Despite my own distaste for discussing Azerbaijani Muğam, it’s probably something necessary to do. While living with a host family, this musical art form has become an integral part of my daily life. If you ever watch TV in Azerbaijan, it is nearly impossible to go a day without seeing a Muğam performance. And your host mom tells you that they are singing beautifully, to which you are expected to respond, “Yes, what a beautiful voice. How beautiful (s)he sings,” or something to that effect.
So what is Muğam? It’s Azerbaijani folk music. It features traditional Azerbaijani instruments including the Tar, Zurna, and Gaval. The Tar is a stringed instrument, which I think of as similar to a ukulele, a lute of sorts. The Zurna is a type of horn that emits a rather high-pitched sound, and the Gaval is sort of like a tambourine. A couple other instruments you’ll see are the Garmon, like an accordion, and the Naghara, a sort of drum. Put them all together and you’ve a got a five-piece Muğam band. The singer generally handles the Gaval and sets the rhythm. And you’ll also hear another stringed instrument, the Kamancha, every once in a while.
For a culturally-rich traditional experience, you can’t really go wrong with a Muğam concert. The songs generally are about a metaphysical love, and they often draw on themes broached by traditional Azerbaijani poetry, of which we’ve discussed a bit here and here. In fact, one of the first operas composed in Azerbaijan was a Muğam opera, adapted from Leyla and Mejnun, the Arab-origin epic poem depicted by Füzuli and Nizami Gəncəvi. Uzeyir Hajibeyov composed that opera, creating an entirely new genre of muğam-opera.
Some other notes about Muğam: First, there are lots of rules that dictate how the music should be played; however, the singer actually has a lot of freestyle ability, and the music is often improvised within those rules. Second: a heavy emphasis is put on the singer’s ability to carry a strong timbre. This is when the singer is holding notes for a time and you can hear the pitch of the voice changing during the note. Third: There’s also a particular type of dance that goes along with Muğam. The men here are the experts. It involves stretching your arms out, full wing-span, and holding them still, while you move your feet and knees as quickly as possible, kicking them out every third or fourth beat. Miri professes to being a fantastic dancer. Me, not so much. The last note: You can hear Muğam anywhere. It will be on the radio, on TV, on peoples’ cellphones, anywhere.
That last part is particularly problematic for me. I don’t happen to like Muğam much, at all. To me, the pitch of the music is too whiny and I don’t find the singing pleasant. It’s not easy listening. And often the music is sad. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Muğam song that filled me with joy. Even though I don’t know the words, I can tell you that this is some sad stuff. The worst part is that whenever I hear Muğam, the people around me tell me that it’s beautiful, and ask me how beautiful it is, and if I like it. The answer is no, I don’t like it. But how do you tell someone that their most treasured cultural tradition isn’t enjoyable in the least?