Various Artists – Anthology of World Music: The Music of Azerbaijan

Various Artists
Anthology of World Music: The Music of Azerbaijan

Being an inherently abstract concept, music, like much art, often exists for the express purpose of allowing its audience to comfortably experience something that they wouldn’t otherwise, be it the highs of a love relationship, the confusion of existential angst, or to simply indulge on the impulses that they never would have the nerve to act on in their daily lives. But in the age of modern multi-media entertainment, music seems singularly incapable of invoking the world of wonder that it must have for our forbearers. From the overblown quasi-mythic prog-rock epics to the electronic music that attempted to create a new universe in sound, the 1970s held the promise that we might uncover a new frontier for sonic escapism. But, for those for whom the strictures of Western music fail to inspire, there still exists one obvious route to lands barely realized or imagined: ethnic folk music.
As part of their ongoing effort to document the music of every cultural group that ever experimented in the realms of melody and rhythm, with this collection Rounder Records documents the music of the little known region of Azerbaijan. A Turkic, Muslim culture, the music of the region largely belongs to the larger category of folk styles in the Middle East. Mostly focusing on the repertoires of the folk musicians (ashugs), as well as those in the ancient virtuosic mugam tradition, the collection does well to present the highest caliber of performances of these otherworldly songs.
From complex swirling patterns and the rapidly succeeding notes of the solo tar performance that opens the set, it’s immediately obvious that Western ears are largely unprepared to appreciate the time signature and skill that are the definitive features of the performance. The chaotically rising and falling “Mugam Orta-Mahur,” a track marked with the possessed vocals (which often sound quite a lot like laughing), clattering instrumentation, and something that sounds almost like a fiddle break is similarly exotic, yet entirely more palatable because of its dazzling convergence of elements. And for the most part, for the novice, that pattern holds throughout the collection, with the solo instrumental tracks more difficult to appreciate than those that feature multiple instrumentalists and vocalists.
For instance, the double reed drone of the duduk and the double-headed drum called a nagara found in the snaking “Roza” and the wild dance music of “Keroylu,” with the melody carried by more wildly flogged kettle drums and a duet of zurna players. “Jalili,” performed by a folksinger who accompanies himself with a saz, a form of long-necked fretted lute, is similarly affective in evoking the mysteries of an unfamiliar culture with the singer’s vigorous vocal vibrato and unconventional time signatures. Other moments, like the endlessly twisting spike fiddle solo in “Beste Nigar,” are a bit less interesting, more because of their extensive running than their virtuosity and otherworldly mood.
Maybe I’ve overstated the case for the loss of mystery in modern music, but there is no quicker route off the beaten path than ethnic folk music and no less beaten path than Middle Eastern variants. That this music seems alien and unfamiliar is entirely appropriate; it should (unless you have previous experience with it, of course). And, truth be told, the differences between musical languages aren’t nearly so big as they first appear, as the inscrutability of the stylistic bent eventually subsides with repeated listens. To take a step back from Western music, no matter how brief, provides not only immediate escapism, but allows the prism through which one views music to add a few more shades.