Sanubar Baghirova is the author of the documentary film “The Ancient Arts of Mugham and Ashiq in the XXI Century” highlighted in our journal. She specializes in research and promotion of Azerbaijani traditional music, holds a PhD degree in music art, and works at the Department of history and theory of Azerbaijani traditional music of the Azerbaijan National Academy of sciences. She has published three books on Azerbaijani music and traditional musical heritage and more than 70 works. Besides, she has contributed to the UNESCO Lists of intangible cultural heritage (2003, 2009, and 2012), to BBC Radio 3 programs on Azerbaijani music (2007, 2008, 2013), initiated, organized and hosted worldwide more than 50 concerts of Azerbaijani traditional musicians. Since 2008 to date she has recorded and produced 28 CD albums on Azerbaijani music, including a number of internationally recognized ones released in the UK, France, Italy, and Australia. Sanubar Baghirova is a member and liaison officer of the International Council for Traditional Music (ICTM), a “Merited Art Worker of Azerbaijan”.


Beyond Text: Growing into Music

‘Dünya cənnətə dönsə yaddan çıxmaz Qarabağ’[1]

‘Even if the whole world turned into paradise, I would not forget Qarabag’

Sanubar Baghirova

Back in 2009-2012, by the invitation of SOAS/University of London, I worked together with a team of four British scholars on the research project ‘Growing Into Music: Beyond the Text.’  The 90-minute documentary, The Ancient Arts of Mugham and Ashiq in the XXI Century, was one of my major contributions to this project. The film is about Azerbaijani children from urban and rural areas who study traditional music to become professional musicians or to play it for their own pleasure. The film consists of three chapters: the first focuses on the children mastering the Mugham; the second follows young ashiqs in classrooms of Baku or outdoors in villages; and the third acquaints viewers with the traditional musical environment of Shirvan, the country’s largest district.[2] The theme of forced migration is particularly reflected in the first and second chapters of the film.

It turned out that many heroes of the film, children and adults, whom I met and interviewed, came from refugee families from Armenia, as well as from the families who fled from the occupied regions of Azerbaijan. Though forced migration was not the main focus of the film, the massive migration at the end of the twentieth century affected all walks of life in Azerbaijani society, and traditional music was hardly an exception. Even in this film, this reality was impossible to avoid.

A small country with 10 million people,[3] Azerbaijan is located on the periphery of the global geopolitical system. Readers may, therefore, be unaware of the events that triggered the forced migration of almost 1.5 million people in this part of the world some thirty years ago and caused human sacrifice on both sides, not to mention the broken lives and psychological traumas of many, including children.

The conflict between the Armenians and the Azerbaijanis broke out in February 1988 in Upper Qarabag (or Naqorno-Karabakh Autonomous Oblast, the district of Azerbaijan with a majority Armenian population, approximately 75%) with the Armenian community demanding reunification of this district with Armenia. The indignation this demand caused among the Azerbaijani community led to a direct, violent confrontation between Armenians and Azerbaijanis starting on 23 February 1988. Further clashes between Armenians and Azerbaijanis resulted in total expulsion of Azerbaijanis from their own lands in 1989-1990. In those years, all Azerbaijani inhabitants of Armenia (over 200,000 people mainly from rural districts) became subject to ethnic cleansing and had to escape to Azerbaijan.  The forced migration also affected the Armenian population of Azerbaijan. Some 300,000 out of a total 400,000 Armenians who lived in Azerbaijan before the conflict left the country.[4] So people from both nations had to abandon their homes and belongings. By 1993, Armenia occupied seven Azerbaijani regions adjacent to Qarabag and Armenia: namely, Lachin, Aqdam, Fuzuli, Gubadli, Jabrayil, Zangilan, and Kalbajar. The population of these regions, about a million people, was forced to leave their native lands under the threat of death. 

Almost 25 years since their forced migration to Azerbaijan, some refugees and displaced people from this conflict have managed to organize their lives in a new place, but many still face difficulties and many often have no permanent jobs. The film The Ancient Arts of Mugham and Ashiq in the XXI Century shows some of the children and adults from migrant families who have managed, or still are trying, to knit back the broken yarn of their lives with the help of music.

The art of Mugham and the art of Ashiq represent the two main fields of Azerbaijani traditional music, each with a long history.[5] The art of Mugham stems from musical traditions of the medieval Muslim East, while the art of the Ashiq ties the Azerbaijani musical culture to the Turkic world. Both genres are widely popular in Azerbaijan, though an audience’s preferences will vary by region or origin. For example, the inhabitants of Baku and the surrounding villages, as well as the upper and lower Qarabag and the area bordering Iran (Lankaran and Nakhichevan), habitually prefer Mugham. In turn, the western regions of the country--Ganja, Gedabey, Tovuz, Gazakh, Shamkir, Kalbajar--have historically been and remain the most important area of Ashiq art in Northern Azerbaijan.

I use the term ‘Northern Azerbaijan’ since the major historical centres of Ashiq art also exist in Southern (Iranian) Azerbaijan. The division of Azerbaijani lands into Northern and Southern parts dates to the 19th century. It resulted from the wars between the Russian Empire and Iran when, according to the peace treaties of 1813 and 1828, Persia ceded the Azerbaijani lands in the South Caucasus to Russia, while the lands in northwest Iran remained with Iran. The separation remains to date. The Republic of Azerbaijan, a secular state headed by a president, was established in the northern (Russian) part of Azerbaijan after the collapse of Soviet Union in 1991.

Whilst the art of Mugham is the mainstream of traditional urban musical culture, the Ashiqs have always played the leading role in the musical life of the Azerbaijani provinces; these country bards were and are a vital part of every wedding and festive event there.

With the flow of migrants from so called ‘Ashiq regions’ of Azerbaijan and Armenia to the cities,[6] and particularly to Baku, the Ashiq culture began to play an unusually important role in the musical life of the city. Baku, one of the largest centres of Mugham art that has never had its own local Ashiq traditions and school, has, since the nineties, been turning into the hub of Ashiq art. Concerts, festivals and Ashiq competitions are held regularly at sold out venues, with audiences consisting in large part of migrants and country folk. Ashiq art has always been an integral part of their traditional way of life. Now that they find themselves in an unusual environment, in a large modern city,[7] it responds not only to their cultural needs, but also their sense of local identity. To a certain degree, it binds and unites their past and present into a cultural continuum.

Demand generates supply, so an influx from rural areas led some Baku music schools to include Ashiq classes in their curricula. The parents would send their children and grandchildren to these schools to learn Ashiq songs and play the saz, the principal musical instrument of Ashiqs.

I recorded many interviews with children from migrant families and their parents. For example, the second chapter of the film features an episode when refugees from Armenia talk about the reason why they are so committed to this art and what it means for them. ‘We keep our traditions; we have never lost them,’ say the eldest members of the family as they begin to tell me a long story of their former life, of the songs they used to sing, of their home and garden they had to leave, and, of course, of their mountains. They told me this story sitting at a tiny one or two bedroom apartment in one of the dormitory areas of Baku. Their son and grandson, Elchin Veliyev, a young Ashiq who was born in Baku, said, ‘When I play this music I think of the mountains, I picture those places, where my family used to live. When my grandmother tells me about it, I really enjoy it.’ His teacher, Neymat Qasimly, an Ashiq, gives a more comprehensive explanation: ‘The Ashiq tradition is strongly connected to the countryside. Mountains, rivers, green forests…their images inspire the ashiq. While living in a city environment he is not quite in tune with them.  Parents tell their children born in the city about it. So they just imagine these places, since they can't visit them due to the current occupation.’

The matter of forced migration is reflected likewise in the first chapter, in relation to the Qarabag musicians. Qarabag was famous in the South Caucasus and Iran for being the ‘cradle of mugham art’; it is the oldest historical centre of Azerbaijani mugham culture. Dozens of distinguished Azerbaijani performers of mugham who have made the history of this art were natives of upper or lower Qarabag: of Shusha, Aqdam, Fuzuli, and Aqjabedi. Qarabag singers are celebrated for their amazing voices. Almost every other child here knows and sings Mugham, though they may not comprehend the full depth of its meaning, as it requires a certain emotional maturity from the performer. The film tells the story of one such Qarabag boy, Samir Jalilov, who was endowed with a unique voice, but the Qarabag war, housing problems and general insecurity caused by forced migration halted his career at its peak, soon after his highly successful performance in the U.S. in 1987. Fate was kinder to another boy from Qarabag, Gochag Askarov, who managed to fight his way to world concert scenes, including the stage of Royal Albert Hall. Nevertheless, he has also had his share of suffering: migration for many years threw him out of normal life, and the war rewarded him with a bullet wound.

In this film, we see music as a living practice of cultural memory, as something of true value, though it remains intangible and immaterial. For these migrants, music stands as one of the few precious things that they have managed to save and take away--other than their lives. And it does matter to them. Because many of the social obstacles that migrants face, particularly the lack of jobs and housing, are yet to be resolved, in this film I wanted to speak about music, and the way it brings hope and some harmony to the unsettled lives of those who have been displaced.

For full length clips, please visit:

[1]       This is a line from the poem composed by Aqa Beyim Aqa (1782-1831), the daughter of Ibrahim Khalil Khan, the ruler of Qarabag (1732-1806), a beautiful and educated aristocratic lady who spoke Arabic, Persian and French. In 1801 her father married her to the Iranian Governor Fath Ali Shah Qajar (1772-1834). She was a favourite wife of Fath Ali Shah, who did everything to win her heart, but she nevertheless always felt nostalgia for her home and garden in Shusha (Upper Qarabag). 

[2]   Music of Shirvan is presented in a special chapter not due to the size of the region, but rather because of particular features of its musical style that are specific to this musical milieu. 

[3]  The total number of Azerbaijanis globally is about 50 million, most of which live in their historical lands in Iran.

[4] References from the article Azerbaijan. The Status of Armenians, Russians, Jews and Other Minorities, United States Bureau of Citizenship and Immigration Services, 1 August 1993, available at:  [accessed 30 April 2020].

[5]  The art of Mugham and the art of Ashiq have been recognized by UNESCO as being of great cultural value: Both were inscribed on UNESCO's Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage, the art of Mugham in 2003 and the art of Ashiq in 2009 . Both these nominations were prepared by me. For more information about Mugham or Ashiq art, see my article ‘The One Who Knows the Value of Words: The Ashiq of Azerbaijan,’ (Yearbook for Traditional Music, 2015, Vol.47, pp. 116-140), and ‘Guide to Mugham’ by Simon Broughton in the British musical magazine Songlines (2013, # 7).

[6] Historical centres of Azerbaijani Ashiq art, each with their distinguishing figures that were known wherever the Azerbaijani language was spoken, have existed in Armenia since the 16th century. As the result of recurrent ethnic cleansings of Azerbaijanis (in 1918, 1948 and especially 1988-89) they ceased to exist.

[7]  According to official statistics, there are about three million people living in Baku, though unofficially the city accommodates almost half of the country's populace.