Monthly Archives: January 2012

Imam Shamil, the Lion of Dagestan

Surrender of Shamil, Theodor Horschelt

Imam Shamil was an Avar who heralded from present day Dagestan. He united the traditionally warring North Caucasian tribes in defense against Russian expansionism and led the Caucasian Imamite from 1834-1859. Shamil escaped from the Russians after his forces were defeated in the 80 day seige at Akhoulgo and continued to raise troops from the diverse tribes of the region, waging an Islamist holy war against Russia until his surrender in 1859. At this point, his story takes a strange turn.

The Imam was transported to St. Petersburg, where he was treated as an honored guest of the tsar and before settling on a well-appointed estate outside of Moscow toured the country (“By the will of the Almighty, the Absolute Governor, I have fallen into the hands of unbelievers … the Great Emperor … has settled me here … in a tall spacious house with carpets and all the necessities”), where he was greeted with near fanatical enthusiasm by the Russian public. After 12 years of exile in Russia, he requested and was granted permission by Tsar Alexander II to make a pilgrimage to Mecca, where he died.

Thomas M. Barrett discusses the significance of Shamil in exile to Russian attitudes towards imperial expansion and developing notions of empire in his article “The Remaking of the Lion of Dagestan: Shamil in Captivity,” writing “the celebration of the capture of Shamil was a mixture of entertainment and imperial boasting, of Romantic infatuation and national pride. Shamil represented the mixing of literary imperialism and state imperialism; he was both a hero of the Russian imagination and a striking example of the fruits of tsarist expansion.”

Imam Shamil’s treatment was a turnaround from the fate of other Caucasian rebels at the hands of the Russian empire, most of whom were either killed outright or sent into solitary exile in one of Russia’s many fortresses or prisons. Rather than strip rebels of their power through literal means or isolation, they began to wage what more resembled a PR campaign. Shamil assisted in the creation of harmonious relations by pledging loyalty to the tsar and repudiating the ongoing efforts of the Caucasian rebels. Bariatinskii, who was Viceroy of the Caucasus under Alexander II, developed a close and cooperative relationship with the former rebel, requesting official statements and dictating many of his political opinions, at least in the public realm. Military personnel were encouraged to visit Shamil and his family on their estate outside of Moscow, where their hosts would greet them in ceremonial dress in this “museum of the East in a Russian provincial town.”

The myth of Shamil proved harder to articulate than Russian authorities must have hoped. Before his capture, he had become a source of fascination in Western Europe, with Thomas Peckett Prest (author of Sweeney Todd)’s serialized story, Schamyl; or the Wild Woman of Circassia. An Original Historical Romance, appearing in London papers, complete with lurid woodcut illustrations. Due to the popularity of Western travel writers accounts of the Caucasus, more was perhaps known about Shamil in the West than in Russia at the time of his capture. Russian authorities hoped that their generous treatment of Shamil in captivity would soften Western attitudes to Russian expansionism in the Caucasus. But his capture and position afterward elicited a mixed response among Russian supporters of the conquest, who feared that Shamil’s new status in the Russian imagination would trivialize Russian exploits in the Caucasus. One anonymous letter writer to a St. Petersburg newspaper expressed outrage at his depiction as a “leader of bandit horseman,” writing:

“Shamil–an autocratic ruler of an enormous expanse of the mountains before whom hundreds of thousands of a warrior population trembled; Shamil–who fought the Russian army for 25 years, more than once getting the upper hand over large divisions led by foreign generals; Shamil–who from poor, wild mountain people has been elevated to the ranks of a university historical personage thanks to his intellect and energy; Shamil–in the understanding of Mr. Author, a leader of bandit horsemen?!?!”

– Anna

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Thomas De Waal’s “The Caucasus”

Last night I finished reading Thomas De Waal’s introduction to the Caucasus.  Ideally, this should have been the first book I read about the region; It provides just enough information and anecdotes about each country to incite further research.

Waal very briefly discusses the pre-Russian history of the Caucasus by dividing the first chapter into a Persian, Azerbaijani, Armenia, and Georgian sections. He cites Sayat Nova (See earlier post) as an example of the intermingling influences of the pre-Tsarist atmosphere. He quickly moves on to the 1800s and the arrival of Russian protection, colonization, and absorption.  The third chapter focuses on the Soviet Caucasus, beginning with the post WWI teetering between Transcaucasian independence, Bolshevik influenced states, and fully incorporated members of the USSR, continuing onto Stalin’s and Beria’s purges and exportations of ethnic communities, all the way up to the fall of the Soviet Union..

By the fourth chapter, Waal begins to focus on the individual conflicts that have come to define each country and their relationship to each other, Russia, and the West. He covers the Nagorny Karabakh “quarrel”,  Caspian energy, and varying aspects of Georgian politics including Abkhazia, South Ossetia, and The Rose Revolution (my favorite detail of which Waal describes:  ” Saakshvilli dramatically swept into the parliamentary chamber, clutching a single red rose and shouting ‘Gadadeki, gadadeki!’ (Resign!”) Shevardnadze stopped reading his speech and was hustled from the chamber by his bodyguards. Saakashvili strode onto the podium, theatrically finished the cup of tea Shevardnadze had been drinking, and declared the new parliament invalid.”).

One feature of the book I particularly enjoyed was Waal’s short blurbs inbedded in each chapter pertaining to a short topic: Wine, Georgian Language, Lermontov, Rustaveli Avenue, How Georgian was Stalin?, Soviet Florida, Baku Jazz, Shusha, Ajaria, The Greeks of Abkhazia, and The Ergneti Market. The book never covers any concept or country in-depth, but that’s not the point of an introduction. I would recommend the book to anyone interested in becoming interested in the history, culture, and conflicts of the Caucasus.

– Ben

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Azerbaijani Mugam Resources

The music of Azerbaijan, specifically the folk tradition of Mugam music, has a history closely tied to the regions changing borders and influences:

“Mugham belongs to the system of modal music and may have derived from Persian musical tradition. The Uighurs in Xinjian (Sinkiang) call this musical development muqam, the Uzbeks and Tajiks call it maqom (or shasmaqom), while Arabs call it maqam and Persians dastgah. In Azerbaijan the word is mugham from Arabic Maqam.”

There are so many topics I want to cover with Magum:  Soviet repression, historical origins, instrumental traditions, Uzeyir Hajibeyov and his Mugam operas, Regions of Nagorno Karabakh traditional recognized as hubs of Mugam music, and Jazz Magum! to name just a few. For now I just want to list a few resources for those interested in Magum:

  • This site has Magum streaming 24/7 along with an in-depth history, list of famous instrumentalists and composers,  background on the traditional instruments, links to recordings and video. I’ve already spent a few hours and have barely skimmed the surface:

  • This is great article that deals more with Stalinist repression of Azerbaijani music:

  • This is the youtube channel of Sir Richard Bishop, one of my favorite guitarists. He has put together a collection of all black and white films from all over the Middle East, Asia, and India.

  • This Kronos Quartet recording of Franghiz ali Zadeh’s works is another fusion of Mugam/Western Classical Traditions. My favorite tracks is a solo piano improvisation performed by the composer in which she places a beaded necklace across the piano strings to create a buzzing tremolo in the middle range of her melody.

Here is a clip of Vagif Mustafazade, a Azerbaijani musician responsible for a fusion of traditional Mugam scales with jazz forms and instrumentation.

– Ben

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Goltz on Abkhazia and Asmus on South Ossetia

Thomas Goltz‘s “Georgia Diary” and Ronald d. Asmus‘ “A Little War that Shook the World”  both address the events that led to the  conflicts in Georgia’s separatist regions. They both differ greatly when it comes to the perspective of their authors and the scope in which they view the implications of the conflicts in Abkhazia and South Ossetia.

Goltz is a war reporter and writes like a war reporter i.e. macho, sardonic, and cynical. In the beginning of “Georgia Diary,” Goltz is driving a rental car carrying another reporter and Abkhazian separatists down a mined road just beyond the ever-changing Georgia/Abkhazia border:

“..’Stay away from that one,’ says one of the militiamen in the back seat, pointing to a small pile of shattered blue bathroom tile scattered over a water pocket in the broken tarmac. I have already seen it and meant to avoid. If there isn’t a mine under that chunk of rubble, I will eat tiles for breakfast. ‘Boom,” I say playfully  jerking the wheel in the direction of the pile.”

He also has  great sense of humor which breaks through the veneer of  hardened, stranded-in-the field war-time journalist and allows the reader to share his enthusiasms and curiosities.  The book starts in January 1992 when Goltz, a reporter living in Baku,  is asked by the london Sunday  Times to find and interview Zviad Gamsakhurdia, the first president of Georgia and the nationalist responsible for the slogan “Georgia for Georgians.” Goltz, nor any other reporter, is able to find Zviad. This sojourn does get Goltz involved in the conflict in Abkhazia and he subsequently finds himself trapped in an extremely confusing war zone.

The fighting in Abkhazia in the early 90s had so many moving parts (historical and ethnic grudges, Russian manipulation, seemingly hypocritical North Caucasian intervention by Chechnyan free-lance militants against the Georgians) that every reporter involved had a difficult time weeding through the contradictions, confrontations, and conflicting view points of militants, politicians, and citizens of the region. Goltz does an excellent job of weaving together the necessary historical/political background, his own experience through his interviews with Shevardnadze, his relationship to the citizens of Sukhumi and their personal reflections, and his descriptions of the situation on the ground, with its constantly changing borders and the influx of foreign fighters and exodus of native Georgians. “Georgia Diary” gives great insight into the conflicts of the early 90s but leaves a great deal unresolved. This is not the fault of Goltz, it is simply the situation; very little has been resolved, even twenty years later.

Much is left unresolved in the closing of “A Little War that Shook the World” as well. Ronald d. Asmus was a diplomat and he writes like a diplomat. Very little is said about the ethnography and history of the region of the conflict. Asmus uses the conflict to comment on the relations between Russian and Nato affiliated countries.. Georgia is merely a pawn (which should be apparent by the cover of the book) in the power struggle between Russia and the West.   Hour by hour events of the summer of 2008 are meticulously chronicled,  including Saakashvili’s phone conversations and sleep schedule. This doesn’t actually  make for a boring read; it’s a nice juxtaposition of what seems like vanilla diplomacy and the visceral reactions of politicians. Vladimir Putin comes off as the quintessential evil, revenge driven antagonist. Asmus describes a closed-door meeting in which Putin literally mimed throat slitting in reference to Georgian plans to maintain sovereignty of South Ossetia. Much like the Nagorno Karabakh conflict, no one side, including the West, comes off looking particularly well. Mistakes were made by all. Unlike the Nargorno Karabakh conflict, there is a very obvious hierarchy of power and a concrete evidence of malicious intent on the side of the Russians. The most frustrating example is that of Russian “peacekeepers.” When Georgian troops advanced into the region, they were ordered not to fire on Russian peacekeepers, supposedly neutral forces stationed in the region to deter ethnic conflict. In one instance, Georgian forces allowed these individuals to pass only to have the peacekeepers turn around and open fire, killing Georgian soldiers. One the other hand, many Russian peacekeepers were killed who may have been simply attempting to keep the peace.

“A Little War That Shook the World” mostly functions as a warning to the West. The Russian reactions and manipulations of  the “Kosovo Precedent” and its implications illustrates how much seemingly unrelated international events that many view as positive can be used to support a variety of conflicting idealogues. The Russian Government, who very much opposed the precedent, used it as supporting evidence for the Ossetian’s  right to autonomy (and a subsequent Russian annexation).

Both books help to explain the international implications of these separatist regions but neither (especially “The Little War”) will help the reader to understand much about the culture and history of the people living in them. That isn’t the intent of either author and would probably be a difficult feat. What is accomplished by both is an illustration of the importance of small countries and regions. Conflicts in countries and autonomous regions no one has ever heard of  are often the spark that lights an international brush fire. Asmus and Goltz both believe it would be in the West’s best interest to pay attention.

– Ben

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Georgian Polyphony

A USSR Stamp of Traditional Georgian Instruments

It’s about time I said something about Georgia, seeing as it is the country in the Caucasus where we will be spending most of our time.

Musically, Georgia is famous for its Polyphonic singing, a tradition that is considered the first of its kind in the Christian world.

I had a conversation with Michael Tenzer, the head of the Ethnomusicology department at University of British Columbia, in which he told me he had recently attended a conference in Tbilisi hosted by the “International Research Center for Traditional Polyphony of Tbilisi State Conservatory“.  Their site is extensive and hosts biographies of famous Georgian performers and interactive map of the geography of polyphony. I am hoping to attend a conference in September held by the same organization.

He also sent me  the masters thesis of Andrea Kuzmich, a student at York University in Toronto. The thesis, “Issues of Variability and Questions of Non-Chance in the Traditional Polyphonic Songs of Tbilisi Ensembles,” focuses on the retention of these songs and their continuity over a century of performance. This retention is not insignificant. Musical change is in some ways the most common attribute of musical traditions of the world. Kuzmich sites another ethnomusicologist’s paper on Bulgarian state ensembles in which the author ” contextualizes changes in music making within a multi-dimensional matrix of historical, ethnographic, musical, political, social, and cultural detail.” Georgian polyphony’s resistance to these factors, or the consistency withstanding, is a remarkable thing. I plan on posting much more about her thesis (its extremely thorough and addresses multiple aspects of Georgian history and politics along with the evidence behind her theory of non-change).

Here is an early 20th century phonograph recording. Listen for parallel 5ths, odd key changes, strong dissonances, and augmented octaves.

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Sayat Nova and The Color of Pomegranates

In each book I have read about the Caucasus, Sayat Nova is mentioned at least once, if not numerous times. It’s not difficult to see why.  His life and poetry are a conglomeration of the many  languages and cultures of the region. He trained as a monk at the Monastery of Sanahin, but later became a poet at the court of king Irakli II.  He was an Armenian, living in Tiflis (Tbilisi- the current capital of Georgia,) with a Persian name (Sayat Nova actually means “King of Songs” in Persian), who most often wrote in Azeri.

He composed over two hundred songs in four languages: Armenian, Azeri, Georgian, and Persian. Some of his poems move between all four. His polyglot verse is a reminder not only of the linguistic and cultural diversity of the region, but an indicator of the neighborly interchange once enjoyed in an area now discussed so often in relation to ethnically driven violence and border disputes. While Sayat Nova is most often claimed as a representative of Armenia’s cultural heritage, ultranationalist Armenians and Azerbaijanis alike may be horrified to learn that he often wrote poems in Azeri using Armenian script.

The Soviet Surrealist film maker Sergei Parajonov‘s most famous film, “The Color of Pomegranates”  is a visual biography of the poet’s life. The film was immediately banned by Soviet censors, but after Parajonov changed the title from “Sayat Nova” to “The Color of Pomegranates” and re-edited portions of the film, it was released in 1968.  The sureal images of Sayat Nova as a boy, lying on the roof  of an Armenian church covered in open books, their pages flapping in the wind, of the young boy’s father smearing the blood of a decapitated chicken across his forehead, of the poet as a young man dressed in a women’s veil and dress all must have surprised the typical Soviet film goer (other Soviet films of that year include War and Peace, a slapstick comedy film called The Diamond Arm, and the Russian animated version of The Little Mermaid). Parajonov was later imprisoned and sentenced to 5 years in a labor camp for “rape of a Communist Party member, and the propagation of pornography.”

Here is the link to that film with english subtitles:


And here is instrumental performance of what I think is one of Sayat Nova’s works:

(I plan on devoting an entire post to the instrument being played in the clip ((the Tar)) soon)

– Ben

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Armenian Records/ Transcription

Due to the large numbers of Armenians who relocated to the United States during the Armenian diaspora, there seem to be more Armenian Folk records than Georgian or Azerbaijani available in used record bins. I found this recording for among the world music LPs at the Easy Street Records in West Seattle. It was $3. Many of the tracks sound like Soviet classical/folk hybrids in which the powers that be had musicians record old folk songs in a “classical” style, many times with western instrumentation as opposed to using folk instruments. The song Yarimo is my favorite on the LP, mixing in a choral arrangement with some folk instruments and a lengthy compound time signature.

I did a little research and found a vocal Jazz/scat version of the same tune: I have to say I favor the LP version but its interesting to listen to them back to back and hear how the melody can still be retained in a different time signature/genre/era etc.  I did a little transcription of the theme (from the LP) and am posting it along with some analysis for any music theory/ethnomusicology geeks who are interested.


Yarimo is played in the Key of D harmonic/natural minor with the occasional bouts of modal mixture and/or the incorporation of the parallel major. It is in the compound meter of 3/8 + 2/8 + 2/8 + 2/8 +2/8 +2/8 + 3/8.

It starts by presenting each of the sections instrumentally in this form: AABBCCAA

And then the chorus comes in for these sections: BBCCAA.

At 1:41 the song shifts to D major and there is a short duduk solo which transitions back into the instrumental A section and then repeats the BBCCAA form with the chorus up until the end. 

I’ll be posting some Azerbaijani Mugam music and Georgian polyphonic singing pretty soon.

– Ben

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