Freestyle in Azerbaijan
Since the collapse of the Soviet regime in Azerbaijan, pop music there has taken on a number of new forms. Traditional styles have been reworked and reinvented as consumer pop styles, and Western pop styles such as hip hop have been taken up enthusiastically by local musicians. These local and global styles have converged in unexpected ways.
Azerbaijan sits nestled on the shores of the Caspian sea, at the crossroads of Europe and Southwest Asia. One of several Caucasus states precipitated out of the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan is still, like its neighbours, dealing with the fallout from the redrawing of borders. Of great significance for the country is the conflict over the Nagorno-Karabakh region; formerly part of Azerbaijan under the Soviets, but occupied by Armenia since 1991. The war, at a cease-fire since 1994, has lead to a massive internal refugee problem (almost one in eight people in Azerbaijan is a refugee), plus continued border tension after the three-year-long conflict which claimed tens of thousands of lives.
Pop music, however, has never been known to be kept down by war, famine, drought or any other sort of disaster (in fact disaster can and does promote pop music – think of the musical outpouring that followed the tsunami, not just the concerts here, but also, for instance, in India). Azeri pop music is no exception.
After Azerbaijan emerged from the Soviet juggernaut in 1991, two things relevant to pop music happened simultaneously. First of all, the country opened up to external musics – from the West, and from surrounding countries such as Turkey and Iran. Secondly, Azeri traditional music re-emerged as a popular form. Most notable amongst the re-emerged traditional forms is the mugham.
Alim Qasimov, Azerbaijan’s most famous and beloved mugham performers, described the Soviet repression of the style: «Mugham was performed just to show that we Azerbaijanis had this relic in our history.» This situation of manipulation and control of folk music styles was found right across the Soviet Union: wherein music was made to capitulate and serve as evidence in arguments about social evolution and national identity.
A significant feature of the style which was pruned during the Soviet era was the length of mugham pieces. Traditionally, mugham was a vocal-focused style which sought to bring out the musical qualities of written poetry. The subject matter was normally romantic love, odes to a distant lover, tales of broken hearts, etc. But this secular material, drawn out at length and given the full passion and force of a virtuoso mugham singer, often took on a sacred bent. Alim Qasimov has even speculated that the mugham was linked to Sufi philosophies and practices. By shortening the length of the mugham, the Soviets reduced the likelihood of the music being used as a tool to induce trance, thereby robbing it of all religious significance, and turning mugham into a simplistic marker of national identity, switching it from a religious tool to a political one.
Now, however, moves are being made to shorten the mugham once again, but for very different reasons. The project «Industrial Mugham», completed in 2000, sought to combine the vocal repertoire of mugham with the backing and aesthetic of Western house music. Two singers, sisters Gulyaz and Gulyang Mammadova, teamed up with producer Vahid Mustafayev and keyboardist / composer Aytan Ismikhanova, to produce an album of modified mugham songs. The frame over which the mughams were stretched was rigid, each song had to keep to a strict 130beats per minute («standard» house beat), and needed to last between seven and nine minutes. The formula proved successful with live audiences, but the severely shortened compositions proved not short enough for radio gate-keepers, and Industrial Mugham struggled to receive airplay.
One act which did not have trouble receiving airplay at the same time was the Azeri hip hop act Dayirman. Dayirman («The Mill» in Azeri) have now been active for eight years, in which they have produced four albums. Currently, the four-piece is working on their fifth studio release. To date they have been extremely successful, regularly rating in the local top 40, and touring throughout the country. In summer they play to huge crowds at massive parties on Azerbaijan’s beaches. They can also be found regularly doing the rounds of Baku’s (Azerbaijan’s capital) hip hop clubs. The band is also well known in Turkey and Poland. Their success has extended beyond the regular arena of pop-stardom, as well. Lyrics from Dayirman songs have even been included in the national school curriculum.
Despite all this success, Dayirman have not been able to achieve financial independence with their music. All of the members still must work to support themselves and their families. This is a fate shared by many pop stars not plugged into the massive distribution networks of western record labels, or who choose to sing outside the global pop lingua franca of English. Language, indeed, is a core issue for the group. Under the Soviets, media, education and all public affairs were conducted in Russian; all members of The Mill grew up in a Russian speaking environment. As a mark of patriotism and cultural pride, the group rap in the Azeri language.
In fact it could be argued that patriotism and cultural pride have played a large part in the band’s success. Malik from Dayirman certainly locates patriotism as an important theme in the work of the band: «The main principle of the group is to touch upon current problems. And patriotism is always a current issue. It is very important for us to sing on patriotic theme because our audience is youth and most of them learn a lesson from us.» One example of the manifestation of patriotism in Dayirman’s work was a concert they played for troops along the Armenian front, where they were told by an Azeri soldier that «most likely their snipers are looking at you right now.»
The band’s lyrics also reflect patriotic themes. On their album Azermik, the song For The New Generation directly addressed Azeri youth with a challenge to struggle for the betterment of their country. Despite being written five years ago, the situation that For The New Generation addresses remains similar, according to Malik: «We can’t say that youth don’t have problems now. We are still struggling. The most favorable thing the youth can do for their Motherland and its future is to study and gain knowledge.»
The irony of Dayirman’s situation is that, whilst being a strongly patriotic group with obvious pride in Azeri culture, they are expressing their ideas in what is essentially a Western musical style. When I asked Malik about the links between Dayirman’s style and Meykhana (a form of traditional Azeri vocal music) I was told, «our music is totally based on hip hop.» Of course, in the current era of globalisation, it should not be surprising to hear a musical group proclaiming local pride in what is essentially a global style.
The final twist in Dayirman’s route through the global soundscape is that, in a way, their take on hip hop may actually capture some of the essence of that most ‘local’ Azeri style, the mugham. Alim Qasimov has said that improvisation is the heart of the mugham. It is the singer’s ability to respond directly to his surroundings and provide an immediately relevant melodic interpretation of a text that gives the mugham its affective power. In a similar way, hip hop music is heavily reliant on freestyling (the spontaneous invention of lyrics). The mugham freestyles melody, the hip hop MC improvises lyrics. For the MC, being able to freestyle demonstrates that they have ‘flow’, that they are able to live in the moment, and express this lyrically. Alim Gasimov, in a similar vein, has said that improvisation means choosing a way of life, a way of living in mugham.
It seems that, whilst strictly adhering to an imported, global style, through its local content and strange convergence with the spirit of mugham, Dayirman is providing an authentic bridge between Azeri and global pop music.
Published on October 31, 2017
Last updated on January 16, 2020
Gerald Roche currently lives and works in China, where he teaches English to ethnic minority students. His research interests include collaborative ethnography and the dynamics of cultural variation on the Tibetan Plateau and surrounding highland areas. He has co-authored two books and half a dozen papers on various vernacular traditions of the region, and is also co-editor of the journal Asian Highlands Perspectives.