Mugham (Muğam) is a highly complex art form that weds classical poetry and musical improvisation in specific local modes. Unlike Western modes, Mugham modes are associated not only with scales but with an orally transmitted collection of melodies and melodic fragments that performers use in the course of improvisation. The choice of a particular Mugham and a style of performance fits a specific event. In contrast to the Mugham traditions of Central Asian countries, Azerbaijani Mugham is more free-form and less rigid; it is often compared to the improvised field of jazz. The regions of Qarabağ, Şirvan, and Bakı have traditionally represented the three major schools of Mugham performance. The town of Şuşa (Qarabağ) was particularly renowned for this art.
A record of Azerbaijani Mugham played in balaban, national wind instrument, was included by NASA in 1977 aboard the Voyager spacecraft as part of a small collection of musical compositions representing the Earth’s musical heritage. Acknowledging the authenticity, richness and cultural significance of Azerbaijani Mugham for both national and global culture, UNESCO recognized it in 2003 as a “Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity”. Azerbaijani Mugham singer Alim Qasimov is revered world-wide. The New York Times music review presented him as “one of the greatest singers alive, with a searing spontaneity that conjures passion and devotion, contemplation and incantation”. The New York Times: “Alim Qasimov is one of the greatest singers alive, with a searing spontaneity that conjures passion and devotion, contemplation and incantation.”
The composition of classical music is also based on the old folk art traditions. One of the best-known representatives of Azerbaijani classical music is Uzeyir Hajibeyli. Born in 1885 in Qarabağ, this composer, musicologist, journalist and playwright is rightfully regarded as the founder of modern Azerbaijani music, the national opera and musical comedy. His best known Broadway-style musical comedy, Arşın Mal Alan (The Cloth Peddler), was first performed in 1913 and subsequently conquered the stages of the world. To date it has been performed in various languages in more than 70 countries. In 1908 Hajibeyli composed the Muslim world’s first opera based on the love story “Leyli and Majnun” by Azerbaijani poet Fuzuli.
In the 1920s and 1930s Hajibeyli established Azerbaijan’s first Academy of Music, became the director of the Conservatory and in1931 also founded the country’s first Folk Music Ensemble to play using written musical notes and for which he also composed. Uzeyir Hajibeyli’s 100th birthday was solemnly commemorated by UNESCO in 1985, which attested to the importance attached to his name in the annals of world music.
"The first opera, operetta and ballet of the Islamic world were composed in Azerbaijan."
Hajibeyli served as inspiration for a number of other Azerbaijani composers, including, among others, Gara Garayev, Fikret Amirov, Niyazi, Said Rustamov, Jahangir Jahangirov and Arif Melikov.
Gara Garayev’s ballets - The Seven Beauties and The Path of Thunder - have been a success both in Azerbaijan and abroad. The composer’s symphonic works are also widely known.
Fikret Amirov chose a different type of music — symphonic Mughams. His symphonic Mughams were not confined to the Soviet Union and were played by some of the largest symphony orchestras in the world, for example, the Philadelphia Symphony Orchestra conducted by Leopold Stokowski, but also in Berlin, Boston, New York and London.
Azerbaijan’s ballet tradition commenced in 1940 with “Gyz Galasy” by Afrasiyyab Badalbayli, who dedicated his work to the legend of the famous Maiden Tower in Bakı. This ballet was the first ballet in the Muslim world. The genre was continued by composers Soltan Hajibeyov (“Gulshan” - 1950), Gara Garayev (“The Seven Beauties” – 1952 and “The Path of Thunder” - 1958), Fikret Amirov (“Nizami” – 1947 and “Thousand and one Nights” - 1979), Arif Melikov (“Legend of Love” – 1961), Faraj Garayev (“Shadows of Qobustan” - 1969), Agshin Alizade (“Babek”-1979) and others.
Azerbaijani jazz developed from a fusion of traditional Mugham with jazz. This created a special form of jazz using traditional Azerbaijani instruments. In 1938, Niyazi and Tofig Guliyev created a State Pop Orchestra, which was known as “State Jazz” - the first jazz band in Bakı. The State Jazz performed both classic jazz and improvisations on Mugham. However, from 1945 to 1953, jazz in the Soviet Union faced prohibition and censorship. Despite these prohibitions, by the 1950s, a new jazz movement began to emerge in Azerbaijan which came to be known as “Jazz Mugham”. Jazz musicians from many Soviet cities, looking for a safe harbour, gradually gathered in Bakı. After Stalin’s death in 1953, the ban on jazz was gradually lifted. The Azerbaijani jazz music was boosted by such composers as Gara Garayev, Rauf Hajiyev, Rafig Babayev and Vagif Mustafazade.
Vagif Mustafazade made a great contribution to the development of Azerbaijani jazz. In 1966, Voice of America’s famous jazz producer and broadcaster Willis Conover said: “Vagif Mustafazadeh is an extraordinary pianist. It is impossible to identify his equal. He is the most lyrical pianist I have ever known.” Famous American jazz pianist and master of blues B.B.King once said: “Mr. Mustafazade, they call me the ‘King of the Blues,’ but I sure wish I could play the blues as well as you do.” Mustafazade was the founder and the leader of jazz ensembles “Sevil” and “Mugam”. In 1978, he won the first place at the 8th International Competition of Jazz Composers for his composition “Waiting for Aziza” in Monaco, and was awarded with white grand piano.
Vagif Mustafazade’s daughter Aziza Mustafa Zadeh, who resides in Germany, is one of the best-known Azerbaijani jazz musicians. The musical style developed by Aziza is a mixture of jazz and scat singing with elements of classical piano music and Mugham. Among other modern famed jazz musicians are Isfar Sarabski, Salman Gambarov, Shahin Novrasli and Rain Sultanov. In 2009, Isfar Sarabski won the first place at the 43rd Montreux Jazz Festival.
Art of Azerbaijani Ashiqs
The art of the ashiqs, or bardic folksingers, holds an important place in the Azerbaijan’s musical culture. Popular with both young and old, their songs are characterized both by harmony and by the opportunity for musical improvisation. The ashiqs combine the talents of a composer with those of a singer and a storyteller. Characterized by the accompaniment of the saz, the Azerbaijani national plucked stringed instrument, the classical repertoire includes 200 songs, 150 literary-musical compositions known as dastans, nearly 2,000 poems in different traditional poetic forms and numerous stories.
Since 2009 the art of Azerbaijani Ashiqs has been included in the UNESCO’s List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.
Azerbaijan Wins & Hosts Eurovision Song Contest
In May 2011, Azerbaijan won the Eurovision Song Contest, which remains the world’s biggest music competition and most watched non-sporting event. Azerbaijan took the top honors with a love song in the competition of 43 countries that took place in the German city of Dusseldorf on May 14, and was watched by an audience of more than 120 million people in 55 countries.
The song “Running Scared” about a love-struck couple was performed by Nigar Jamal, 30, a mother-of-two, and 21-year-old student Eldar Gasimov. The duo, known as Ell & Nikki, beat 24 other finalists winning a total 221 points. In accordance with the contest’s rules, the following year’s Eurovision was hosted in May 2012 in Bakı, Azerbaijan.
It took Azerbaijan only four years to win the contest. In 2008, Azerbaijan debuted with a duo of Elnur and Samir who sang a rock song “Day After Day” taking the 8th place. In 2009, a duo of Aysel and Arash “Always” earned Azerbaijan the 3rd place. Safura, as a single warrior, with her excellent voice and song “Drip Drop”, took the 5th place in 2010.
Wall Street Journal: “It is certainly exciting to see a secular democracy that borders Iran and has a Shiite Muslim majority population embracing the European ideal as posited by Eurovision.”
Major U.S. media outlets reported about Azerbaijan’s Eurovision victory with excitement. CNN said: “Azerbaijan won the competition, with a sweet pop song that Europe slowly fell in love with during the course of the contest.” Wall Street Journal wrote: “It is certainly exciting to see a secular democracy that borders Iran and has a Shiite Muslim majority population embracing the European ideal as posited by Eurovision.” Time Magazine: “European voters bypassed all the celebrity hype in favor of Ell & Nikki.”