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  • Writer's picturePolymath Weekly

A closer look at Mugham - Azerbaijan's traditional folk music

There is no uniform definition of Mugham: it is shaped when felt by the heart, which softens upon a touch of even a couple of notes of the melody.


The New Masters of Mugham is a young group of musicians from the Azerbaijan National Conservatory in Baku, where Mugham has been taught for decades. The presentation below took place during the Long Night of Music Cultures in 2014 in the University of Music Franz Liszt Weimar in Weimar, Germany.

Here is a video of the band performing Mugham in its 2 of 7 modes (styles): Shushtar (00:14-13:56), Chahargah (14:37-21:22) and the band's original piece "Crying Waterfall" (22:00-35:29). The other 5 modes of Mugham include Rast, Shur, Segah, Bayati-Shiraz and Humayun, and vary based on their special emotional meaning and unique melodic structure.

Like many Mugham performers, the band members appear wearing traditional Azerbaijani clothing. The instruments in the video are just a few of the many used among the nation's musicians. From left to right: tar (a wooden long-necked lute), davul (a large double-headed drum), two ghavals (a narrow drum), balaban (a cylindrical-bore, double-reed wind instrument) and kamancha (a bowed string instrument).

Where does Mugham originate?

Mugham is said to have its origin in Persian (Iranian) musical tradition ca. 9-10th century.

Mugham is also characterized by its meta-ethnicity, which means that it is practised in several ethnic groups. In this case, Mugham's name and structural or cultural features may vary from context to context; For example, Muqam (Uyghur; northwest Chinese), Maqom (Uzbek and Tajik) and Maqam (Arabic), though encompass similar principles of the music genre, still have their small but significant differences (e.g. tone scales or melodic type).

Over time, Mugham has lost some of its typical aesthetic characteristics mainly due to European influences. Nonetheless, the modern representation of Mugham still reflects different periods in Azerbaijan's history and its connection to peoples of different cultural and geographical backgrounds, as it did before.

How is Mugham taught and learnt?

Azerbaijani Mugham is known for its reliance on improvisation, which means that during performance, lyric or a music sheet isn't used. The basis of teaching is the art of interpretation, which ensures students master the variety of Mugham's artistic expression.

Where does Mugham stand today?

To this day, Mugham remains the voice of Azerbaijani culture and everyday life. The tar and kamancha are so integral to us that they are pictured on banknotes and mail stamps as seen below.

1 manat banknote depicting tar and kamancha (Image credit: Wikipedia)

Soviet Azerbaijani stamp depicting national musical instruments, 1990 (Image Source: Wikimedia Commons)

To ensure that Mugham - the fascinating and unique art that it is - will continue to inspire musicians and listeners of the world, UNESCO added it to its list of Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity in 2003.


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