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TIMELESS MUGAM

Sanubar Bagirova, art critic and unesco expert on oral and non-material heritage, talks about mystical music and Azerbaijan's hallmark in an interview for R+

Author:

15.05.2011

Mugam is a mysterious art form which not everyone is able to understand, recognize and feel, but there is no disputing the fact that no-one can fail to be moved by it: one may not understand it, love it, or even listen to it but, on the other hand, one may adore it and revere it, struck by its mysticism. This may be because mugam is not just an art form, but part of the secret of the multi-faceted and profound culture of the East. It is an amazingly mystical kind of music and has, for centuries, been a hallmark of Azerbaijan.

So, what is mugam? What are its origins? Why do some of its exponents leave even an ill-prepared foreign audience speechless, while others are capable of annoying even those who have a deep admiration for local traditions and who listen reverently to ethnic music?

Sanubar Bagirova, music critic and UNESCO expert on oral and non-material heritage, talks about the history of mugam and why this musical genre is so highly developed in Azerbaijan, why Azerbaijani musicians were among the first in the Muslim East to reach out to an audience which had no tradition of mugam, touring Europe and making recordings - and about many other things.

"Before talking about its history, we need to define what we mean by the word 'mugam', Sanubar said at the start of her interview with us. "'Mugam' has many meanings in Azerbaijani music. For most readers it is a special type of musical language or a repertoire of melodies which is played in a certain way and which any young lad from anywhere in Azerbaijan can play if he so desires. Some people will say that mugam is an oral genre unique to Azerbaijani classical, mediaeval, musical culture. Or that it is a living, developing art form, speaking an archaic musical language, which can still be understood by Azerbaijanis today. All these answers are correct!

If one refers to Wikipedia, mugam is the general name given to the broad genre of traditional Azerbaijani music which extends to all forms of mugam, although each has its own name. These are dasgah (vocal-instrumental or purely instrumental), mugam (vocal-instrumental, solo instrumental and solo vocal) and zerbi-mugam. A number of common artistic features link Azerbaijani mugam to Iranian dasgahs, the Uzbek-Tajik shashmaqam, Uighur maqams, Indian ragas, Arabian nubas and Turkish taksims, which have all merged into a common artistic tradition of Oriental music.

That said, in the Azerbaijani mugams the improvised prelude is expressed more clearly than in the mugams of other peoples. The musician shows greater creative initiative, often creating new melodic material, making new switches, executing new variations within the framework of each mugam, as provided for by the canons, enriching the traditions, techniques, forms and scales of the melody; all the while displaying invention and taste. That is precisely why the more creatively enterprising exponents of mugam are at the same time also its creators.

A truly artistic rendering of mugam always leaves the listener with a feeling of catharsis, after which one experiences an emotional depression and a kind of internal emptiness. Of course, by no means all exponents of mugam can embody the artistic concept which lies at its basis, because not every player can match his creative individuality to the music. And to embrace mugam requires a special culture of listening. People around the world who have watched Tarkovskiy's film "Stalker" have, through the sounds of the Azerbaijani 'Bayati-shiraz' mugam, been infused with the emotional state which seized the hero in the 'zone', sensing the vibration of feelings suddenly released. I have seen people in Taiwan stop in their tracks, afraid of missing a single phrase, as they listen to mugam played by the young Aydin Aliyev in Azerbaijani harmony. Concerts by the celebrated vocalist Alim Qasimov, a UNESCO prize-winner, draw full houses all over the world.

Just as in the Holy Scriptures the meaning of a text becomes deeper the more one grows spiritually, so the meaning of mugam becomes clearer and deeper as one's emotions develop and one's spirit matures.

-  Sanubar khanim, there are a number of different versions of the origins of mugam. Could you tell us more about them?

-  Yes, many researchers - into both history and music - speak of the ancient Zoroastrian roots of mugam, pointing to the similarity between the keys and forms of singing and hymns to the Zoroastrian deities (or Gathas). Others are inclined to see mugam as a canonical chant. Basically, one does not exclude the other, and there are certain indirect indications to support both versions. For example, the names of the mugams contain the suffix "gah", which in ancient Persian means ''place'', ''position'', ''situation''. And the word ''mugam'' (or 'maqam') itself is of Arab origin, meaning site, position, a stopping place.

The Azerbaijani mugam is sometimes called 'the art of conditions', but each of these ever-changing conditions of the human spirit always has its own shape and meaning and its own phases of development. These are phases of the path taken by the spirit ascending through various emotional stages or stopping places (''maqams'') towards a state of ecstasy in which the human spirit is released from all social and emotional chains.

In the Middle Ages - approximately between the 8th  and 17th centuries - the art of the mugam player, the theory of mugam and the tone system were the common legacy of the great region of the Near and Middle East, Iran and Turkey - the Arabian Caliphate. After the 17th century there was a splitting up of cultures and each acquired its own individual traits, but they still hang on to something common that unites them to this day. It is no secret that one can hear something akin in the music of these countries, easily distinguishing it from, say, European music.

The mugam player's art has its roots in the chamber music of the mediaeval court. And even now it has its most artistic impact when performed live in a chamber setting. This way of listening to mugam was noted by the celebrated literary-music mejlises (parlour gatherings) of Baku, Shemakha, Shusha and other Azerbaijani towns in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The mejlises of the 19th century formed a special culture of concentrated listening to mugam, as well as a sophisticated and appreciative audience who made high artistic demands of mugam performances. Playing to this fairly broad social milieu provided a strong incentive for Azerbaijani musicians of that era. So, mugam in the form we know it today became part of Azerbaijani culture.

-  How did mugam develop in the 20th century, particularly during the years of Soviet power?

-  I think one has to go back to the end of the 19th century - the period when Eurocentrist trends had the biggest impact on world culture. In Azerbaijan, from the last third of the 19th century until the first decades of the 20th century, two fundamentally different cultural-artistic traditions existed, barely overlapping, and this broke the cultural unity of the social milieu of that time. In 1908 the Azerbaijani public, living through a period in which two cultures coexisted, found itself wanting a kind of third, unified path of cultural development, which the elite in society saw as a fusion of European and ethnic, either failing to represent its specific artistic forms or, if it did at all, very vaguely.

Uzeir Hajibeyov's opera 'Leili and Majnun', which appeared at that time, was simply bound to succeed because it showed for the first time that such a fusion was possible and acceptable, albeit in its infancy, but in a clever artistic form. 'Leili and Majnun' brought the genre of opera to the Azerbaijani stage for the first time, and it also introduced mugam to the Azerbaijani stage, at the same time giving it a new form - that of mugam opera. Moreover, it transferred the art of the musician from its original chamber setting to a popular genre and, what is even more important, from the category of esoteric (art for the devotee) to the exoteric (art for all). 

I see 'Leili and Majnun' as a giant mugam-dasgah with its traditional parts - Deramed and Berdasht (opera prelude), sho'bat (mugam episodes of an opera), metrical sections including tasnif, reng (arias, duets, choruses and dances in an opera) - and with the drama of growing emotional tension and a surprise ending typical of Azerbaijani dasgah. Even if Uzeir Hajibeyov imagined 'Leili and Majnun' as the first introduction to European musical tradition, in actual fact the mugam opera revealed itself to be a different path in the development of Azerbaijani music, which at the time had not advanced further, a path using European forms, genres and vehicles for the conception and development of local traditional musical culture. But mugam is not just indebted to the great Uzeir Hajibeyov for the emergence of 'Leili and Majnun'.

Paradoxical as it may sound, it was during the period from the 1920s almost to the end of the 1980s - i.e. during the years of Soviet power - that mugam really began to develop. And it was precisely due to Uzeir Hajibeyov that the ideological councils of the new regime did not pressure or ban the playing of the music. As we know, in the 1920s Uzeir Hajibeyov was placed at the head of cultural construction in Azerbaijan. Undoubtedly, his efforts alone would have been insufficient for such a huge task as the construction of a new type of musical culture. But, firstly, he was not alone - he had his supporters, and then his pupils. Secondly, he was supported by the socio-political system which had developed in Azerbaijan at that time. After all, at first the basic aims of Soviet cultural construction - let's be fair! - were the enlightenment of the people and the democratization of culture. None of these goals ran counter to Uzeir Hajibeyov's views or the way they should be carried out: the spread of musical competence and the opening of ethnic music schools. And it was precisely thanks to his efforts, enthusiasm, commitment and undoubted prestige that Azerbaijan's musical culture avoided the fate of being "thrown into the dustbin of history" along with the yashmak and the old Arabic alphabet, as happened, for example, in Uzbekistan. That is why, from the 1920s until the collapse of the USSR, mugam developed quite solidly, thanks in part to a whole galaxy of superb exponents of the art. There were dozens of them: Seyid Shushunski, Khan Shushunski, Zulfu Adigozalov, Rubaba Muradova, Shovket Alekberova, Tohfa Aliyeva, Hajibaba Huseynov and Yagub Mammadov, the tar players Ahsan Dadashov, Bahram Mansurov and others. Another page would be needed to list them all.

It was precisely Uzeir who persuaded the cream of tar players and singers to take up teaching - not just those who could play mugam, but those who were endowed with a certain amount of knowledge, and especially the ability to convey it.

-  It would be interesting to know how this happens and whether it is possible to teach this art?

-  The special feature of mugam as a musical work is that it is not composed but is reproduced according to a specific, pre-planned idea or template. It may be compared, for example, with a technique of carpet-weaving in which there is only one design, but within it one can improvise as many patterns as one wishes. Mugam is an abstract artistic idea, which materializes only when it is played. The musician as it were dresses it into a 'body' of sound and pieces it together with a greater or lesser degree of creative freedom. There is room for improvisation, but it is subject to certain laws. Furthermore, there is an unwritten rule that only a perfect knowledge of the canon, which elevates the musician to the level of ustad, or maestro, gives him the moral right in the eyes of his colleagues to violate this canon, i.e. to revamp it somewhat. An inexperienced musician or pupil usually literally follows his tutor's lead. Such a method of teaching, practised by the mediaeval masters, is still preserved today in Azerbaijani traditional music. And this is in spite of all the realities of contemporary music life, for example, the musical notation of mugams, audio discs and even DVDs used by students as additional teaching material. But mugam is not music with a written tradition, although there are musicians who not only composed and performed tasnifs, but also wrote them down; these include Alibaba Mammadov, Islam Rzayev, Bahram Mansurov and Ahmed Bakikhanov. But only the tasnifs of Mansurov and Bakikhanov were published. These are however, more the exceptions that prove the rule.

The main feature of the mugam is not so much its technique as its emotional depth and vigour. It is like a love poem - anyone can declare their love, but only one who has experienced, or rather, lived a life of love can convey its emotions and feelings, at the same time, adding one's own nuances based on personal experience. In order to play mugam, and even to understand it, one requires a certain emotional baggage and spiritual maturity. The magic of mugam does not happen by chance. It is like spiritual texts - the more you read them, the more you see, feel and experience deeper sub-texts in them.

-   Sanubar khanim, you mentioned that the mugam really began to develop before the 1980s. What happened then?

-  At the time of the collapse of the USSR and the complex political situation in Azerbaijan linked to the start of the Karabakh conflict and the subsequent crisis, there was a slump in the art. At first sight this is strange, after all, neither the hard times of the 1930s with the terrible Stalin regime, nor the years of the Great Patriotic War affected art as much as the events at the end of the 1980s. This is possibly because a certain confusion had crept into society which had a particularly strong impact on creative people and especially on mugam as an art which is based on deep spirituality and powerful energy.

On the other hand, artistic development worldwide is cyclical by nature, and that is precisely why we often observe sudden renaissances and crises of genres. Be that as it may, for a certain time mugam was in crisis and, as in all post-Soviet space, there came a time of deep spiritual crisis.

-  What is the situation today?

-  Although the crisis was short-lived, there was a certain stagnation in the development of mugam. And this is also a process that is not dependent on time or political change. A great deal is now being done at state level to develop the art and to develop Azerbaijani culture as a whole; an international mugam centre has opened, international festivals are being held, our players are performing abroad, books are being published and discs produced. But a new leap of energy in its development requires personalities and maestros who will devote themselves fully to the art, as Uzeir Hajibeyov did, and Alim Qasimov is developing into a splendid exponent; people who are able to convey to the younger generation the essential truth that mugam is not about being fashionable and up-market, but being a part of our rich national culture full of spiritual purity and complexity.

The celebrated tar player Bahram Mansurov once said something fine and wise; that mugam cannot be destroyed because it has "become too much a part of" our people and has "infected", in the best sense of the word, the soil of Azerbaijan with energy. That is why mugam will live forever.


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