

These aggressive qualities are evident throughout, from the strained vocal duet "Laila and Majnun" to the other instrumental "mugams" to the actual folk tunes that round out this collection. Of these, the one that stands out in my mind is "Roza," a dance song performed on the duduk, the double-reed wind instrument that Azerbaijan and Armenia both claim belongs to them. In Armenia, the duduk's sound is usually ethereal--a floating, billowing bird song (it can be heard at the beginning of Peter Gabriel's Passion). However, on this Azeri track (which is, by the way, a variation on an Armenian song), the duduk sounds more like a duck than a songbird. Now, I must admit that the Armenian duduk can sound like a duck, too (I've played the instrument, so I know). But that duck sound is usually muted in Armenian music: it appears in spots to accentuate a particularly high note before dropping back down into the lower, more murmuring depths. However, on "Roza," there's no drop, just duck. It's played at a frantic pace, and the musician seems to care less about nuances. Again, technique isn't the key here; the keys are speed and noise.

So, yes, Azerbaijan is an ecological disaster area. And, yes, it's overrun by wars and rumors of wars. And, yes, it's an economic birthday cake, with everyone looking for a piece. But, at least this album lets the Azerbaijan people speak for themselves, to try and define their culture as they see it. And what they've created here is a music that reflects that culture. Azeris might use the same instruments and play the same songs as their neighbors, but they're doing these things faster and louder than everyone else. Perhaps they're turning into Americans.

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