The Sayat Nova Project just returned from a trip to Azerbaijan. We have a lot of recordings, videos, interviews, and stories to post. Let’s start with our first day:
We made it to the border crossing outside of Lagodekhi early in the morning, walked past a line of Turkish trucks queued at the gates, helped an old Azeri woman carry heavy bags of potatoes and a bucket of cherries through security, and had our passports stamped within a matter of minutes. The efficiency of the border guards came as a huge surprise; we’d heard that it can take hours and that you’re sure to be hassled if you have an Armenian visa in your passport (we have two Armenian visas each). Amazingly, the guard actually stamped the page opposite the offending evidence without a word. Once we were through the gates, we unintentionally started a fight between two taxi drivers. A short pudgy man who had the look of an off-duty farmer started to lead us to his car but it turns out he had cut another driver in the line to pick up new passengers. The betrayed driver promptly ran to our driver’s car and snatched the keys from the ignition. A vicious argument ensued, with the spurned driver appealing to the unsympathetic crowd and the assembled taxi drivers sharing in our bemused laughter. This went on for a few minutes but eventually we just walked away with our bags and picked up another taxi further down the road.
We were dropped off in Zaqatela, ate some lahmajun, drank some ayran and tea, then hopped into another taxi (our third Lada of the day; we rode in at least 20 Ladas during our time in Azerbaijan) that took us to Danachi, one of several predominately Avar villages located a short ride from Zaqatela . We had the names of a few musicians thanks to a Peace Corps volunteer but weren’t sure how to find them. So we used what would become our standard approach to locating musicians in Azerbaijan: go drink tea in the local chaixana and ask old men questions.
After a single cup of tea, the men at the table next to us were already helping us, calling any numbers they could find. After a few short conversations, they assured us one of the best musicians in the village was coming to meet us. Rasul Isayev, a tall, broad shouldered 26 year old, arrived a few minutes later. Rasul wore tight black pants, a white t-shirt, sunglasses, and a large gold necklace. He was not the village folk musician we had expected (his hairstyle seemed to be inspired by 1980’s Sylvester Stallone) but he was incredibly welcoming and helpful. His main source of income was playing synthesizer for weddings (a highly profitable business given the extremely elaborate and long lasting wedding tradition in Azerbaijan). He played us some of his recordings in which he incorporated melodic fragments of “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” sound track with Avar melodies. Although his songs were excellent (said without a hint of sarcasm: they were truly creative examples and would serve as a fantastic basis for a thesis on the effects of globalization on musicianship), they weren’t exactly what we were looking for. We told Rasul we wanted to meet someone who played the komuz, a traditional Avar instrument that we’d only had one opportunity to record in the Avar villages of Georgia. Rasul, of course, was happy to help us.
The next half hour was spent speeding through the village in Rasul’s friend’s white Lada, slowing occasionally to allow cows to pass. Rasul assisted us by jumping out of the car, knocking on doors and shouting over fences, while residents of Danachi advised us to go to this house or that, until finally we stopped in front of a large iron gate. Rasul led us into the yard, which was full of chickens, trees, and kids. A middle aged woman in a head scarf brought us chairs and we sat patiently in the yard, waiting for this Komuz player to return from who knows where.
Amar Halbaev, tall, taciturn and deeply tanned came through the gate, greeted us, and then walked inside his house to get his komuz. It turns out Amar was an incredibly talented multi-instrumentalist. He came back outside with his arms full, carrying a mandolin, balalaika (which he called a “clean Russian instrument”), and accordion. Amar played multiple songs for us, served us some of the best tea we had while in Azerbaijan, and allowed us to give a short interview. Despite being a friendly host and talented musician, Amar was a man of few words. A self taught musician, the discussion of musical traditions and links between Avar in Dagestan and Azerbaijan were not of great interest to him. He responded to our questions without protest but you could tell he found the process uncomfortable and preferred playing to chatting:
Interview with Amar Halbaev, Age 38.
In general, are the young people here interested in traditional Avar music?
Do you have children and are they interested?
Children, yes. three. They aren’t interested.
Is the Avar music in Azerbaijan different than that of Dagestan? What are the differences?
Yes there are. The accent. There are 37 different dialects of Avar.
What are the differences between Azerbaijani Music and Avar music?
There are a lot. Its another thing entirely.
Is there anything similar?
I don’t know Azerbaijani music, only Avar.
In general, what kind of music is popular in Danachi?
Everything, Azerbaijani music too. Most of all, Avar music. Some people might listen to Azerbaijani music, it is national music.
Although our interview was quite short, the recording sessions were very productive. Below are songs, video, and pictures from our day in Danachi.
More to come soon including Georgian, Lezgi, and Molokan examples!
– The Sayat Nova Project