The Meaning of Mugham in Karabakh

I grew up in a small town in south Azerbaijan, called Lankaran, where modern music and culture has largely replaced traditional Azerbaijani mugham music and culture. Mugham is a form of traditional Azerbaijani music that combines elements of Persian, Turkish, and Arabic music. I feel that Azerbaijanis in Karabakh have retained their traditional culture to a greater extent than people in the rest of the country. This difference was clearly apparent when I traveled to Karabakh in the summer of 2012 to work on a project.

While growing up in Azerbaijan I had heard stories about the beauty of Karabakh. However, when I arrived in the partially occupied city of Aghdam I felt as if I was entering a war zone. The day I entered Aghdam, July 23, was the twentieth anniversary of the city’s occupation, which made me depressed and despondent over the plight of Karabakh. The oppressive heat and the stress of not having a place to stay did not improve my mood.

When I eventually found a place to stay I explored the city and I was thrilled to find that every night there were informal mugham concerts in a public park. One evening I stopped to listen to the music and I saw an old man slumped against a wall crying. I tried to speak with him but he did not respond. I wanted to return another night to find the old man but my host brother refused. He said that it was not wise for a woman to visit the park, especially at night.

In retrospect I believe the old man was crying because the music evoked bitter memories of Karabakh. Shusha, the cultural center of Karabakh, was a major center of traditional Azerbaijani mugham music in the 19th Century. The city is still referred to as the “conservatory of the Caucasus”. The greatest composer of Azerbaijani mugham, Uzeyir Hajibayov, was from Shusha. Even today most mugham singers are from Karabakh. Thus mugham is inextricably linked to Karabakh and the longing all Azerbaijanis have for their cultural homeland. The song that the man sang that night was called “Garabagh shikestesi.” One of the lines from the song that drove the old man to tears was “Karabakh won’t be forgotten”.

Post Written by Sevda Salayeva