The Ashigs, Ashiks, Ashiqs of Algeti

My updates have been less than prolific the last 2 months but I think  have a decent excuse: things are happening. Tar lessons, new research subjects, a new conservatory-backed project to document the different ethnic minorities of the Caucasus and put together an interactive website (more on this later), and plenty of recording sessions out in the field (figuratively and literally; some musicians actually played for me while standing in a field.) Here are some recordings, videos, pictures, and some descriptions of a session that happened last weekend:

Anna Harbaugh (my girlfriend and a speaker of Russian), Stefan Williamson-Fa (my friend and fellow ethnomusicology enthusiast), and I took a bus 45 minutes south of Tbilisi to a small city called Marneuli. The city is the center of the Azerbaijani population of Georgia (83% of the population are Azeri).We had a contact named Zaur who knew of a small village outside of the city where an elderly Ashig lives.

Simply discussing the correct spelling of this term gives you some idea of its trans-Caucasian nature and this figure’s importance to the different peoples of the region. It has six spelling, not including the English: AzerbaijaniAşıq, Turkish: Aşık, Persian: عاشیق‎, Armenian: Աշուղ (ashugh), Georgian: აშუღი (ashughi). In western terms the position this title denotes is the equivalent of a bard or a troubadour: someone who incorporates playing, singing, and poetry. In Tbilisi’s old city there is a monument to Sayat Nova, the Bard of the Caucasus, which in Georgian reads: თბილისის დიდი აშუღი (directly translated: Tbilisi’s big Ashig).

In Azerbaijan, the classical repertoire of Ashiqs “includes 200 songs, 150 literary-musical compositions, nearly 2,000 poems and numerous stories.” Ashigs play the Azeri saz, an instrument distinct from the Turkish saz due to its larger body, its playing style (held horizontal against the chest), and brighter tone.

We arrived in Marneuli and  Zaur called a local representative from the village of Algeti. He agreed to meet us once a marshrutka dropped us off outside an abandoned cultural center in the village. The short ride to Algeti felt like entering a completely different country. Around Marneuli we still heard both Russian and Georgian and saw signs in both alphabets, as well as Turkish. Once we entered the claustrophobic little van and headed off in search of the ashig, we heard only Azeri, spoken by old women with bags of vegetables and golden teeth. As we neared Algeti, more and more of the passengers exited, until it was just the three of us and the driver. He stopped at the edge of a dirt road and signaled for us to get off. He eschewed payment, muttering shyly, “but you are guests.”

Upon arriving at our destination–a three way intersection of scrubby grass and road–we learned that the cell number we’d been given by Zaur didn’t work. We loitered around  discussing our next step until we saw a tall, lean figure in a black suit approaching us from down the road.  We knew not to expect the ethnomusicologists dream session: Azeris in sheep skin hats and traditional dress playing songs unchanged for centuries, without a sign of western influence in sight. But still, we didn’t expect our Ashig to be dressed like an businness man.  He turned out to be the representative here to meet us and introduce us to the musicians. Behind him, carrying a large instrument case and wearing the traditional grey woolen hats of the Azeri Ashigs, was Ashig Garib.

Garib was born and raised in Algeti. He is 75 years old and has been playing since he was in his late teens. Not only is he a venerated performer (he carries in his wallet  a photograph of a certificate from the Georgian government, signed by Misha himself, in which he was declared a national “cultural landmark”); he had also succeeded in pretty much single-handedly replacing the region’s only music school, acting as mentor and teacher to all of the region’s many ashigs–some of whom we were soon to meet. Garib, as far as we could tell, spoke no Georgian and very minimal Russian which was so accented it was incomprehensible to us. We quickly set up our microphones, cameras, and video equipment out in the front yard of a boarded-up community center and Anna started interviewing the representative (who we began calling “the mayor” because of his nice suit, white hair, and omniscient air).  Ashig Garib slowly took out his Saz, which was beautifully ornamented and engraved with his name and title. Unceremoniously, he started in on his first song, while curious groups of older men from around the village began strolling over from across the fence.

Ashig Garbib played four songs and during each more men showed up to watch, smoke, and join in with shouts of encouragement at key moments. Some of this group were actually his students and were eager to take over once he was finished. Here is a clip of Ashig Aleskar, a 36 year old student of Garib’s:

The mayor said he was playing “Melodia Dastana,” which is a genre of Ashig music that involves the narration of heroic deeds or love stories. Unfortunately, Aleskar had a soar throat and wasn’t able to play for too long. While we were off to the side asking the mayor more questions, one of the men picked up  Aleksar’s saz and started fiddling with it. It looked like he was having trouble tuning it and it also appeared he’d just wandered in with one of groups of men so I incorrectly assumed he wasn’t an ashig. But then he started playing.

His performance incorporated all the different aspects of the Ashig art: virtuosity on the saz, passionate singing, and the recitation of poetry. The five seconds between 1:43 -1: 48 in the video below were my favorite part of the entire day; this guttural, rhythmic ornamentation in time with his saz playing united all of the interesting aspects of this tradition into one little moment.

The youngest performer we recorded that day was a 25 year old named Rolan. The mayor wrote down his name without “ashig” so I am assuming he has yet to earn this title. He played this instrumental tune:

Rolan and Ashig Gymbat, the surprise Ashig, disappeared as soon as we were finished recording them. We were left sitting in front of the community center with the mayor, Ashig Garib, Ashig Aleskar, and a friendly old man with a cap and mustache who had wandered over to watch. Oh, and a flock of sheep. During the last song about thirty sheep swept into the courtyard and started grazing.

We headed to the tea house in the middle of Algeti. It took us about 5 minutes to take in all the sights. There is a mosque, a chaikhana (teahouse) , and little groupings of houses. Boys were riding horses around in the street and huge groups of men (we didn’t see a single woman the entire time we were in Algeti) sat outside the Chaikhana playing backgammon. We drank some delicious black tea, ate the strongest cheese I’ve ever experienced, chewed on the toughest meat in Georgia, and talked with the four men. We talked about Stalin (“All this land was my family’s until Stalin came and took it” – Man with the cap and mustache), living in Georgia (“This area has been part of Azerbaijan for 6,000 years!), Remish (Ashig Aleskar has a picture of the two of them together), and they told us there are more musicians in Algeti who play Zurna. We promised to come back soon and record them. They insisted on paying for our meal and our marshutka back to Marneuli. I can’t wait to go back. Here are a few more recordings of Ashig Garib and Ashig Gymbeck as well as some pictures of the recordings session:

More posts to come sooner than later.

- Ben

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2 Comments

Filed under music, photo, Travel

2 responses to “The Ashigs, Ashiks, Ashiqs of Algeti

  1. Dude, this is the most amazing post I’ve seen in a long time. Huge congrats for doing this work, and keep it going! At one time I thought I would do recordings in Georgia but it proved not to be my forte (only had a little mini-disc player back then). Looking forward to more.

  2. Pingback: Onnik Krikorian | Journalist, Photojournalist: » Archive » The Sayat Nova Project: Ashig Garib, Ethnic Azeri Musician

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