Azeris have a wide range of musical forms and styles to satisfy their needs. They also enjoy international as well as their national music. However, to love and enjoy music is quite different from feeling oneself in it, i.e. as an Azeri, to identify oneself with a specific type of music. National music has specific features that reveal its origin, i.e national music is music that expresses the “soul of a nation”. It is therefore important for us to describe this music in order to understand Azeri people’s attitude to it. What music expresses the classic Azeri way of life?

Many Azeris consider mugham, meykhana, and ritual yallas as archetypal national music—a conclusion proved by their enthusiasm for it. Mugham music in particular is clearly, albeit invisibly connected with Azeris’ mentality. But neither of these points is self-evident. It is still necessary to stress that the Turkic (Azeri) way of life was a source of mugham musical tradition but that Islam has nothing to do with it. The fact that the scope of mugham music is wider than that of Turkic music may raise some questions. That is why we start the search for this music from something very obvious, albeit without downplaying its true origins.

Ashug music may, perhaps should be considered archetypal Azeri music. It is certain that Korkut was ozan (the modern term is ashug) and he is credited as an inventor of the kobuz (saz, kemancha) and created ashug musical traditions. In any case, in Korkut’s time this music was cultivated extensively throughout the Turkic world; furthermore, all countries from China to the Balkans still listen to ashugs enthusiastically. Undoubtedly, the ozan tradition originated in the special characteristics of Turkic mentality and the fact that this music is still played today is evidence of its genetic, cultural link to Turkic ethnicity. All those facts are the basis for considering ozan music as one of the most important classic forms expressing Turkic spirituality.

Ashug music originated in the nomadic environment and traditions of our ancestors. Frequent hunts, military campaigns, caravans, roving with livestock, etc. all frequently ended with a celebration. Festivals, feasts, parties were all part of this tradition and the nomadic way of life facilitated the development of a special music in tune with a spirit of common celebration that could drive people into ecstasies. Spiritually, this music had to be spontaneous, improvised, accessible, and simple, sufficiently rhythmic, heroic and epic in terms of subjects, inherently joyful. Ozan music met those requirements best of all. It aroused common feelings and relations, created a joyful atmosphere. And what was the point of music that transported its listeners into an ecstasy? The impact became stronger as its participants realized that this music had been played and listened to by their ancestors and was still popular in the entire Turkic world. Ozan music has unique features that create special associations and images for its listeners. It can be interpreted as a kind of magic. Apparently, the strings of a saz somehow retain the sounds of the vast steppe and ancient life. That may be why they are similar to mental nerve ends. As soon as an ozan takes a saz in his hands, miraculous streams of music trigger a “mental string” in every Azerbaijani, immersing him in a special state where he recalls links to family, community, village, the steppe, ancient times and so on.

Ashug music is found mainly in the countryside, rarely in cities and almost never among the urban élite. Limited to the rural areas, it is considered a cradle of tradition. It was able to preserve its traditional roots owing to the interest of rural people, whose way of life it characterized. In this connection, the symbiotic links between the colors of ashug music and the dynamism of “country life” are completely natural. This is proved indirectly by the fact that inhabitants of Baku, the capital city, are far removed from ashug music and in addition have no interest in it. Interest in ashug music (or lack thereof) is a sort of indicator of the absence or presence of a certain kind of mentality. It says a lot when many residents of Baku exist in another musical world where ashug music means very little. Obviously, attitudes to this or that style of music are very personal: chacun à son gout or each one to his taste. But as we are discussing the search for Azeri music, not the taste of an individual, we should pay special attention to ashug music. It is the only music which continues to play on our “mental strings” and that can provoke feelings allowing us to see the world from the perspective of a typical Azeri.
However, not all contemporary ashugs are capable of inspiring us. Nowadays, there are many pseudo-ashugs eliciting pseudo-music from saz’s strings for élite audiences that have no connection with the ozan tradition. Roots of that disease go back to the Middle Ages, when many aspects of the Turkic peoples’ culture underwent a process of intensive Islamization. Ozan’s music experienced significant changes as well, with new pseudo-ozans (ashugs) appearing and performing the role of musical emissaries of a new ideology in order to satisfy the demands of the palace elite (madrigal singers).

Nowadays, all ozans are called ashugs. Shakf-Ismail was reportedly the first to attract ozans as representatives of the Turkic spirit to his palace. It was during his reign when, although ashug improvisation had not yet appeared, the basics of the ‘salon’ singing tradition developed and when, later on, some ozans became court singers. They were attracted to palace ceremonies and dedicated their musical improvisations to the ruling class. Fortunately, such pseudo-ashugs are not numerous.

Fortunately, most ashugs maintain their traditions and are deservedly considered successors of real ozan music. They preserved its epic spirit and, thanks to these singers, modern ashug music retains its original roots, i.e. it remains the music of Turkic spirituality. True ashugs (and real ozans) stay with the people and keep their traditions. It is only they who stimulate our minds with their music, arouse our archetypal feelings. To prove it, one only needs to find a real ashug and listen to real music. But, to do so, some effort may be needed, specifically, one would need to go to a distant village to find a real ashug…

Today’s renaissance of ashug music after decades of humiliating conformity to Soviet norms is one of the most important factors reviving our spirits. It is no coincidence that, in searching for oneself, this music plays a special role—it is so closely connected to our native intelligence. It is impossible to imagine our intellectual future without this music. The “Turkic soul” exists as long as it lives in us and for us. This music nourishes our soul with faith in our history, traditions. It is impossible to imagine the death of ashug music—because it would mean that the Turkic soul which created it had also died. As long as ashug music continues to exist, there is a soul that can understand it. This music was our cradle: we received it with our mother’s milk; it has a strong meaning in our sub-conscience, preventing us from losing ourselves. No matter how far we are from ashug music, sooner or later it will gradually return us to our roots. Everyone who listens to ashug music repeats in his soul the same words: what a mercy it was, it is and will be…