Tag Archives: Azerbaijan

“Mountains of Tongues” – Musical Dialects from the Caucasus

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We’re incredibly excited to announce this release: it’s a selection of recordings made by the Sayat Nova Project throughout the South Caucasus. The album will be released on the band A Hawk and a Hacksaw’s label, L.M. Dupl-ication on an LP with free download of the tracks and a PDF of the liner notes. “Mountains of Tongues” will be released on Nov. 12th but you can preorder it here:

http://www.midheaven.com/item/mountains-of-tongues-musical-dialects-from-the-caucasus-by-va-lp

We want to thank Jeremy and Heather from Hawk and a Hacksaw for releasing it, Lucy Duncombe and Kenneth Wilson for the artwork, Harry Wheeler for our logo, and John Dieterich from Deerhoof for mastering the album. But most importantly we want to thank all of the musicians we met in the Caucasus  while working on this project.

Here’s a clip of Grastia (featured on the cover) from the village of Ghari, Georgia playing the Diara:

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The Avar Village of Danachi, Azerbaijan

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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?

No.

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.

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Although our interview was quite short, the recording sessions were very productive. Below are songs, video, and pictures from our day in Danachi.

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More to come soon including Georgian, Lezgi, and Molokan examples!

– The Sayat Nova Project

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The Udi village of Zinobiani

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House in Zinobiani

In late Febuaruy, we (the Sayat Nova Project) got on a marshutka headed for the town of Kvareli. We’d heard that a small village called Zinobiani just outside the town had a small population of Udi, a Christian people who are descendants of the early Caucasian tribes of Azerbaijan.

To prepare for most of  our recording sessions we’ve been really careful to make as many contacts as possible and to do a lot of research beforehand so we have some idea as to exactly what and who we’re looking for. In this case, we couldn’t make any contacts because no one we asked had ever heard of Zinobiani, or for that matter, the Udi people and although we searched and searched, we found only a few examples of Udi music. So, we decided to wing it and just head out to Zenobiani and see if we could find any musicians.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that almost everywhere I’ve been in the country of Georgia has been incredibly beautiful. Achara, Kazbegi, Algeti, Gardibani, Kutaisi, you name it. Each region has its own unique landscape, whether its snow capped mountains, tropical forests, rolling green hills, or craggy desert rock formations. But as we sped toward Kvareli in the packed marshutka, the towns and villages we passed looked like shots from a black and white film that couldn’t be kept in focus. To my left and right,  everything was a different shade of grey or brown, each town lifeless and full of fog.

We entered Kvareli but of course didn’t know where to get off. As more and more people exited the van, the driver seemed increasing confused by our continued presence. Our driver, a middle-aged man with graying hair, a puffy black vest, and an abrasive personality questioned us:

“So where are you going? What do you want?”

“We’d like to catch another marshutka to Zinobiani.”

 “Why do you want to go to Zinobiani? There’s nothing there!”

“We’re studying different musicians so we want to go and meet the Udi people who live there and see if they know any songs.”

” Udi people? Me! I’m Udi. Me! I’ll take you there. It’s where my mother lives.”

So we stayed in the van and drove back out of town. Foggy fields to our right, foggy fields to our left. After about 10 minutes, we slowed down, took a right, and stopped on a thin road with a few stone houses on either side. We had reached Zinobiani.

The school in Zinobiani houses a museum (Here’s a great set of photos of it taken by  Georgian photographer Sandro Shanidze). Its dedicated to preserving the Udi language and culture but unfortunately for us, it was closed until May and its director was out of town.  So we had no option but to walk around asking people if they spoke the Udi language and if so, did they know any songs? Unfortunately, our driver did not help.

“Nobody here knows anything! You won’t find anything. You should just go look on the internet.”

The school’s English teacher saw us on the street and brought out a couple of books for us:

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And the longer we stayed in the street talking to our driver and the English teacher, the more attention we attracted.  A man in a rusty Lada stopped, pulled out his cellphone, and used its distorted little speaker to play us some songs in Udi accompanied by synthesizers (there is a slightly larger population of Udi people living in Azerbaijan and these songs were recorded there).  But it was looking like we weren’t going to find any musicians. Our group of Zinobianians kept growing but no one was aware of any musicians or knew any songs in the Udi language.  Finally, an old woman wearing what looked like a traditional black dress and blue shawl walked up to our group and claimed she knew Udi songs. And of course, true to his role in the story so far, our driver exclaimed:

“You don’t know Udi songs!”

To which she angrily responded :

Of course I do! I’m UDI!

So we asked her name (Olia), told her about our project, and she agreed to sing for us at her home at six that evening. And in the meantime it turned out that, although our driver was a bit heavy handed, he was perfectly happy to take us to his mother’s house and show us how Udi bread is made.

And after getting all our accomadation settled in nearby Kvareli, we returned to Zinobiani that evening. We weren’t sure where Olia lived but assumed that given the size of Zinobiani, it wouldn’t take us to long to find her home. We passed a man burning a large pile of hay on the side of a dirt road and he told us  “keep going straight, then take a left”. At that corner we passed a man chopping wood in his yard and he told us to “go straight and its the last house on the right”. But then he said to us “Ah, you’re the Russian ethnographers! Welcome back.” It turns out that during the Soviet Union some anthropologists had interviewed Olia about Udi folklore. This was in the 70’s.  Forty years ago. Either this man was a little crazy or time passes in a very peculiar way in Zinobiani.

We found Olia’s house, a two story stone building with a muddy yard. She greeted us at the door and we sat down together at her kitchen table at one end of a narrow room. Her sons and grandchildren were sitting around the wood-fire stove at the other end, watching TV next to the stove and talking loudly. (Grandchildren have quickly become The Sayat Nova Project’s worst enemy. We record many elderly musicians and there is nothing worse than when our subject is just about to complete a beautiful, unique piece of music and their grandchildren scream, hit someone, break something, or knock over our equipment, essentially ruining the recording).

Olia was a fantastic host and excellent story teller. She was shy to sing initially and spent almost an hour talking to us about the history of the Udi people, reciting poems, telling folk tales, and explaining different marriage traditions (when an Udi women first enters her new home after being married, she breaks a plate on the floor). She also told us some of her own history, how she had moved to Georgia to be married in Zinobiani when she was young, how she still has some family living in Azerbaijan. Anna is still working to translate our hour long conversation from Russian and I will post it as soon as it is finished.

Eventually, Olia sang two songs for us. We were able to make video and audio recordings but this was a very lively room and they are a bit noisy. Still, we are really happy with the examples. There are an estimated 200 Udi people living in Georgia, all of whom reside in Zinobiani. We hope these aren’t the last examples of Udi songs recorded in Georgia, but given the dwindling population of the town and the decreasing number of people who speak the language, this is a definite possibility. Here’s an audio example a and a couple videos.

 

 

 

And while researching we were able to find this clip of Udi singing:

 

We also discovered that the Udi people play a pivotal role in what Thomas De Wall calls the “History Wars.” In the Nagorny Karabakh conflict, historians on both sides have tried to use their research to make a claim as to “who was there first.”  The Udi people are used by some Azerbaijani historians to explain the presence of Armenian churches and Armenian inscriptions in Karabakh. Here’s an excerpt from Wall’s “The Caucasus”:

“…To mitigate this, a curious theory was launched in the 1960’s by the Azerbaijani historian Zia Bunitov. It centers on the fate of the ancient Christian people, called Caucasian Albanians by the Romans, who mostly lived in what is now Azerbaijain. Only a few fragments of their writing survive. The historical consensus used to be that the Albanians were almost completely assimilated by other local peoples, including the Armenians, from around the tenth century. A tiny ethnic group, the Udi or Udins, mainly concentrated in two villages in northern Azerbaijan and now numbering fewer than ten thousand, appear to be their direct descendants…”

Essentially, Bunitov believes that the Armenian churches in Karabakh are actually Albanian.  One of our project’s aims is to use culture as a way of overcoming conflict, so I don’t want to emphasize the use of the Udi in these “History Wars.” I just find it incredible that the diversity of culture in the Caucasus can be utilized in so many ways, both good and bad. If you are interested in this particular topic, Here is a video that was aired on Azerbaijani television in 1993 explaining this interpretation of the Udi peoples place in the history of the Caucasus.  I should emphasize that we at the Sayat Nova Project do not support or agree with all of the historical interpretations presented in this film, but it contains some footage of Udi folk songs and rituals.

Anyway, here are a few photos from our trip taken in  Zinobiani and Kvareli:

Udi Bread

Udi Bread Shack

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Kvareli's abandoned Theater

Kvareli’s abandoned Theater

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Stefan and  I are heading out to the town of Oni, in Racha in just two days. More updates to come!

– Ben

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UPDATE: Sayat Nova Project

The Sayat Nova project has reached its initial funding goal  in just over a week. We’d like to thank everyone who donated and/or shared our Kickstarter. Thanks to your contributions, we’ll be able to create the website, cover the expenses for your rewards, and pay for some of our travel costs.

With 11 days to go, we’re continuing  to promote the Kickstarter in order to fund even more recording trips across the Caucasus. Because of the abundant support we’ve received in such a short time, we’re hoping to continue fundraising to fully fund the high costs of traveling to hard-to-reach places such as Svaneti, Tusheti, Quba, and Xinaliq. This extra funding will also cover the costs of travel for local volunteers and interpreters when necessary. In the following months we’ll be meeting with Georgian, Roma, Jewish, Kurdish, Azerbaijani, Armenian, Abkhazian, Assyrian, and Ossetian musicians living here in Tbilisi. We also have multiple trips planned to surrounding areas and farther afield. Here’s the general itinerary for a few of our larger scale trips and some information about some of the different groups we’ll be recording:

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February: North-Eastern Georgia: we’re visiting musicians in villages surrounding TianetiAkhmeta Kvareli, and Lagodekhi .This trip will allow to record Georgian musicians from the region and hopefully Batsbi, Kist, Chechen, Dagestani, and Udi musicians as well.

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March: Azerbaijan: visiting QaxShekiGabalaXinaliqQuba, and Baku. We’ll be recording Azeri music (Ashigs and Mugam) as well as Georgian, Lezgin, Tats (Jewish), and Avar musicians. We’re also hoping to meet with some famous Azerbaijani electric guitarists (Remish!) in Baku (fingers crossed).

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April: Armenia: In cooperation with the Union of Kurdish Youth of Georgia we’ll be visitingYezedi Kurdish villages in the Aragatsotn Province and traveling through villages on the way to Yerevan.

In addition to these larger scale trips we’ll be traveling on the weekends to villages all over Georgia in order to document as many musical dialects as humanly possible! We’re planning on traveling to Racha in May and Svaneti and Tusheti sometime in June (as soon as the snow melts). In addition to all these trips, We’ll be hosting events in Tbilisi with local musicians where we’ll present our work and give talks about the Sayat Nova project. To everyone who has donated so far:

 Thank you! Təşəkkür edirəm! დიდი მადლობა! Շնորհակալ եմ! Большое спасибо! 

Please help us continue to promote this project! 

Here’s our kickstarter: http://kck.st/WxntHo

Our facebook: http://www.facebook.com/SayatNovaProject

And an event we created for the frequent posting of videos: EVENT

– Ben

 

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The Sayat Nova Project

SAYAT NOVA PROJECT Garib offcial LOGO

This week marks the beginning of a new project I’m starting along with my friends Anna Harbaugh and  Stefan Williamson-Fa and with help from the Tbilisi State Conservatory and the Union of Kurdish Youth of Georgia. Since I started the blog and came to Tbilisi, I’ve been posting mainly about trips to record musicians around the Caucasus. The Sayat Nova Project will be a extension of that, and more.

We are currently fundraising to build an interactive website that will host our recordings, along with other audio examples and articles, using an interactive map. The map will display the different examples by using ethnography, as opposed to political borders, as a means of illustrating the diversity of  cultures in both the North and South Caucasus and in order to de-emphasize conflicts of nationality. This region has proven extremely susceptible to inter-ethnic tensions, particularly in the aftermath of the fall of the Soviet Union. As a consequence of this strife, much of the research and resources in the region have gone to understanding the causes of inter-ethnic violence and promoting integration. Meanwhile, efforts to study and record the music of the region tend to examine the unique national characteristics of music, as opposed to an encompassing study of the region’s musical dialects, which are as diverse as its many languages.

We chose Sayat Nova as the symbol for our project because of his unofficial title “The Bard of the Caucasus.” A musician, poet, and polyglot who wrote in Armenian, Georgian, Azerbaijani, and Persian, he is a great symbol of the cultural diversity that exists in the Caucasus to this day.

We are particularly lucky to be currently working and studying in Tbilisi. In addition to figuring as the geographic center of the Caucasus, Tbilisi is renowned for its status as the most culturally diverse city in the region. Historically, it has been home to large populations of Armenians, Azerbaijanis, Kurds, Jews, Turks, and Persians—as well as Georgians. We live in Tbilisi, and the proximity to these different groups has already presented us with opportunities to record and interview Georgians, Kurds, Azeri Ashiks, Chechen refugees, and Kist people (Chechen’s who immigrated to Georgia after the fall of Imam Shamil in the 1870s).

With the Sayat Nova Project, We’re hoping to create a resource for anyone who’s interested in the music of the Caucasus and to include the input of academics and enthusiasts from every country in the region. I’ll be posting updates here on the blog as well as on our facebook page:  facebook.com/SayatNovaProject.

Please visit and share our kickstarter page in order to help us continue our work to document the musical dialects of the Caucasus:

http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/372148935/the-sayat-nova-project

I will continue to update this page with the locations of our recording sessions as well as the status of the project.

– Ben

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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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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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