Monthly Archives: June 2012

Guitars of the USSR and the Jolana Special in Azerbaijani Music

During my first trip to Eastern Europe, I found an “Orpheus”  electric guitar leaning against a wall in the basement of a music shop in Plovdiv, Bulgaria.  Half of its parts were missing and dust was gathering on its sparkly-orange plywood body. I bought it for the equivalent of $20 and carried it around in two pieces in my bag for the rest of my trip. Ever since, I’ve been obsessed with discovering, collecting, and playing electric guitars from the Eastern Bloc.  Besides the Orpheus, I’ve bought a 80’s era Tonika while living in St. Petersburg, A “Moni“-style Hungarian model while visiting Budapest, and just recently, at the dry bridge market in central Tbilisi, a Ural Tonika.

This was a particularly significant find for me; the Tonika represents a lot of what  is historically fascinating and strange about Soviet produced electric guitars.  Most noticeably, the shape of the guitar is unlike any other in the world. This wasn’t an accident or the result of a particularly creative guitar designer. The alien shape of this guitar was a result of the direction and specifications of Central Planning. Because this was the first model of electric guitar to ever be made in the USSR, it could not appear to be a copy of a American Strat or Gibson. It had to be a distinctly Soviet production. The direction given to those in charge of the production of the  first Lenigrad Tonikas must have been something like “I don’t care what it looks like, I  just don’t want to recognize it.”

The resulting guitar was indeed something “Soviet.” It was unreasonably heavy and made of cheap wood, with a neck like a carved baseball bat. The guitars were nearly impossible to play, with frets that could cut your hand and intonation that created sounds half and whole steps away from the intended tone. And, just for the sake  of contradiction inherent in just about anything produced in the USSR, the guitars had fairly complex and often very well made pickups.  It was like filming something in high definition that you didn’t want to see up-close. Luckily for musicians in Leningrad, the guitar makers  in Czechoslovakia were doing a fine job of making decent, playable guitars which quickly became the choice of musicians throughout the Soviet Union. This site has a long list of most of the guitars made in Czechoslovakia, including some really strange ones:

Jolana Big Beat, complete with short wave radio

While doing some research on Azerbaijani music, I found a couple of really incredible guitarists playing what seemed like a “modern” take on traditional Azeri music. My personal favorite was Remish. I couldn’t  find much information  in English or that was comprehensible when translated form Azerbaijani, just that he had attended a musical school and was a famous musician still living in Azerbaijan.

Remish

The best thing I found was the following video.

It is more than an hour and a half long. Most people don’t have time to sit around watching hours of footage ripped from an old VHS tape but, luckily for you, I am not most people. To save you some time, here a list of what i think are the best moments. Throughout the whole performance he does amazing things with trills and mimics vocal ornamentation by using bends with the left hand along with bends with the whammy bar. He is also using some heavy analog delay and overdrive. ALSO, his pick grip is identical to that of a tar player which leads me to believe that he studied this instrument as well:

5:20- some great slide guitar played with a glass bottle

10:40- back and forth with a clarinetist

11:30-13:12 ridiculous solo break

17:20- great melody and the tempo picks up

30:00-great one handed tapping and solo section, accordion exchange shortly after

34:00-ridiculous bends

42:40 some intentional bridge noise and another insane ornamentation

48:48-49:15* best part. just watch it.

53:28- nothing’s cooler than play and smoking st the same time

58:26- major and minor 3rd shifts

58:50- tempo change out of nowhere!

1:05:50- surf rock bend and neon sign

1:15:40- more smoking, eating, shredding, money being thrown in his face

These are my favorite parts but all through this performance he is relentless.

I also found a younger Azeri named Elman Namazoglu. Take a good look at his guitar in the video below:

This is the Jolana special- it seems that every famous Azeri guitarist uses this Czechoslovakian model.  This kind of virtuosic performance would of been impossible using a Tonika or Orpheus guitar. Even though western guitars, Strats and Les Pauls, are now available in all of the Caucasus, the Jolana special continues to be the favored model. I’ve found a few schematics of the Jolana Tornado, essentially the same guitar with a few minor changes:

And just in case you had any doubts as to the popularity of the Jolana with Azerbaijani guitarists, I also found this picture of a Jolana with the colors of the national flag painted over the red finish. This guitar is everywhere:

Here is a great post from a fellow Seatte-ite with more videos:

http://moodorgan.wordpress.com/2010/02/09/monsters-of-azeri-guitar-ramish-rehman-memmedli-elman-namazoglu/.

Hopefully I will find some more Soviet guitars to add to my collection (after writing this I desperately want to find a Jolana special). When I do I will be sure to post some more pictures.

– Ben

UPDATE!

A lot has happened since I first posted this article more than a year ago! If you follow the blog, you will know that I’ve had the opportunity to travel around the Caucasus making field recordings as a member of the Sayat Nova Project.  While visiting the city of Quba in north-eastern Azerbaijan I was finally able to get my hands on a Jolana Tornado! Here are a few pictures:

JOLANA TORNADO IMG_2177 IMG_2178

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Books Bought and Found in Tbilisi

Russian Book

Tbilisi is full of old books. Some are sold from stands in underground metro passages, others you can barter over with booksellers at open air bazaars, and some, as I found out yesterday, you can discover in dust-covered boxes next to the large metal trashcans outside your apartment. This was my first exposure to the world of Caucasian dumpster diving; I’d seen stray dogs and cats stealing all kinds of rotting vegetables and entrails from the trash but I assumed there was nothing in there for me. My neighbor hood, Isani, is the Armenian district in Tbilisi and most of the Armenians here speak Russian in and outside the home. It looks like these books  belonged to either a Russian or Armenian family because they were all in Cyrilic. There were about 6 boxes and a few moments after I started digging through them, two older Georgians pulled up and helped me pick out some classic Russian literature and other gems until my arms were full. I helped them haul the rest into the back of their van, which was with covered in white dust and filled with powdery sacks of flour. I come back to the apartment with biographies of Gorky and Mayakovsky, plays by Chekov, two books on Lermontov, two collections of Tolstoy stories, a book of Lord Byron translations, a short soviet-era novel called ” How to Temper Steel,” a book of Armenian poetry (in Russian), and a translation of  “A Thousand and One Nights“, complete with incredible pictures which I’ve posted at the top of the page.

My pile of new books

1001 Nights

Armenian Poetry

Vladimir Mayakovsky

The pictures from “1001 Nights” are probably mt favorite but the Mayakovsky books also has some great photos:

The Poet with Dog and Cigarette

Anna and I haven’t found all our books in dumpsters – We’ve accumulate a decent collection of other Russian, Georgian, and even English books intended for people of the Soviet Union, with translations of colloquial phrases and other different words in the back.:

And here’s a little excerpt from the back of the Somerset Maugham book:

This version of Alice in Wonderland, published in Moscow in 1967, has  incredible artwork, which I think are reminiscent of some other soviet era cartoons. Just take a look at some of these chapter headings:

Anna has been, slowly but surely, translating a book she bought from a bookseller in one of the underground passageways on Rustaveli. Its called “Georgians in Moscow,” and it details the history of the community from the year 1653 to 1722. Here are a few photos from inside the book:

I am planning on doing another post about the Georgian Futurist Movement and a book we bought at the literature museum with graphic poems and Dadaist literature but that will have to wait. Here is a couple pages from it until next time:

– Ben

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Neal Ascherson’s “Black Sea”

I have been working my way through Neal Ascherson’s “Black Sea” since I arrived in Georgia. It’s taken me months, mostly due to laziness but partially because Ascherson has the ability to present multiple ideas in a single sentence, each one branching off into a new area of interest that warrants further research ( i.e. youtube and google  searches).

The book begins in the Crimea and tends to move clockwise (with stops in Russia, Abkhazia, and Turkey) but also jumps both geographically and chronologically, discussing the ancient Greek colonies on the Danube and Herodotus’ writings, Polish writers in the Crimea and Turkey before the Russian Revolution, Tatar Mongols and their effects on the genealogy of the peoples of the Black Sea. Its baffling the variety of topics covered in each chapter so I won’t discuss them all- I just want to discuss my favorite topics and post a few links to related articles and videos.

Earlier on, Ascherson discusses Barbarism and this concept’s origins in the works of ancient Greek writers. He writes:” The term ‘Barbarian’ began as an onomatopoeic Greek word about foreign language: the ‘bar-bar babble’ sound of an incomprehensible tongue. ”  He goes on to explain that while the term was initially used in the Illiad  but hadn’t yet obtained a cultural and political meaning. The term was used in reference to the unknown, the others.  The term began to take on a new meaning doing the time of the Persian Wars:

“but in the 5th century BC Athens, above all the Athenian tragedians, constructed a single barbarian world, squeezing people as distinct as the Scythian nomads and Mesopotamian city-dwellers into a single new species, and opposed it to the image of a single and united Hellenic world. All that the Athenian ideology found alien and repulsive was now transferred from the ‘monster’ to the ‘barbarian’….and from this new species were born other oppositions. It was not only the Scythian whose aporia was barbaric in contrast to Greek and European qualities of freedom and settledness. It was the Persian of Asian whose servility, luxuriousness, and cowardice were barbaric in contrast to Greek and European qualities of freedom, self-restraint, and valor.”

The discourse of Barbarianism seeped into the plays and other writings of numerous Greek writers. It was apparently difficult to cram such a diverse number of “non-greeks” into one category but this particular problem was overcome:

“The Scythians and other northe’rn peoples, for example, were supposed to be wild, hard and ferocious, while Persians were perceived as effeminate and undermined by easy living. Never mind! By swerving between two extremes, barbarians were only showing how far away they were from the Greek Ideal of mosotes (measuredness), or from the Greek ethic of nothing-in-excess.”

While this ideology was maintained (and arguably still exists in much of the Western world), the romanticism of the ‘Barbarian’ (and the discovery of Greek/Barbarin hybrids) began to seep into the writings of Greeks who were either banished to outlying colonies of the empire, or those who willing explored these outskirts and catologuged thier interactions. The Stoic Philosopher Dio Chrysotom (I’ve linked the name to his “ecomium on Hair” ) visited the Greek colony of Olbia (in present day Ukraine) in 95 AD and catalogued much of what he saw (a rarity at this point in history).Dio was visiting the city at a time when the ties between the Graeco-Roman world has not been severed but had been gradually fraying. The citizens seemed to be half Scythian and half Hellenic. They wore Scythian clothes and most spoke horrible, outdated Greek. Ascherson describes one of Dio’s interactions with one of the Olbians:

” He (Dio) met a handsome lad on horseback called Callistratus and started a conversation. Callistrus was a real museum piece. He was wearing ‘Barbarian’ trousers and a cape, but on seeing Do he hopped off his horse and covered his arms, observing the old Greek rule that it was bad manners to show bare arms in public. Like the other Olbains, he turned out to know Homer by heart and to be immensely proud of it, however poor his spoken Greek was. But Dio was even more fascinated to discover that Callistratus was gay. At the age of Eighteen, he was already famous in the city for his courage in battle, for his interest in philospy and for his beauty, ‘and he had many lovers’. Dio read this not as some fact about sexual orientation, but as a wonderful survival from a lost age. Here, in the time of the Roman Empire, flourished still the ancient Greek veneration for homosexual love as the supreme intellectual and spiritual experience. the Olbians supposed that in the world beyond the sea homosexuality was still the height of fashion”

I especially enjoyed this excerpt because of what it illustrates about cultural hybrid-isms  and the strange ripple effect that comes as a result of larger empires abandoning or losing territory or their control over a population. I’ve read of other instances of the same phenomena, in another book that took me even longer to read (about 6 months). In Rebecca West’s gargantuan book of Yugoslavian travel writing “Black Lamb Grey Falcon,” she describes a scene in which the representatives of Ataturk’s new government in Turkey come to Bosnia to meet with Muslims living in the former Ottoman Empire. Citizens of the town come to the train station dressed in their traditional attire, wearing their Fez and other Eastern dress, and are shocked when the representatives appear, dressed in button down shirts and Western attire–a trend encouraged by Ataturk. Both of these illustrate the way history lingers and transforms in different environments, creating something ultimately new and distinct, but forged from the old and what was once commonplace. It’s a concept I’d like to explore more in the field of ethnomusicology, examining the music of border regions or searching for Ottoman influences in places like Bulgaria and Serbia, or Persian influence on the music of Armenia and Georgia.

I know very little about Polish history and was surprised to find that, even though its shares no borders with it, much of its political and literary history has ties to the Black Sea. Mickiewicz , Poland’s greatest poet, was sent into exile at the age of twenty-four. Odessa is supposedly where he “let himself go,” visiting brothels and describing himself in his poems “as a ‘pasha’ with a harem.” He also had a love affair Karolin Sobanska, a Russian informer and collaborator, who was the wife of the man who essentially served as his parole officer, Jan Witt. It is also where he also wrote his “Crimean Sonnets” of which there are eighteen.  These poems are still widely known and quoted in Poland.

Ascherson also discusses the Sarmatians.  It is an extremely strange, backwards, and contradictory example of class ism. In the sixteenth century, Polish writers started to claim that the Polish people were actually descendants of a tribe Indo-Iranian pastoral nomads called the Sarmatians. Supposedly this was for political reasons, allowing the Polish nation to lay claim to lands to the East.

“But then, in the next hundred years, the Sarmatian myth took an extraordinary, freakish twist of its own……..In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Polish nobility came to believe that it was they – not the Polish population at large- who were the exclusive descendants of the Sarmatians. ”

This helped to create a kind of caste system in which peasants were believed to be a ancestors of the Sarmatian’s slaves. This ideology also helped promote new forms of fashion:

” The style was also, and famously, about dress and decoration. Here, all of the ironies of Sarmatism were concentrated. By the early eighteenth century, the Polish-Sarmatian noble was a startling, unmistakable figure. He shaved his skull, cultivated long, dropping mustaches and wore a long kontusz caftan held in over his paunch by a sash. His sword would be a curved scimitar, its hilt probably encrusted with gold and jewels. In short, he looked like a Turk – or possibly a Turkified Tatar…..This  neo-Sarmatian outfit was actually the clothing of Poland’s enemies, the oriental gear of Turk and Tatar warriors appropriated by those who boasted that they were the bastion of Catholic and European Christianity against the pagans.”

Ascherson also travels to eastern Turkey, to an area populated by the Lazi people. They are not turkish; The Lazi speak a language that is in some ways similar to Mingrelian and falls into the Kartvelian language group. The Lazi language is at some risk of extinction, partially due to the fact that is had no written alphabet up until the German Scholar Wolfgang Feurstien began sending textbooks with an alphabet he had helped create using his previous linguistic research in the area and with help from Lazi people living in Germany. This attempt to catalog and encourage the usage of this language got him in trouble with the Turkish government. The editor of a Lazuri journal in Istanbul was arrested after its first issue was published. Ascherson details the complexities of being a Lazi and having the option of multiple identities Turkish, Lazi, or some combination of the two. He also talks briefly about a language called Ubykh, which is now extinct. The last speaker of Ubykh, Tevfik Esenc, died in 1992. Dr. George Hewitt, the Caucasian Languages professor at London University, is quoted briefly discussing the need to catalog and encourage the use of all of the smaller Kartvelian languages:

“I regard myself as immensely privileged to have met and worked with Tevfik Esenc, in 1974, and ever since I have not deviated from the belief that it behooves all of us with an interest in the languages of the Caucasus to do all we can to prevent any of the rest suffering the same fate as Ubykh, whether by language-death through accidental or deliberate neglect of by the threat of physical annihilation….”

I found a short documentary called ” Son Sesler” which means “last sounds” in Turkish. It footage of interviews with the last speaker of Ubykh.

There is also this short video of a french linguist describing his lessons with Tevfik Esenc- 2:00 into it he discusses the variety of consonances, of which Ubykh has 84.

And these three topics are a small portion of Neal Ascherson’s book. I could write more but this post is too long already. If read it this far, thanks, I appreciate it.

– Ben

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