Voices of the living past: the 'Ashug' minstrel music of Azerbaijan (EAP149)

Aims and objectives

The ashug art is a 500 year-old narrative and musical tradition that has survived in the mountains of Azerbaijan. The core of the art is the dastan epic that is told to the accompaniment of the Azerbaijani lute by an ashug, a minstrel who must train many years with a master in order to learn the art. These lengthy epics, which combine Caucasian folklore with Sufi philosophy, have been passed through generations for hundreds of years. Ashugs also engage in contests called deyishme in which they pose riddles intricately woven in improvised verse. There are many regional schools of the art, each of which has its own repertoire and music. Continuing a traditional method of encoding and communicating information over time, dastan contain layers of cultural, linguistic, and historical information about the peoples and microcultures of the Caucasian mountains. Every ashug performance is based on verbal improvisation within a traditional framework, thus every recording represents an artistic moment which will never be repeated.

Because this art is often dismissed as back-country folklore, there has been little effort by state cultural organs to preserve its traditions. Contemporary ashugs concentrate on short lyric songs in order to compete in the profit-centred entertainment marketplace, and many original features of the art are rapidly disappearing. Tragically, due to the territorial wars of the past 20 years, whole regional ashug schools have been wiped out, their surviving members dispersed as refugees. In addition, because of enduring economic crisis, the population has shifted to Baku, further undermining cultures of the rural regions. Today, epic dastan, deyishme, and the subtleties of regional variants are only known by the oldest ashugs, and this living heritage may be lost within the next 10 years.

Thanks to the efforts of Archive Director Madatov, the Azerbaijan State Archive of Sound Recordings has a significant collection of ashug arts of the past 70 years recorded on phonograph records, magnetic tape, and video. They also house a collection of photographs and field recordings. These holdings include more than 100 dastan, as well as deyishme and songs performed by ashugs from all regions of Azerbaijan. As the 20 th century witnessed several waves of dispersion and destruction of archives, many of the recordings are unique representations of a specific dastan or a great master ashug. Because these holdings are stored on media that is vulnerable to embrittlement over time, it is important that they are copied to digital media, both as a method of preservation and as a way to make the collection available to the public. Thus, the first goal of the pilot programme will be to identify the 50 most voluble items related to the ashuq art and to create digital copies.

The second goal of the project will be to identify other collections of significant ashiq materials (which can include recordings, photographs, and perhaps manuscripts). Potential institutions with large collections include the Museum of Musical Culture under the direction of Allah Bayramova, the Folklore Institute under the direction of Huseyin Ismailov, the Azerbaijan State Radio Gold Fund, and the Museum of Ashiq Arts in Tovuz. In addition, there are many scattered collections of very rare materials that are being kept by folklore enthusiasts, families of ashugs, and regional cultural centres throughout the country. Accordingly, regions of Azerbaijan will be visited to identify these collections and reach an agreement with the owners and will be used as the basis of a future major project.


The pilot project succeeded in creating digital copies of 50 oral epic dastan performed live by ashug minstrels. Recordings are rare as dastan are long; most recordings were done in studios for the radio or TV programmes, each running for about 50-60 minutes. These recordings were primarily on magnetic reel to reel tape but some of the recordings were from cassette tape, phonograph record, or video. As the material was digitised the staff were trained in using the hardware and software acquired through the grant for that purpose.

It was determined that significant holdings of ashug dastan are also held in two institutions in Baku, the Azerb ai jan State Television and Radio's Gold Fund (Kizil Fond), which are recordings that have been created for radio and television. This is a large and valuable collection held on reel to reel tape. There are hundreds of recordings of ashugs, some done in the field in remote regions, recorded over the past 50 years. However, careful negotiations would have to be entered into over any future collaboration.


Another collection of holdings is at the National Folklore Institute, also in Baku. These holdings have been collected from around the country by fieldwork, and also from Azeris in Iran. The Folklore Institute has expressed willingness to cooperate with future projects but for both of these sources approval would to be sought initially from the Ministry of Culture.

There are also individual ashugs and scholars who have access to recordings and have expressed willingness to cooperate with future projects. There are also very small scattered collections held by individual families and friends of ashugs.

In addition, it has been determined that there is a significant amount of epic and folksong recordings of non-Azeri ethnic groups who live in northern Azerb ai jan, including Avar, Lezgi, Udi, and Mountain Jews, held by private individuals and at small local museums and radio stations. Because these ethnicities have no country and are distributed across Azerbaijan, Georgia and Russia, they are especially vulnerable.

The endangered archival material is now housed in the new building of the Azerbaijani Archive of Sound Recordings (ARDSYA) in Baku, Azerbaijan. ARDSYA is a professional state archive under the direction of Hasankhan Madatov. The digitized materials have been stored in archive boxes with protective sleeves, and the original archive materials have been restored in archive boxes. All materials are located in the archives central holdings. Copies have also been provided to the British Library. The project also recorded lending copies of each of the 50 discs which will be available for visitors to listen to in the ARDSYA building.