Spring 2001 (9.1)

Traditional Azerbaijani Music with a Beat

by Jean Patterson

Mugham (pronounced moo-GAHM) is the quintessential form of Azerbaijani music. Highly improvisational, it is performed in one of seven basic scales or modes, each one meant to elicit a certain emotion, according to some music critics. [For more about singing traditional mugham, see the article about
Alim Gasimov in this issue.]

While mugham is still performed in the traditional way, it has also been fused with other types of music, especially jazz and classical music. Early in the 20th century, Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov took advantage of the improvisational nature of mugham to create works like the opera "Leyli and Majnun" (1908), injecting mugham solos-accompanied by traditional regional instruments such as the tar and kamancha-into the framework of a Western opera performed primarily by string instruments.

Today, yet another new, fresh version of mugham has appeared in Azerbaijan: "industrial mugham". The name itself conjures up images of East vs. West, tradition vs. modernity. This innovation combines the elements of mugham with the rhythms of modern "techno-house" music. Basically, it's mugham that you can dance to - believe it or not!

In order to find out what inspired the 1999 album "Industrial Mugham", we talked to Aytan Ismikhanova, the composer, and Gulyaz Mammadova, one of the sisters who sings the mughams featured on the CD. They explain one of the driving forces behind industrial mugham: to lure younger Azerbaijanis back to their country's national heritage by combining traditional classical folk music with the popular new rhythms.

Left: Mugham singer Gulyanag Mammadova.

"What would happen if we mixed 'techno-house' music with traditional Azerbaijani mugham?" wondered Vahid Mustafayev. Vahid was an avid fan of modern electronic music and had a deep love for the traditional modal music of his native land. In addition, as co-founder of the country's most respected independent television station (ANS), he was used to breathing life into innovative ideas and watching them evolve into full-scale projects.

Hoping to capitalize on the international popularity of synthesizer-based dance music, he labeled his experiment "industrial mugham" and released the first CD by the same name in May 1999.

The idea of industrial mugham wasn't guaranteed to sell. For one thing, many Azerbaijani youth didn't listen to mugham. They were much more interested in Western pop music, especially internationally known singers like Madonna, Ricky Martin, Celine Dion and Enrique Iglesias.

"Believe me, it's not easy to foster a love for mugham in the new generation," says Gulyaz Mammadova, a traditional mugham singer in her late 20s, who appears on the "Industrial Mugham" CD with her sister Gulyanag. "If you mention mugham, most young people grimace and say: 'Do you really think I would listen to mugham?' But if we don't foster a love for mugham in them, what will happen to mugham in the future? We must perform mugham and pass it down, generation to generation. It's a very deep and complex musical genre."

"We wanted to create dance music," says Aytan Ismikhanova, the composer for the album. "But at the same time, we wanted to bring mugham to our youth, because they don't listen to mugham in its traditional form."

A New Concept
Sisters Gulyaz and Gulyanag Mammadova are known for singing mugham together. They graduated from the Asaf Zeynalli School of Music.

Left: Sister Gulyaz Mammadova singing onstage.

Gulyaz tells how they became involved with the "Industrial Mugham" CD project: "Quite by chance we ran into Vahid Mustafayev in Shaki [a town in the foothills of the Caucasus mountains, about five hours northwest of Baku]. He asked us to sing for him and afterward told us that we were singing in an old, ancient style, like the old singers did. 'It's true, you can sing mugham,' he went on, 'but I'm looking for someone innovative, someone who would dare to synthesize mugham with new forms.'

"At first we didn't quite understand what he meant by mixing mugham with something modern. Maybe it was because we were used to singing mugham in the traditional way. When we returned to Baku, Vahid took us to his own studio - VVS -switched on some rhythm and said: 'I want you to sing mugham to this rhythm. You sing. Then Aytan will work with you on it.'"

Aytan's background is in classical music, having graduated from Baku's famous Music Academy in 1991 and studied the likes of Bach, Beethoven, Haydn and Rachmaninoff. After she started working at VVS Studio, Aytan learned to program a synthesizer and began experimenting with modern compositions.

"They didn't teach us about computers when we went to school," she says. "I've had to learn it all on my own. Of course, I already knew how to compose and write scores for orchestras." She has since gone on to compose songs not only for Industrial Mugham but also for the Azerbaijani rap group Dayirman [see article about Dayirman in this issue].

She remembers how tricky it was to fit all of the elements together: "It was really quite difficult at the very beginning when we had just introduced the idea to the sisters. It seemed a bit strange to them because they weren't used to singing mugham within any restrictions of rhythm. But this time, they had to adhere to a strict rhythm - 130 beats per minute. Why this tempo, you might wonder? Before I started working on this project, I had listened to a lot of CDs and discovered that 130 beats was the most frequently used tempo for 'house music'."

Actually, the sisters weren't too sure what the reaction of their voice teacher, Kamil Vazirov, would be. Since he had grown up on traditional music, they weren't sure if he would take to these new innovations or not. But it wasn't long before he accepted the idea and starting helping the team come up with creative ideas, especially related to improvisation and the progressions from one mugham to the other.

The "Industrial Mugham" CD features seven pieces - each one introducing a different modal pattern: Rast, Shur-shahnaz, Seygah, Bayati-Shiraz, Humayun, Heyrati and Chahargah. Each song is seven to nine minutes long. (A regular mugham would last 1/2 hour to 1 hour or more.)

"We've preserved the modal intervals of the melodies so that the listener can identify the mugham that is being performed," Aytan says. "Basically, we've only altered the rhythm and added drums and bass.

The two sisters sing mugham against this fast tempo and a backdrop of computer-generated sounds and effects, such as a robot effect or a telephone effect. Some of Aytan's arrangements also incorporate Azerbaijani folk instruments such as the tar and kamancha along with keyboard instruments, violins and occasional bells.

Mugham Video
This idea of mixing Eastern and Western traditions was taken even further when they produced a video for one of the album's songs - the Shahnaz mugham. The video, which came out in 2000, is filmed in several public settings: the Palace of the Khans in Shaki, around a tandir oven where an old woman is baking bread, and at the "Inshaatchilar" Metro station in Baku.

"It took us about a month to shoot all the footage for the video," Gulyaz says. "In the various scenes, I represent our national traditions, while my sister represents modernity. We decided to have the bread scenes symbolize the natural process of living off the benefits of one's own hard labor, honestly."

Left: Aytan Ismikhanova, composer and arranger
for "Industrial Mugham" and the Dayirman Group.

Seyfulla Mustafayev, Vahid's brother, directed the video, and his daughter played the part of the small child. "She played her role in the video very well, even though she's only six or seven years old," Gulyaz says. "Everyone was surprised at her talent - she did whatever we asked her. When the moment came to cry, she did it so naturally that we all were touched." Azerbaijan's "Crazy" dance group also appears in the video.

At the "Best of the Best" competition, the industrial mugham video was named "Best Scenario Video of 2000". The two sisters were awarded "Best Duet of the Year".

Finding an Audience
Industrial mugham seems to be maintaining that delicate balance between old and new, East and West. And as hoped, the younger generation is beginning to embrace this new form based on their own roots. "The reaction to the video has been very positive," Gulyaz says. "Wherever we go these days, people beg us to sing 'Shahnaz'."

Nor have they heard anything negative from famous traditional mugham singers like Arif Babayev and
Alim Gasimov.

Surprisingly, many of the older generation seem to like it, too. Aytan and the sisters rarely hear any criticism about Industrial Mugham, though they've been told that some people balk at trying to dance to it: they find the music so intriguing that they just want to concentrate and listen to what's going on.
Aytan was surprised when one of her mother's friends asked for a tape of the music so she could introduce it to her children.

Those who complain the most about the music are radio producers who have to cope with time restrictions in their programming. "They don't like that the pieces usually last seven to nine minutes. That's considered long for radio broadcasting," Aytan says.

Aytan believes that there's a difference between the Azerbaijan of today and that of ten years ago. "Our mentality has changed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. People have become more liberated. It used to be that the Soviets prohibited genres like jazz. We used to be cut off from new musical trends in the international arena, but now we have access to all kinds of music. Students travel abroad and exchange ideas. We recognize good music, and we can listen to it whenever we want. In the past it used to take three or four years before new musical ideas would find their way to us. Now we have access to them right away. Thanks to modern technology, we can visit the Web sites of countless musicians and singers and immediately listen to their music and see what they are doing."

While only the future can tell if mugham will make a comeback, Aytan believes that efforts like the "Industrial Mugham" CD are vital: "Industrial mugham is like a bridge between traditional folk music, classical music and the new generation. This combination of mugham with 'techno-house' will help keep mugham alive."

Their heads are already spinning with the next project - fusing mugham with opera! An aria from Bizet's "Carmen" is their first experiment. Gulyanag will be performing mugham while Fidan Hajigizi of the Opera Theater joins the duet performing opera. Two different musical genres. Two languages - Italian and Azerbaijani - and two magnificent voices. The combination promises to be amazing!

The "Industrial Mugham" CD can be ordered from Azerbaijan International at
AZER.com. Click on STORE, then MUSIC. Lyrics from the "Industrial Mugham" article album may be found at AZERI.org in both Azeri Latin and English. Click on AZERI LATIN, then MUSIC LYRICS.

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