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Anna C. Oldfield

Anna C. Oldfield

Coastal Carolina University



Ashiq Sona of Borchali and her saz.
This presentation examined traditional music as a site where multiethnic identities in Azerbaijan are expressed and negotiated in and beyond local communities. The Caucasus region, occupying a mountainous isthmus between the Black and Caspian Seas, is famous for linguistic diversity and notorious for interethnic conflicts. Seen through the lens of traditional culture, however, the Caucasus is a zone of interaction and communication in which music and narrative are shared and circulated across national boundaries, making it an important site of intercultural dialogue and negotiation.  In Azerbaijan and surrounding regions the ashiq minstrel tradition is a genre of music and storytelling that has existed for over 500 years. Performed by a bard called an ashiq who accompanies him or herself on the saz (a long-necked lute, pictured above), this musical/verbal tradition adapts to its audience and changes as it crosses boundaries between languages, religions, and cultures. By looking at ashiq traditions in the borderlands of Azerbaijan, Dagestan, and Georgia, one can examine the relationship of the travelling minstrel to “imagined communities” that cross ethnic, geographical, political, and religious boundaries.



Ashiqs Qəndab and Soltan (Katruxlu 1996)
The main body of the presentation focused on the works of an Azeri ashiq couple, Soltan and Qəndab, who lived in the Quba region of Northwestern Azerbaijan during the 20th century. The epics they composed are rich examples of local verbal and musical culture, and are especially surprising in the graceful way that they resolve and combine identities in their multicultural region, which is home to Lezghi and other minority populations. Soltan and Qəndab’s modern epics mix folkloric themes and Soviet realities with local histories and Islamic mysticism, working to create hybrid identities that combine Azeri/Lezgi, Soviet/Muslim, Shi’i /Sunni, and other micro-identities into a whole that reflects the real complexity of their region. Unlike printed texts, ashiq arts adjust to the language, culture, interests, history, and current events of each audience. By carrying living, flexible texts, and by physically traveling from place to place, Ashiqs such as Soltan and Qəndab created communities across cultures, forged into relationships by oral narrative.

The north-central spur of Azerbaijan, known as the Zagatala-Balakan region, is also a multicultural zone which borders on Georgia and Dagestan. Here Avar and Azeri people have lived together with several other ethnic groups for centuries. In such a diverse region it is no surprise that Azeri ashiqs sometimes play the Avar tambur instead of the traditional saz.

The first researcher to investigate these tambur ashiqs was Sadnik Pasha, who wrote an article based on his own fieldwork in 1969. He found that Azerbaijani tambur ashiqs had developed a unique style of singing verse while accompanying themselves on the tambur (2002). Later, scholar Aziza Jafarzade (1987) interviewed Ashiq Sanam, an Azeri woman tambur ashiq who performed around the region for almost a century. Like Soltan and Qəndab, Ashiq Sanam was a community builder, reflecting the multicultural identity of her region in the very tambur music she played, combining the Avar instrument with her Azeri verses. See below a short film, taken during my fieldwork in Zagatala in 2006, that illustrates the art of the tambur as performed by Avar musician and instrument maker Asabali Mahmudov. Azeri ashiqs in the Republic of Georgia, such as Ashiq Sona from Hamamli village in the Borchali region (pictured above), are yet another example of the crossing of cultural borderlands by traditional bards.

It is instructive to compare this process to the creation of communities of nations as proposed by Benedict Anderson in his seminal work Imagined Communities. Anderson proposes that the concept of nationalism grew along with the capitalist/industrial developments that led to print culture, which created communities of readers who have never met each other but are “connected through print” (1983: 47). According to Anderson, “print languages laid the basis for national consciousness…. First and foremost, they created unified fields of exchange and communications” (ibid.). Comparing the work of ashiqs as community builders through oral narrative culture, a number of points stand out. Ashiq narratives also create “fields of exchange and communications” during their performances, but not by creating a standardized print language, a process which privileges a centrally-produced uniform standard over the local, different, and unique. Ashiq arts, spread by oral tradition, use a different method of community building. Although there are many different languages, stories, rituals, and musical forms, the ashiq adjusts them to the micro-culture of each village, privileging the local audience rather than forcing them to adjust to an imposed national standard.


Avar Musician Blind Mahammad of Jar village playing tambur.Print cultures, tied to the existence of a printing industry, distribution systems, and schools that train large numbers of people to read in standard dialect, require a government structure. In turn, government structures are able to control what is printed and distributed.  The ashiq tradition, spread by oral narrative performed by traveling ashiqs, presents an alternative model for “imagined community” building, one which celebrates the local and includes minority languages and cultures. Performance of this art connects a large number of individuals, who, like Anderson’s readers, have never met each other; but in this case the model is a living literature that can adjust to the local languages and cultures of its readers. The tradition contributed to the creation of communities that were alternative to the identity choices given by the Soviet Union, and ashiqs were able to sustain their community through time over a number of drastic and violent changes in the governments and social orders. It is perhaps in oral narrative that cultures can negotiate this relationship between themselves as local and belonging to larger multicultural communities.

Many of the epics that Azerbaijani ashiqs tell are told in localized variants over a huge region, spreading because of the built-in ability of oral narrative to change without losing integrity in a way that a text never can; in verbal arts, a narrative is not translated, it is recreated anew. It is no surprise that these arts developed so strongly among the heterogeneous communities of the Caucasus. Although now so embroiled in crisis, it is encouraging to know that there are deeper layers of multinational community building embedded in the verbal and musical culture, and one cannot help but wonder if these traditional arts could have a role in bringing intercultural dialogue back to the Caucasus.



Anderson, Benedict.1983. Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Katruxlu, Soltan. 1996. Telli Sazım, ed. Vurğun Soltan and Azad Nəbiyev. Derbend: 3 Nömrəli Mətbəə Nəşriyyatı.

Jafarzade, Aziza.1987. Aşıq Sənəmlə görüş. Archive No. 167-9-4. Manuscript.

Paşa, Sədnik. 2002. Ozan-aşıq yaradıcılığna dair araşdırmalar. 2 vols. Gəncə: Pirsultan.