Azerbaijan: The Ashiq Tradition

If it can be generalized that the text in mugham is stable while the music is improvised, the revers is true of the ashiq tradition. There is an essential narrative function to the ashiq which stems from the long standing tradition of professional minstrelsy of Turkic people across Central Asia and into Turkey. The ashiq tradition took root in 15th -16th centuries, when the Shah Ismayil came to power in Iran and established Azeri as the official state language. Between the 16th and 18th centuries it spread to Armenia, Georgia and parts of Dagestan.

The ashiq is a poet, singer and composer who plays chord-like accompaniment on the saz, a lute-like instrument, which, just like the tar for mugham, provides the modal foundations to the music. The ashiq may also be a narrator, an actor-improviser, and sometimes even a dancer. He/she may perform solo or may be accompanied by another ashiq (as in a competition), or by balaban (double reed cylindrical aerophone also known as the duduk in Armenia or duduki in Georgia) and nagara (double headed drum, also known as the dhol in Armenia or doli in Georgia).

The origins of the ashiq, even its etymology (usually associated with the Arabic word to love “ashîq”) are unquestionably caught up in shamanic ritual and functions. It is also linked to the Oghuz Turkic tradition of singers, narrators, and players  that functioned as cultural gatekeepers and retold stories from the Book of Dede Qorqud, which itself dates to 1300 years ago. To this day, there continues to be a healer/spiritual aspect to the ashiq role (Oldfield 2008).

Dastan is the name for the performance of an epic narrative, which can last for days. The dastan has different components: sung verses alternate with recitative sections of artistically spoken prose. Hava is the melodic part of the dastan and draws on canonical poetic forms based on a set number of tunes. It resembles the more rhythmic parts of mugham. It is partially structured and partially improvised. The melodies use diatonic modes, mainly the mugham of shur, though ashiqs would never have been trained in mugham. The range, however, is far more limited than the performance of mugham, usually based on the initial tetrachord and occasionally explores the next tetrachord. In comparison to xanandas, ashiqs start singing in their high range and remain there. There is also no great melodic development or improvisation. Janos Sipos (2004) suggests the hava are adopted from simple small-ranged Azeri folk songs but they tend to extend the short forms into longer musical lines by repeating small motifs and holding notes out longer. (Keep this in mind when you listen to the musical examples of folk music in the next post.) It is terribly rare these days to experience the epic performance of dastan. Published commercial recordings of contemporary ashiqs (e.g. INEDIT’s Anthology of Ashiq (W 260135, 2008)) mainly feature the hava (the melodic pieces) which may have recitative sections but rarely offer artistically spoken prose. Luckily, examples with spoken prose can be found on YouTube

There are 3 major schools:

  • Ganjabasar (in the west) – usually perform with balaban accompaniment or in competition with another ashiq.
  • Borchaly which is in Georgia, close to the Azerbaijani border – solo voice with saz and sometimes solo saz. They are known to practice restraint in performance and to have developed instrumental technique.
  • Shirvan (in the east) hosts a dramatically different style, something like a synthesis with mugham, where they perform in a an ensemble (which includes balaban and naghara, sometimes the garmon) and the balaban has more interaction with the singer. It is even speculated that the rhythmic zarbi sections of mugham originated with the Shirvan ashiqs because popular zarbi-mughams are ancient Shirvan melodies. We may easily deduce that the YouTube example above is from this region since it not only involves an ensemble performance but also because the singer’s use of ornaments towards the 13-minute mark sounds more mugham-like. Another thing to observe with the ensemble context of ashiq performances is their relation to urban music from Armenia and Georgia. This synthesis or bridge between the solo bardic story teller and the urban musical tradition may be thought of as the basis for the Transcaucasian sound.
EX 1. Excerpt of Dastani (Borchaly school) performed by Samira Aliyeva (Various Artists 2008), a female ashiq performing solo saz and voice.
The saz introduction is impressive on its own, featuring skillful technique that layers intricate ornamentation and rhythms over the melodic development. Note again how the singer’s phrasing is built around only 3 notes with one note being sung far more than the other two. Despite this, the subtle phrasings and delicate ornamentation breathes so much musicality into the limited range.
EX 2. Excerpt of Shashanqi (Shirvan school) performed by Vüqar Mahmudoqlu (saz, vocals), Bakhish Bunyadov (balaban), Ramiz Soltan- muradoqlu (naghara), Mahir Niftaliyev (qosha naghara) (Various Artists 2008). (This excerpt starts about 45 seconds into the original track.)
There are quite a large variety of ashiq musical styles but this ashiq ensemble performance from Shirvan school offers a good bridge into the Transcaucasian urban style l discuss in a later post.
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