Azerbaijan: Rural Folk Music

There is a lack of information on the rural folk music of Azerbaijan. I found only 2 compilations of field recordings (Women’s Love and Life Female Folklore from Azerbaijan PAN2008; and Azeri Folksongs At the Fountain-head of Music 2004) and no studio or staged performance recordings of this music as one may find in Armenia, Georgia (including Abkhazia and Ossetia) or other peoples of the Northwest Caucasus. Little research has been conducted on this stream of Azeri traditional music and researchers (Oldfield 2008; Sipos 2004; Kerimova 1996) are calling on studies to focus on the relationship between folk music, ashiqs and mugham.

Taira Kerimova, an Azerbaijani women’s folklore specialist and Janos Sipos a Hungarian ethnomusicologist are the authors of the two compilations listed above. With an underlying evolutionary perspective to musical development (i.e. that simple forms of music and monophonic music have to evolve into more complex and polyphonic forms), they believe that Azeri folk music is the “fountainhead” of all other Azeri musics, and Sipos even suggests it may shed light on the primary sources of all other Turkic music (also see Oldfield 2008: 75-6). Sipos who worked closely with members of Baku’s Music Academy and the Conservatoire, collected over a 2 month period 650 tunes in 1999 from 140 singers and musician in 46 settlements from around Azerbaijan. As a sort of quality control, he then compared his collection to 3 Azeri publications that feature 247 songs, which satisfied Sipos’s expectations for tune representation. Kerimova’s collection come from field recordings she collected between 1979-1990. She positions women’s folk music as most authentic and archaic because “the privacy of a woman’s surroundings, the intimacy associated with their music making and the absence of specific artistic innovations means that they successfully preserve some of the oldest and most stable features of Azerbaijan music” (1996).

I do not share Kerimova’s and Sipos’ definitive sense of evolution but their research has much to offer. Kerimova classifies songs into 3 types:

  1. songs of free rhythm (mugham style) which include some laments, work songs and lullabies
  2. songs in set rhythm, usually for ritual and sung by a group
  3. recitative style, which may be solo or group sung, and involves primarily nursery rhymes and dances.

The tonal system in Azeri folk music is based on the mugham modes but usually focuses on the lower tetrachord using mostly stepwise motion. As Sipos points out, this means there is no pentatonicism in Azeri music, which differs from other Central Asian Turkic cultures. Sipos also speaks of the modes in western terms as either ionian, aeolian and locrian with a relatively equal stock in each mode. Metrically, songs are usually 6/8 or 2/4 and the structures of songs are short in length and simple in form, usually displaying a descending or dome-shaped phrase. The instrumental music, which features mostly zurna (conical double reed aerophone) and rhythmic accompaniment, is similar in tone and structure to the vocal musics discussed above; however, with men as the performers, the music is subject to more outside influence. (I may also note that zurna and drum is a staple across the Caucasus for outdoor events and celebrations.)

Having listened to about 111 field recordings of folk songs collected by both Kerimova and Sipos, I can attest to a degree of homogeneity in the music, as reported in the literature. Certainly, it is not like Georgia where there are dramatic regional differences. In a preliminary way, I did note some stylistic differences which were not discussed elsewhere. For instance, the musical style from the Nakhichevan region (a region which is physically separated from the rest of Azerbaijan, borders Armenia to the north and Iran to the south) is very sophisticated, featuring mugham styled inflection, more ornamentation, and greater melodic range. The central eastern style (Absheron, Shirvan, Shamakhi) seem to be mildly more sophisticated with respect to the above qualities. Zaqatal region has a definitive Northeast Caucasian style which makes sense since Zaqatal is a protruding northern part of Azerbaijan that borders northeast Georgia and southern part of Dagestan. Many Avars live in this region and if you search on YouTube “Zaqatal music,” many results show Avars dancing lezginka, the well-known cross-regional dance in the Caucasus.

EX 1. Excerpt of a 2-note plaintive song from Shamakhy (see Sipos 2004)
Great is my sorrow, oh the streams have gone dry,
when i mourn over my grief sadly, oh, All who had trouble
EX 2. Benek, work/shepherd’s song from Shusha, Garabakh (see Kerimova 1996)
Ai, ag goyun, ei, dolandy geldi, ei, ei, ei
(Hey, white sheep, who went away and came back, hey, hey, hey)
EX 3. Lyrical Bayati from Absheron (see Kerimova 1996)
Lyrical couplets, sung during handiwork at home (Mashtaga village, Absheron district).
Deryada fanaram men (I’m a lamp, standing in the gully)
Od tutub yanaram men (I take fire, catch fire)
Gel gash altyndan goz oinatma (Do not wink at me)
Arifem, ganaram men (I’m wise, I understand everything).
EX 4. Lullaby from Nakhichevan (see Kerimova 1996)
Lai-lai deyim, yatasan (Bye-bye I say, sleep my baby)
Gyzyl gyule batasan (Drop into pink flowers).
EX 5. Excerpt Song from Zaqatala (see Sipos 2004)
Come, let’s go to the spring gushing from the rock,
Yillo, fools, to the spring

Map from Atlas of tradition music of Azerbaijan

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