Between Improvisation and Tradition

Ethnic music in southern Dagestan and the nature of folklore, field notes by Bulat Khalilov.

Bulat and Timur recording Arkady Kagramanyan in Derbent.

Ored Recordings was founded by Bulat Khalilov and Timur Kodzoko in order to gather and preserve ethnic music of the Caucasus. Here, Bulat tells the story of their trip to southern Dagestan and introduction to the ashough tradition of singing, which fundamentally changed their perception of folklore.

Initially, Ored Recordings positioned itself as a label which specialized in the traditional music of ethnic groups from the North Caucasus and southern Russia. At first, we only looked for pure music which was subject to minimal outside influence and which expressed “the spirit of the ethnic group.” But on one journey we found ourselves in completely new conditions which greatly widened our understanding of traditional music.

In the past, every ethnic group had a caste from which there came preservers of the culture, professional storytellers, or organizers of public merrymaking. For the Circassians it was the Djeguako, for the Russians it was the Skomorokhs, for the Ethiopians it was the Azmari, and so on. In the North Caucasus there are very few similar castes, or people who could be said to belong to them, remaining. In the southern part of Dagestan, however, there are the ashoughs [also transliterated as ashiks, ashughs, ashiqs – Ed.]: folk singers, improvisers, poets, and reciters.

Most of the materials we found online were dedicated to the ashoughs of the South Caucasus: Azerbaijan and Armenia. From this we understood that the ashough tradition was something which was brought to Dagestan. The name itself has its roots in Arabic, and can be translated as “someone who loves (deity) passionately.” However, even if this Dagestan tradition is not part of the republic’s native culture, we were very interested in researching it and, of course, recording the music.

Bulat and Timur recording musicians' performances during the trip.

First, we made our way to the mountain village of Akhti, which is traditionally the center of Lezgin culture. Our guide Shamil, who was born in the village, assured us that, just as before, it was not only the birthplace of Lezgin music, but also a heartland where local traditions were preserved and continued.

We arrived just in time to witness a festival of traditional music, taking place in the local recreation center. Village folklore festivals in former Soviet republics are a unique and, in many ways, strange phenomenon. The events try to combine the openness and freedom of a folk festival with the strict protocol and pomposity of Soviet etiquette. Among the performers we spoke with was Shemshir, one of the best known and most experienced ashoughs of southern Dagestan. Shemshir was not a scheduled performer at the Akhti festival and actually lived in a different village. He specially came to the festival when he heard that we wanted to record traditional Lezgin music.

That day we recorded several songs and folk tunes by Sheshmir, but we weren’t able to achieve an intimate connection. The musicians played and sang for the sake of the recording – an artificial situation atypical of traditional music.

Ashough Shemshir plays the chungur and sings in the mountain village of Akhti.

Shemshir understood this and felt restricted by the official format. The next day we went to his home where we continued getting to know him and making recordings. There, he explained to us that in Dagestan there are many chungur (the Lezgin name for the saz instrument) players, many singers, but few ashoughs. To become an ashoug, it’s not enough to simply learn a melody and come up with a few rhythms. It’s not something you choose; it’s a gift from above.

His level of skill in playing the chungur and singing, and his improvisational expertise, produce the impression that Shemshir is a professionally trained musician. His father Shirin was himself a well-known and revered ashough, who traveled around the villages of Dagestan and Azerbaijan, and later even performed in Paris. “My father was a great ashough and he passed his art on to me; I sing songs that he composed and songs of past ashoughs which I heard from him. But if you don’t create anything yourself – if you just reproduce things which were created before you – then you’re not an ashough. You might be a singer or a musician, but nothing more.”

This is unique to ashough culture. As a rule, in folklore the intentional creation of something new is not only unusual, but is sometimes even forbidden. In this way tradition is preserved. Ashoughs are not only free to create something up-to-date and contemporary, but are actually obliged to produce new texts. And that’s the heart of the matter.

In most traditional cultures only songs that originate in the remote past are held in the highest esteem – supposedly unchanged. Those researching Russian epics point out that many folk storytellers believe that the text of the tale shouldn’t change during performances; otherwise, something bad would happen to them. But in the case of ashoughs, the situation is completely different: constant fluidity of the texts is the inviolable canon. Ashough is not only a carrier of ancient sacred knowledge, but is also an active participant of contemporary cultural processes. 

Probably, that’s why in southern Dagestan, ashoughs are regular performers at variety shows and pop concerts. Apart from traditional saz, their instruments can include synthesizers, drum machines, and guitars. But the use of these instruments is not a result of developments in musical taste – it’s purely for economic reasons. Good musicians who can play traditional instruments have to be found, and often need training. They also need to be paid.

The ashough remains a figure in folk culture, even if he has to improvise or use electronic instruments. His repertoire of melodies is limited, and any ashough can only compose music within the framework of a concrete tradition. Taken as a whole, the phenomenon should be considered international: Lezgin ashoughs play the same melodies as the ashoughs of Azerbaijan. All ashoughs were initially itinerant musicians and knew several languages. Shemshir, too, performs songs in Lezgin, Azerbaijani, and Russian.

And this supranationality is another distinctive feature of ashough singing. Azerbaijani, Lezgin, Armenian ashoughs exist within the ethnic music tradition and their own “professional caste” at the same time. “My father studied under a well-known Azerbaijani ashough, after whom I was named,” says Shemshir. “Ashough does not have a nationality, he addresses his art to the whole world.”

Ashough Shemshir plays and sings with his son, sitting next to him, and another student. The song tells the story of a man who fell in love with and married a beautiful woman. Three years later she left him and the disillusioned protagonist sworn to his friends that he would never marry again.

Like his father, Shemshir teaches his son and daughter, as well as neighboring children and teenagers. Apart from this, he promotes ashough culture and music as a whole in the folk community. He told us: “Once, at a wedding, a young man came up to me who, by all appearances, was very religious. He told me that he also used to play the chungur but stopped because in Islam, music is said to be a sin. I replied that everything was as it should be. For him, music is a sin; for me, it’s not, because it’s a gift from God.”

Bulat and Timur's expedition to southern Dagestan would not be possible without the help of State Republican Center of Russian Folklore, Alexander Efimov and Shamil Sherifaliev.