FEATURE: Impressions of music in Baku, Azerbaijan

A muqam trio in a restaurant
Photo: Mary James


One of LJN's regular contributors, Mary James recently spent a few days in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. Here are some impressions, plus a few photos she took of the music scene there.:

It’s easy to experience the resonant and deeply emotional mugam music in Baku, capital of Azerbaijan. From the tantalising snippets of music which introduce each metro stop to well-attended formal concerts in stunning modern venues, its slightly melancholy sound is everywhere, the backdrop to everyday life and enjoyed by all ages.

Nisbat Sadrayeva
Photo: Mary James
At the Muqam Centre we heard the singer Nisbat Sadrayeva captivate an audience which included small children whose dancing and clapping was unforced and enthusiastic. Her voice was extraordinary powerful without any obvious effort, many songs deeply moving, especially those with just voice and dilli kaval (a flute like instrument). Sometimes the audience broke into applause mid-song – it was hard to work out why – maybe there were words they loved or maybe it was in response to a particularly difficult vocal technique. After many songs, audience members proffered bunches of real and artificial flowers, each gracefully received by Sadrayeva.

The sound of muqam tempts you into restaurants. A trio of tar (that interesting figure-of-eight shaped instrument played horizontally), qaval drum and kamancheh (played with a bow like a cello) plus male voice provided plenty of variation from traditional tunes to the score from the Godfather. And in a small jazz club, a trio of Azerbaijan musicians led by drummer Elvin Bashirov, played a mix of Western standards which sounded very far from home and quite possibly exotic to the local audience (who sadly for us and the trio, talked loudly throughout the show).

Young people sing by the Caspian Sea
Photo: Mary James

On the shores of the Caspian Sea, small groups of young people gather most nights to sing and play guitar against the magical backdrop of Baku by night. They may have been singing the latest Azerbaijan pop tune but somehow I doubt that, there appeared to be improvisation and response between guitarist and singer. One singer adopted a stylish nonchalant air, another was more impassioned. It felt very natural and deeply rooted in their culture and people stopped to watch and listen.

There is a Baku Jazz Festival 14-28 October with artists from France, Brazil and Norway, and it features a jazz day dedicated to Parviz Rustambeyov, a young jazz saxophonist who died in mysterious circumstances in prison in 1949, a reminder that this young nation has had a difficult political past.

Mary James, who lives in Gloucestershire, is a jazz promoter working with John Law, Maciek Pysz and others. Twitter @maryleamington

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