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Azerbaijan mugham music makes revival

Once threatened with extinction, Azerbaijan's most ancient form of music is enjoying a renaissance. Mugham - a unique genre blending throaty song with a special trio of instruments - is being revived by the government through a series of festivals and school activities, as the BBC's Tom Esslemont discovers.

Mugham performers, Baku
Hundreds of years old, mugham combines war chant with love song

Intoxicating. Passionate. Throaty.

Those are the first words which come to mind as I attempt to describe the sound of mugham.

Warbling, rousing and spiritual come next.

It is my first encounter with a brand of music that has been alive for hundreds of years. Its flavour combines war chant and love song.

To me, sat in a restaurant in suburban Baku, listening to mugham, it feels like I am being transported back about 800 years.

In the corner there sits a group of musicians wearing flamboyant costumes: gold and red waistcoats, embroidered hats.

A bejewelled woman in a long gold dress stands up to sing. The musicians pick up their instruments - a daf (tambourine), a kamancha (long four-stringed violin) and a tar (lute).

Prayer and lullaby

She tilts her head back, letting her eyes wander as if in a trance, and produces a piercing, ululating cry.

Her name is Elza Qarabakhly. I ask her how she achieves such a complex sound.

Elza Qarabakhly
You have to listen to the voice in your mind and the rhythm of your heart
Elza Qarabakhly
Mugham singer

"You have to listen to the voice in your mind and the rhythm of your heart," she says.

"You need to develop the full range of pitches: low, medium and high."

And with that she opens her mouth, letting out a high-pitched song, hardly blinking in the process.

Mugham is part of Azerbaijan's rich culture. The country sits on the crossroads between Iran and the Caucasus mountains at the confluence of the Islamic world and Christendom.

The genre itself has roots in prayer and lullaby and is passed on from mother to baby in this way.

But there are hundreds of varieties. Some songs sound more like war chant. Other mugham songs use the lyrics of famous Azeri literary figures like the 12th Century poet, Nizami Ganjavi.

"In the beginning mugham consisted of four voices - a singer and the three instruments. Now it has been expanded," explains expert Chabrayil Abasaliyev.

"Now orchestras even play it. Then there came jazz mugham. It went down very well."

Modernising mugham

Veteran performer Vagif Mustafazadeh, who died in 1979, is credited with fusing jazz with mugham.

Wall painting in Baku
The ancient art of mugham is now taught in schools at every level

These days his daughter, Aziza, has kept the tradition alive through regular performances in Azerbaijan and in Europe.

Azeris are proud of the fact that a genre as enchanting as mugham is theirs - even if it has been associated with other similar genres in modern day Iran, for example.

They are equally proud that, since 2003, mugham has held a special Unesco status.

It is now an "intangible part of the world's cultural heritage" - basically, the equivalent of a world heritage site.

Within the last year, much has been done to modernise mugham and to ensure it remains at the heart of Azeri culture.

The government has released a DVD to schools to help keep mugham on the school curriculum.

Children are encouraged to learn how to perform it.

Azerbaijan's first lady, Mehriban Aliyeva, helped to source the finances for a new metal-and-glass building on the Caspian Sea waterfront, called Mugham House, which contains a concert hall.

I say concert hall, but actually it is more than that.

Constructed in the shape of a tar, its gleaming white marble corridors are lined with busts of renowned performers and musicians.

God's help

This is where Azerbaijan's first international mugham festival was held last March. There was a competition - won, perhaps unsurprisingly, by an Azeri - for best performer.

Mugham House, Baku
Azerbaijan's first lady helped to source finances for Mugham House

On the jury was Arif Babayev, a well known mugham singer.

"Mugham has never been so prominent," he tells me. "It is now taught in schools at every level. The more children learn mugham the more the musical genre will develop. It is wonderful."

I ask him to reveal how he had learnt to sing mugham and to perfect the seemingly impossible technique.

"It is like a gift from God," he says. "Not everyone can sing mugham. Whenever I travel people are amazed.

"But it really takes time. And you need God's help."

And with that he tilts his head back. His face lights up. And Arif Babayev is away, singing an Islamic call-to-prayer in the mugham style.

Perhaps it is his way of summoning God's help.



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