This summer we devoted to folk, so we continue to acquaint you with folk music from different countries. The next in turn is the Azerbaijani mugham, which is both a genre, a mode, a separate composition, and so much more that it’s better not to list, but put it into a more general concept of musical philosophy.

In addition, Azerbaijan’s ethnic music includes song and dance folklore and ashug art. With the first everything is clear from the name, while the work of ashugs can be compared with the bard song. Combining poetry and storytelling in the 15th century, they sang about the problems of ordinary people, devotion to the motherland and love, and now they are considered the guardians of the national identity of the Azerbaijani people.

However, it is mugham we will tell about, since most of the Azerbaijani folk was built on it. And not only — this kind of music exists among most peoples of the East, but it is called by each in its own way: Turks and Arabs call it maqam, among Tajiks and Uzbeks it is shasmaqom, among Uighurs it is muqam, among Kazakhs it is kuy, among Kyrgyz it is kyu, among Iranians it is dastgah, etc. The difference is only in performing and terminology, but the principle is the same.


To begin with, the eastern melody is monophonic and, unlike the western, relies not on chords, but on particular notes. Also, in addition to 12 standard notes, oriental musicians use 72 additional microtones in an octave. Jeffrey Werbock, the most famous American mugham researcher, writes that historically this feature is explained by the following: Pythagoras studied the musical mode in Egypt. As he had a weakness for neat geometric shapes, he cleaned it of all microtones and brought this “sterile” version with him to Europe. That marked the beginning of the western musical tradition. And the original concept of the Egyptian mode migrated across North Africa to the Middle East, to Central and East Asia, where it met with the musical traditions of the natives. In the South Caucasus, it merged with the ashug art that had already developed there. And so, mugham was born. The peak of its development was during the “Muslim Renaissance” in the 12-13th centuries.

The uniqueness of mugham is that it is improvisation within the system. A performer follows his artistic imagination not spontaneously or impulsively, but moving in a given topic and in a given mode, relying on established traditions.

A vocalist in mugham is called khanende, a trio of sazandas is responsible for the instrumental part: a tarist, a kamanchist and a daf-player, but sometimes khanende plays a daf (a kind of tambourine) himself. There is still a completely solo version.


There are seven main mughams: Rast, Shur, Segah, Shushtar, Chahargah, Bayaty-Shiraz and Humayun; and also a lot of subgenres — a total of 70 items. The frets have the same titles in Azerbaijan, which emphasizes the closeness of these concepts once again.

Mughams differ in theme and mood. Chahargah, for example, creates a listener’s excitement and passion.

And Humayun causes deep sadness.

Some mughams are more often performed by women, others, according to Azerbaijanis, have a more “masculine” energy. And their words are mostly based on gazals written by poets from the Near and Middle East.

The combination of mugham and jazz became quite popular, which is not surprising since the Azerbaijanis had a craze for jazz music during the Soviet period. Baku was even called the Soviet capital of jazz. And the improvisational essence of the two genres only contributes to such friendship.

The symphonic mugham also sounds interesting. In 1949, the orchestral version of mugham Rast was written by composer Niyazi. Rast is called the mother of mughams. It is the only that has preserved the structure of its scale and the height of the tonic to this day.

And for the hardiest and most inquisitive — a two-hour mugham opera "Leyli and Majnun", which is called the first opera of the East, and an incredibly authentic performing of mugham on an electric guitar.


Mugham melody has a “staircase” design: coupled with monophony and the use of all microtones in an octave, this creates the feeling that each note transfers you to a different place. Musicians use unexpected sequences of notes and hold the final note in the series deliberately, that is why the incompleteness is clearly felt, while the desire to listen to the end only intensifies. Therefore, the first note of mugham is associated with the house, and the last one — with the destination.

We are used to the “couplet-chorus” system and the presence of at least some climax, so for the first time, mugham will most likely seem endless and unusually malleable, very melancholic. But this is exactly the case when it is worth trying again and again to start enjoying the process, not the result. This seems to be one of the key tenets of Eastern philosophy.

Full immersion in mugham is compared with trance. However, musicologists do not quite agree with this comparison, because the word "trance" is associated with a hypnotic state, while mugham, according to them, enhances the sharpness of mind, rather than derive from it.


Naturally, the Mugham had the greatest influence on the music of other Caucasian peoples. The mugham system and some Azerbaijani musical instruments were adopted by the Armenians, although the latter periodically claim that everything was the other way around. Taking into account a strained relationship between the two countries, the dispute goes into the political sphere.

This is how the mugham is performed on an Armenian musical instrument duduk.

In 1977, NASA sent two space vehicles Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 with gold records on board — a kind of time capsule. They were encrypted with greetings in 55 languages, natural and artificial sounds of the Earth, such as wind noise, hammering or human laughter, and of course, music.

A special commission selected 27 compositions that were supposed to demonstrate most clearly our culture to hypothetical aliens. Azerbaijani mugham performed by Kamil Jalilov sounds among Bach, Stravinsky, Chuck Berry, folk music of African natives, Peruvians, and Australians.

While the gold records of Voyager were looking for their listener in outer space, the mugham continued to conquer the Earth. In 1995, at the French Festival of Sacred Music, the cult American singer Jeff Buckley performed along with Azerbaijani Alim Qasimov. Jeff was so impressed by Alim’s playing on the soundcheck that he was seriously embarrassed before going on stage, but as soon as they met the musicians immediately found a common language.

The concert had a success and after it Buckley said: “This is beyond my comprehension. Probably it is because breathing doesn't flow through me as through these people. His voice is like an eternal gust of wind that never stopped and never began”.

Despite the popularity of the genre abroad, when Azerbaijan became a part of the Soviet Union, mugham, like any other popular musical culture, fell under the most severe state control.

“For Soviet people, the driving force should have been a communist, not a national ideology. Mugham didn’t promote communism, it promoted a sense of belonging to the Azerbaijani people, and therefore, it was going through bad times,” said Jeffrey Werbock. He devoted his life to the study and popularization of mugham in the world.

Three years ago, he released his documentary about children performing mugham. Jeffrey didn't believe his ears when he discovered that ordinary boys living in a refugee camp from Karabakh have learned one of the most difficult musical forms in the world. It took Jeffrey more than 30 years to learn the basics of mugham.


“Mugham is experiencing a renaissance. In the 80-90s, when pop music from around the world began to fill Azerbaijan, the traditional genre found itself in danger of extinction. But now that danger is gone,” Ibrahim Guliyev, the head of the Mugham Center in Baku, said in an interview. He called 2003 the turning point when Unesco recognized mugham as part of the world's "intangible cultural heritage" (it was placed on the list in 2008).

Since then, every 2 years, the international festival “World of Mugham” has been held in the capital as part of a large campaign to preserve it; grants are regularly provided for researchers, performers, teachers, and students. To record a feat with one of the ambassadors of the genre is a great advantage in the discography for both classical and pop musicians.

Fortunately, the younger audience is also engaged in the distribution and rethinking of mugham. Mansobase band tried to mix mugham with different genres, but they liked the synthesis with instrumental hip-hop most of all.

Farhad Farzali, an artist, DJ, and musician from Baku, devoted several of his projects to Azerbaijani music. Bahariyya is an experiment designed to combine the acoustic sound of traditional mugham musical instruments with electronic processing and see what happens. It turned out like this, no more and no less:

And Bulat Khalilov from Nalchik together with his friends created a label on which he records traditional Caucasian music, including mugham, in the field.

Ored Recordings publishes albums of mountain talents, takes them to Moscow and inspires them not to give up their own authenticity in favor of pop formats. And it shows us how the performers of ethnic Caucasian music look, sound and live today, destroying stereotypes about old sages from auls speaking book aphorisms.