Mugham, the traditional music of Azerbaijan, is a highly complex art form that weds classical oral poetry with intensive musical improvisation. Typically performed by a trio of a singer holding a gaval (drum), a tar (lute) player, and kamancha (zither) player, mugham utilizes an extensive vocabulary of “modes” and rhythms which allow its performers to experiment with different lyrics and melodies. Scholars typically identify three major regional schools of mugham performance: Shusha, Shemakha, and Baku. Each of these styles has its own type of ghazals (poetic mugham lyrics) and melodic modes. The ghazal sung in an individual mugham may be an epic tale of ancient Persian kings or it may be an expression of unrequited love, but all performances share the fundamental characteristics of almost jazz like improvisation and a push and pull between musician and audience.

For observers, this can be a truly hypnotizing experience. Indeed, the trance like state induced by mugham performances harkens back to its historical association with Sufi mysticism. However, mugham was and still is performed at a variety of social functions, such as weddings and holiday feasts. Today, mugham lives on in both classical and modern forms – some Azerbaijani musicians have even attempted to fuse mugham and American jazz music. But mugham’s most enduring legacy is the ongoing relevance of the music itself. Mugham is passed down orally from master to student and its survival in the face of centuries of political upheaval is a testament to the persistence of Azerbaijani culture and traditions.

In 2003, UNESCO recognized mugham as a Masterpiece of Oral and Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.

During the 46th annual Smithsonian Folklife Festival, the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage in collaboration with the Karabakh Foundation presented Azerbaijani music to thousands of visitors to the U.S. National Mall—the stretch of land between the U.S. Capitol Building and the Washington Monument. Two evening concerts on June 28 and July 5 introduced music lovers to the sounds of mugham  performed by virtuoso Imamyar Hasanov and Pezhham Akhavass, modern-day master of the tombak, a Persian goblet drum. The performances, entitled Music from the Land of Fire and Undiscovered Treasure: The Kamancha of Azerbaijan, each brought in a crowd of several hundred individuals.

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Imamyar Hasanov and Pezham Akhavass perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival