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Overwhelming power and glory of Azerbaijani Mugham

15 January 2014 14:08 (UTC+04:00)
Overwhelming power and glory of Azerbaijani Mugham

By Nigar Orujova

The outstanding examples of the overwhelming power of the Azerbaijani music, Mugham, have made it popular in the Western world. That particularity of the Azerbaijani culture finds it very attractive.

Traditional folk music, Mugham, which started to enter into the world culture in the beginning of the last century, warms hearts of every soulful music lover.

The pearl of Azerbaijani music was even send into space with many other cultural achievements of humanity.

Azerbaijanis by all means encourage their beloved part of national music in the modern world, holding international festivals and competitions with the participation of international musical bands.

This magic music conquers hearts of many music lovers abroad as well, making them its "hostage".

Jeffrey Werbock, one of the best known Americans in Azerbaijan, who devoted his life to music, has worked for over 30 years to study and perfect his skills in playing Azerbaijani Mugham.

Mugham attracts Jeffrey with the incredible state of mind it pulled him into time and time again, reliably, unfailingly and consistently.

A watershed meeting with an elderly man from Dagestan who played traditional Azerbaijani music has changed Werbock's life. Being completely enthralled, he began to study cultures and people of the Caucasus Mountains, with a strong emphasis on the traditional Azerbaijan music.

Shaping this art for years, he has given hundreds of concerts and lecture demonstrations introducing the art of Mugham at museums, colleges, universities and community concert venues in the United States, Europe, Israel and Azerbaijan.

How it all begins

"I play three instruments of Azerbaijani origin, Kamancha, Tar and oud, which is an Arabic/Turkish adaptation of the ancient instrument barbat. The first instrument for me is Kamancha partly because my first music teacher to teach me Azerbaijani music played Kamancha," Werbock told Azernews.

Recalling the first years of his acquaintance with this seductive music, Werbock said he taught himself to play Tar to form a traditional trio ensemble with the assistance of a gaval player.

"I also feel closest to Kamancha because the sound is unique and unmatched in the world for what I like to call spiritual radiance, a power to transport the listener to the otherworldly states of mind," he emphasizes.

"Since my first teacher, Zevulon Avshalomov, originally from Dagestan, passed away in 1987, I was fortunate to be able to take some lessons from Adelet Vezirov, perhaps the greatest Kamancha player who ever lived. I was also briefly assisted by a fine young Kamancha player Murad Askarov who accompanied us on our expedition to the refugee camps in the year 2000, now immortalized in the famous video clip of one young teenager who sang so powerfully about the loss of his ancestral homeland of Nagorno-Karabakh. This clip has been viewed on YouTube about 144,000 times.

Right after this extraordinary episode, a young virtuoso Kamancha player named Imamyar Hasanov came to America and I took 60 lessons from him, learning the classic Mughams the way they are taught in the Conservatory. After Imamyar moved away from the general area where I lived, I was forced to learn Mugham on my own."

Jeffrey also mentioned having a few lessons on Tar from several good Tar players, Zamiq Aliyev, Firuz Aliyev, Kamran Maharramov and Nisim Nisimov. In spite of a few Tar lessons, they gave him another perspective on Mugham, as the structure of the Mugham melodies are rendered differently on different instruments.

"Then, someone gave me an oud to keep for a while so I began to teach myself how to play Mugham on oud, translating both from Tar and from Kamancha. What happened then was very interesting to me. The classical "canonical" version of Mugham began to break down and reassemble around a highly improvisatory way of playing Mugham.

I still enjoy classic Mugham as it is played by professional Azerbaijani instrumentalists, but I found a greater interest in playing a looser, more free form Mugham such as might be heard at weddings and other non-concert settings. Teaching myself to play on Oud offered me the opportunity to explore different ways of expressing the melodic lines of Mugham, which then influenced how I approach Mugham on Tar and Kamancha, now very improvisatory."

Azerbaijani Mugham and its motherland

Werbock listened to recordings of great and famous Azerbaijani Mugham singers and their ensembles and then decided to visit Azerbaijan. He came to the Mugham home country for the first time in 1989 and made many visits since then, that all helped to better understand the spirit of this music. "It is like a language of its own, telling a story in musical notes," he said.

"My first impression of Azerbaijan was a feeling of oppression mixed with a feeling of hope. It was 1989 and the Soviet Union was beginning to show signs that it might not last much longer. The Armenians in Karabakh had started up their provocations but it wasn't yet all out war, so there was a feeling of worry for the future which I also detected. The heavy atmosphere which lingered and permeated Azerbaijani society under the fearful rule of ruthless Soviet leaders such as Stalin and Khrushchev was palpable and depressing, yet Azerbaijanis seemed to have a cheerful attitude, perhaps thanks to their legendary hospitality and they wanted me to feel happy to be there.

But it isn't possible to hide fear like that. Nowadays with independence and prosperity, it is difficult to remember just how bad it was back during Soviet rule, the hopelessness of the masses of people in the Soviet Union. I can't even imagine the psychological damage done by the thought that you can't trust your neighbors, who knows who might turn you in to the KGB (special security service - editor) and you disappear forever, no explanations to your family. Yet Azerbaijanis must be a very strong and resilient people to have survived such an awful epoch in the history of humanity. Perhaps it is their wonderful culture which helped them survive."

The strenuous work

There were difficulties on the Jeffrey's way. Not considering himself as a musician because originally he was a composer, he taught himself to play guitar to perform his own compositions. "To be perfectly honest, I have difficulty playing musical instruments. It doesn't come easy for me; even to this day it is a struggle to play perfectly in tune on Kamancha and Oud because it doesn't have frets (perdeh) like the Tar."

Playing the Tar has its own technical difficulties too. "The plectrum (Mizrab) is difficult to hold because it is so small. I had to make my own plectra which are form fitted to my fingers and is much easier to hold, however, they don't allow for great speed, which is fine with me because I have little interest in high speed musicianship."

Jeffrey believes it is better to play slowly, for the most part, and restrict oneself to only occasional and very short bursts of high-speed melodies, to reach the extraordinary state of mind.

"Sustained high-speed melodies are boring and antithetical to the spirit of Mugham, and I find myself warning all those young, enthusiastic Mugham musicians to please slow down and let us hear the notes they are playing so we can be transported by the idea of Mugham, not excited by how fast someone has learned to play."

The power of Azerbaijani Mugham

Werbock considers himself as an orientalist who prefers the Azerbaijani version of Oriental culture, and also loves the ancient Eastern traditions of music from Turkey, Persia, Arabia and other countries and cultures of the Middle East and Central Asia, including India.

"Since I was a composer of music, naturally my orientalist perspective on life imparted a sensitivity to Oriental music, and for reasons which are very difficult to explain in words, Azerbaijani music stood out among all the forms of Oriental music I heard when I was still a young man as the most powerful music I have heard, powerful in terms of its effect on human consciousness, the power to transport us to a spiritually transcendent state of mind."

"When I am asked why I play Mugham, a question I hear very often since I give so many lecture demonstrations and presentations of Mugham in universities where the students and professors are particularly curious about what I do, I always frame my answer in terms of feeling compelled rather than making a choice.

I realize most people prefer to think they make choices in life, and certainly we do make choices like what I will order from the menu of a restaurant, but the big choices, the big decisions aren't really choices at all. Where we will live, with whom we shall share our lives, what we shall do to make money, who our friends will be, these are not really choices, are they. They are opportunities realized which involve what should be understood as predetermined preferences, perhaps to some extent genetically predetermined, certainly culturally predetermined to a large extent.

So what is interesting is why a person from one culture will feel an affinity to a completely different culture. There are many Westerners like that. I recall hundreds if not thousands of would be musicians who took lessons from the various masters of Indian raga, a music somewhat like Mugham in certain respects, especially during the late 60's and 70's but continuing today as well. So I would describe my attraction to Mugham as my orientalism leading me forcefully to study Mugham."

Losing tradition?

"Some have asked me why I want to play Mugham, why not just listen to it? I have to say that when I first heard Mugham, I was under the influence of the idea that it was a lost art. Avshalomov had encouraged that incorrect belief by declaring himself the last living carrier of that ancient tradition and this fostered in me the sense of great urgency to learn how to play like him at all costs.

It was an awful burden to feel that centuries of a great and ancient tradition was about to be lost and it was upon me to try to carry that tradition into the future. You can't imagine how relieved I felt when I first heard living masters of Mugham play and sing this incredible music. But by that time, I was deeply committed to learning Mugham so I just continued to learn for my own sake."

Learning the strange "phraseology" of Mugham melodies, the meterless passages, the odd, asymmetrical grouping of notes on the scale which was the really formidable challenge for Jeffrey.

Being a westerner, an "outsider" presenting Mugham to Western audiences, Werbock was obsessed with authenticity from the very beginning.

"I wanted my audiences to feel they were listening to real Mugham, not some Westerner's interpretation of Mugham. I also wanted this for myself, of course. So you can imagine my consternation when each time I took some lessons from yet another Mugham musician from Azerbaijan, each insisting that their way of playing was the only correct way, yet each one of them so differently stylistically.

I absorbed so many versions of Mugham from so many different teachers, plus the versions of Mugham I heard on recordings, heard at weddings, even musicians playing Mugham on Western instruments, it all had a cumulative effect on my understanding Mugham and how it seems to want to be played."

Mugham to develop with times

Being the successor to the Azerbaijani music tradition in the Western world, Werbock is assured the future of Mugham is guaranteed by the interest of young Azerbaijanis, many who love Mugham, and the commitment of the Mugham masters to teach them.

"The government of Azerbaijan has made great investment in the preservation and passing on of this art. They even built a Mugham Center for ordinary citizens of Azerbaijan to enjoy their national music. I don't know of any other country which has done something like this.

I believe Mugham will continue to exist in its current form of perfection, and there will also be unusual versions of Mugham, highly improvisatory, exploratory versions of Mugham as well.

There are many people in America and Europe who are not Azerbaijani and who love Mugham. Thanks to the efforts of numerous Mugham masters who have emigrated to USA and Europe and the many tours of great Mugham performers, we Westerners have had the opportunity to experience Mugham in live performances which are always impressive and astonishing. I believe you will see a wave of interest on the part of Westerners who will not only listen to Mugham, but will want to be able to play it too."

Mugham is fantastic; it takes its admirers too far on musical wings, and this assures all of us that Mugham will exist forever.
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