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Almaty or Bust!
Central Asia in Words and Pictures

Part Three: Azerbaijan

Quick facts from the CIA World Handbook

Population: 7,830,764 (July 2003 est.)
Capital: Baku
Ethnic Groups: Azeri 90%, Dagestani 3.2%, Russian 2.5%, Armenian 2%, other 2.3% (1998 est.)
Religions: Muslim 93.4%, Russian Orthodox 2.5%, Armenian Orthodox 2.3%, other 1.8% (1995 est.)
Languages: Azerbaijani (Azeri) 89%, Russian 3%, Armenian 2%, other 6% (1995 est.)

I recently read My Life as an Explorer by Sven Hedin, the famous 19th century Swedish explorer of Central Asia. His first visit to Central Asia was to Baku, the capital of what is now Azerbaijan. As you can see from the map above, Baku is at the fingertip of the peninsula that makes up this tiny republic. Hedin was in Baku to act as a tutor for a wealthy Swede's child (this was about 1880 or so). Why would a Swede be in Baku in the 19th century, you ask? Simple: oil. Oil refineries were all over this area, and most of them were (at this time) owned by the Nobel family of Sweden (yes, THAT Nobel family). In short, oil is the central focus of life in this country, and that has been both good and bad for the country. It's good because, since the collapse of the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan has been one of the chief beneficiaries of Western support--thanks, of course, to the oil. There's a big pipeline being built from Baku to Turkey, which will take that oil to Europe and the US. But the downside to all this oil is pretty severe. Azerbaijan is one of the most polluted places on Earth.

As I said on the previous page, Azerbaijan and Armenia are still struggling over the Nagorno-Karabakh region. It's a region that is actually controlled (for the most part) by Armenia. So the two countries continue to fight over this; it also doesn't help that that Azerbaijan is primarily Moslem and Armenia is primarily Christian. But there's always an ironic lining to every squabble, right? The irony here is that Azeri music has a lot in common with Armenian music. They, too, make the duduk a central feature in musical works; other instruments, like the dhol, the shvi, the tar, and the zurna, are common in both musical cultures (though the Azeri national instrument is a type of bagpipe called a balaban--see below).

However, there are also a lot of differences between Armenian and Azeri music—and between Azeri and other Central Asian musics. Lonely Planet's online guide to Azerbaijan includes some information about Azeri music that I thought was a bit odd. Here it is: "The country's musical traditions are preserved by ashugs, or poet-singers, who often strum the kobuz (a stringed instrument) while singing of the deeds of ancient heroes. Another popular form of music in Azerbaijan is mugam, which is improvised by voice and wind and stringed instruments and is often compared to jazz." What is odd about this? The jazz reference. From what I've read, mugam is a very rigid, organized, and in no way improvised form of music. At least, that's what the mugam is in Uzbekistan and other areas of Central Asia. To me, this suggests that Azeri music is very different from the musics of other Central Asian nations, and that it takes its cues from Iran (which is located right to the south and which possesses a rich and very popular classical tradition).

Lonely Planet's take on Azeri mugam music is, apparently, right on the mark, however. Susan Cornnell's article, "Baku Diary: The Music Scene," notes, "I've seen many Azerbaijanis listen to a tune only once and then be able to play it back, improvising and improving upon it. We, westerners, are so accustomed to having a written copy of everything from recipes to phone numbers and musical scores. These folks don't always have access to such and, therefore, seem to be particularly adept at improvising. That's true even when their instruments break." Sadly, she also mentions that traditional music in Azerbaijan is not as relevant or as popular as it once was. However, her article was written in 1995, smack in the middle of the Azeri-Armenian war. In a later article, she notes that things have gotten better. I hope so. I've only heard a smattering of music from this country; I'm eager to hear more.

The oil industry in Baku is older than the car!

Here's a picture of an Azeri trio in action. The guitar-like instrument is called a tar; it is common in Armenia and throughout Central Asia. The bowed instrument is called a "spiked fiddle." Armenians call it a Kemenche; I'm not sure if Azeris have a different name for it. Finally, as I said before, the drum is called a dhol.

The instrument on the left is called a balaban; it looks and sounds much like the bagpipe. This photo is courtesy of Azerbaijan International.

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