The Bards & Ballads of Dagestan

In times past in Daghestan, bards (only males) would hold contests in eloquence, with the loser reputedly loosing his head, literally. (Colarusso 1997 section 14)

The bardic practice in Dagestan is more easily defined as a monophonic tradition since the Republic, at least as observed via YouTube videos and available recordings, hosts negligible polyphonic practices. Although Jordania challenges this (see previous post), Dagestani musicologist Medina Abudelva corroborates this and suspects that the the lack of polyphonic practices among the people of Dagestan today is a result of Islamic influences (Abudelva 2013: 172). She also suggests that the embracing of Sufi values, particularly those associated with how music mimics the harmony of the universe, has significantly encourage the writing of folksongs (ibid: 176). This may explain why, despite the difficulty in accessing information on Dagestan, I have been overwhelmed by the number of beautiful songs I have heard via the internet. Aduleva also notes that some surviving epics, like On Sharvili (О Шарвили), Party Patima (Парту Патима) and others (see ibid: 172), provide insight into pre-Islam Dagestan. But in current practice, the epic genre seems to have survived and been adapted by different peoples, such as the Avars and their 19th century heroic songs and ballads of Imam Shamil or the Lezgi’s continued ashugh traditions (ibid). As you will note from the examples below, Dagestan traditional music is part of a larger Caucasian music culture but there exist specific melodic, intonational and rhythmic qualities that are specific to the different peoples of the Republic, like the Lezgi, the Avars, the Laks, the Kumyks, etc…

The following will provide a bit of a sonic tour of the people of Dagestan – though it is by no means complete – not only because I do not address sacred or dance musics (which is not relevant to the subject of this post) but also because all the different people of the Republic are not represented. The musical examples highlight a vibrant solo folksong tradition, where singers accompany themselves either with a lute, a knee-violin or a hand drum. Accompaniment on melodic instruments tend to follow the melody as well as provide rhythmic accompaniment. Generally song forms are relatively simple, use diatonic scales, favour minor keys and make use of augmented seconds. The range of the song is usually within a 5th to an octave. Songs are sometimes performed within an ensemble context, in which case they are comparable to the Transcaucasian urban genre discussed earlier. In fact, I have observed some great similarities between some Transcaucasian urban tunes and songs from Dagestan that I hope to address in a future post.


The Lezgis (750,000) are also known as Lezghins/Lezgins/Lezgians and in census statistics usually  include the Rutuls and Tabasarans. Older publications, however, often labelled all people in Dagestan speaking a Caucasian language as Lezgi.

Through their historical and cultural association with Azeris and the great number of Lezgis that live on the other side of the border, there is a school for ashugs located in the Southern part of the Republic (near the border of Azerbaijan). They are the only people in the Republic reported to use the saz and to practice the ashugh art (Abdulaeva 2013: 172, 174). Unfortunately, reports are that the school is in desperate need of repair (see

The Dagestani ashugh performance styles are closely related to performances by Azeri ashiqs.

EX 1. and EX 2. are of traditional solo voice and saz (sorry for poor sound quality in the second clip but I wanted to show a talented young ashug):
EX 3. Demonstration of contemporary remix of Lezgi ashugh performance


The Avars speak Avar, a Northeast Caucasian language and are known amongst themselves as maarulal, which translates to mountaineers. With the related Andi and Dido people included in census statistics, the Avar population is estimated at 800,000, making them the largest ethnic group in Dagestan. The Avars claim descendency from nomadic Avars who settled in the region in the first century , though other accounts report an arrival of up  to 4 centuries later. They were the most powerful Dagestan principality in the 17th century. In the 19th century, they were at the heart of the Muridist movement against the Russian, led by the Avar, Imam Shamil (Krag and Funch 1994: 20; Coene 2010: 62-64). Shamil was renown and even celebrated in Western Europe for uniting warring Caucasian tribes and leading a powerful  30-year resistance to Russian forces (Blanch 2004[1960]; Griffin 2001).

Amongst all the musics of Dagestan, recorded performances of Avars songs are the most accessible, which makes sense given their representation of Dagestan’s population. Avar songs most often feature a male voice with a lute-like accompaniment but they may also be accompanied by knee-violin (chagana) or frame-drum (chchergilu). There are 2 different lutes, the pandur also known as the tamur which is a 2-stringed long trapezium-shaped lute and the agach-kumuz (also called the agach-khomuz or komuz) which has 3 to 4 strings and is also shaped like a thin trapezoid. Many of the songs fit the 2-chord, reduced structure I already discussed for Northeastern Georgian and Vainakh songs in the post on polyphony in the North Caucasus. Some songs feature sections of repetitive short melodic phrases that fit the recitative style and are thus useful for depicting heroic stories. Sometimes the performance style also makes use of a rubato-like quality for the singer, such that the regular rhythm of the accompanying instrument may slow slightly or even stop altogether as a singer sings a phrase, which would include melismas and/or sustained notes. Both these observations suggest some relationship with the Iranian-urban and Azeri traditions of xananda and ashiqs. I was surprised at how moved I was while listening to compilations of Avar singers. For most part, the songs are very entertaining featuring catchy melodic hooks and rhythms.

A great introduction to Avar songs and the music of Dagestan can be found on Compilation of Avar Pandur. The four discs feature excellent performances by four pandur players, 3 of whom also sing beautifully. (Abdulah Magomedmirzaev, Rasul Magomedov, and Said Magomedov sing and play while Abdulla Sachadinsky only plays pandur.) (Click on the image below to download.)
Some beautiful tracks of solo singer/accompanist which also demonstrates the drum and chagana accompaniment are available on Janos Sipos’ compilation, Folk Tunes from the Two Sides of the Caucasus (Various Artists 2003). Unfortunately, Sipos does not list tune names. Here are 2 samples:
EX 1. Qallayev Fayzulla Müslüm Oglu singing and accompanying with pandur
EX 2. Dadayev Mähämmäd Ibrahim Oglu singing and accompanying with pandur
EX 3. The Sayat Nova Project (a very worthy project aimed to collect and publicize the diversity of musics from the Caucasus has a YouTube playlist of Avar music, within which is a fair collection of “folk” performances
EX 4. and EX 5. Feature women singers in ensemble contexts
More ensemble examples can be found on the CD Ay lazat Oh pleasures (link below)More examples of solo performances of Avar songs, especially solo instrumentals, can be heard heard from the link below to the Tsamuri festival..


Kumyks (369,000) are the only Dagestani people reported to have traditional multi-voiced singing tradition, which is rather curious given that they speak a west-Turkic language and see themselves as descendants of Turks, who are known for monophonic musical practices. In the 15th and 16th century the  Kumyks formed a powerful state and theirs was a second language used for communication and commerce. Compared to other people of Dagestan, they have lost many traditional structures as they assimilated into industry and port-oriented commerce (Kragg and Funch 1994: 22; Coene 2010: 76).  Kumyk polyphony was already discussed in the earlier post. Their monophonic songs are quite varied and most feature komuz  (3- or 4-stringed lute also known as the agach-khomuz). Some YouTube examples below demonstrate the variety.

EX 1. features recitative-styled singing with komuz accompaniment
EX 2. features a clear verse-chorus structure (voice and komuz)
EX 3. and Ex 4. are instrumentals, solo komuz
EX 5. features voice and accordion accompaniment and demonstrates quite a different style/feel than other songs. Perhaps it is due to the accordion, but there seems to be some more Western European flavours in this song. In general, accordion accompaniment in the Caucasus is very popular and its almost ubiquitous use, its replacement of traditional instruments, and its effect on tonal structures and song forms are fodder for much ethnomusicological research.
A few more samples are available on the Ay lazat Oh pleasures CD (link below). The following link is a documentary about domestic activities among the Kumyks, which includes some singing and playing.


The Laks (147,000) are an indigenous Northeast Caucasian people that speak a Northeast Caucasian language. I have found little reliable information on the Laks, except that they have been subject to Russian resettlement policies on 2 occasions since 1944, leading to tensions with Chechens and Kumyks (Krag and Funch 1994: 22).

Lak songs strike me as some of the most beautiful, representing quite a diverse number of styles. Women performers seem to be better represented in traditional Lak music than the other peoples of Dagestan. Though as of yet I am no expert, it seems Lak songs have a more distinctive quality with respect to the melodic development and melismas. Some songs featuring women singers (see EX 2, EX 5, and EX 6, as well as 17 minutes into EX 1) explore a higher range, timbre and melismatic quality that are slightly reminiscent of Hindustani singing.

The links below attempt to demonstrate the variety of song styles and accompaniment, which makes use of different lutes, drum or knee-violin.

EX 1. is a half hour YouTube video simply labelled “Old Lak Songs” and features 6 songs.
The first few songs are solo voice and frame drum (chchergilu). A number of songs, including the first, feature the recitative style similar to the first Chechen example, with an opening phrase followed by a series of recitative lines, enabling the reciting of a detailed story. (Wish I knew what it was about!)
I believed all the songs are performed by the same singer. Having subsequently found this 12-minute documentary on Patimat Alieva, I believe Alieva to be the singer in Ex 1.
EX 2. and EX 3. feature mandolin accompaniment, EX 2. with a woman singer and EX 3. with a man.
EX 4. is of Said Guseynaevich Huseynali, an elder WWII veteran performing a 9-minute song with chagana (knee violin) accompaniment and a recitative-singing style.
EX 5. and EX 6. both feature legendary Lak singer Mariam Dandamayeva in an ensemble context (doli, chagana, komuz/pandur). With the instrumental accompaniment the performance takes on an urban flavour that is comparable to the Transcaucasian urban songs (see earlier post on the subject).


A Note on the CD Ay Lazat and the Nogai

Ay lazat Oh pleasures offers a compilation of Avar, Lak and Nogai melodies in ensemble contexts. In a rather visceral response to what I heard on this CD, I would say the Nogai songs, in terms of melodic and harmonic development, sound a little more Russified. This makes sense given that the Nogai, who speak a Turkic language, are late settlers in the region (13th century) with large populations in the Russian province of Stavropol as well.

Festivals in Dagestan

A final mention should be made to music festivals that not only are celebrating the musics of different peoples around Dagestan but also are a testament to the importance of the performance of songs. “Shunudag” festival started in 2002 solely as a festival of Lak songs but in recent years has expanded its mandate to included all the people of Dagestan. The YouTube clips of “Tsamauri” ( demonstrates an abundance of skilled musicians, featuring solo lute playing as well as solo singer-instrumental performances.  (Some nice pictures can be found here From the above video, however, it would seem the Avars and Kumyks dominate the performance. The “Highlanders” festival held in the capital of Dagestan also includes international representation. There are also Mawlid festivals which have something of paraliturgical function, since the text of Quran are performed to popular music in secular settings – though the “popular” music characteristic is outside the scope of this blog.

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