Sunday Spotlight on the Non-Western Cello: “What If the Cello had Originated in Azerbaijan?”

Chaganeh player in Azerbaijan
Chaganeh player in Azerbaijan

For the Silk Road Ensemble musicians, hearing the ethereal voice of Azerbaijani mugham singer Alim Qasimov put their years of conservatory training into serious question.  As they delved into the mugham, they each wondered, “If this is how music should be played what have I been doing all these years?”

The quote above is from the liner notes to Kor Arab (otherwise known as Kor Ərəbin Mahnısı) which is track ten on the Silk Road Project CD, Silk Road Journeys: Beyond the Horizon.  The music was written by Fikret Amirov and the lyrics by Hüsayn Cavid.

Since I spent some time thinking about the origins of bowed string playing a couple of days ago I knew that I really wanted to say something about this instrument which I had just discovered while writing the post about origins.

The chaganeh is one of the few examples of world bowed strings that really closely matches the physical set-up of a cello and I was just thrilled to see a picture of it at the Wikipedia entry for kamancheh as I was writing the post mentioned above.  The kamancheh itself is an upright bowed spike fiddle as is the chaganeh, but as you can see from the photo above, the spike of the chaganeh is long enough, and the body of the instrument is big enough, that a musician can sit in a chair and play it upright and held between the legs.

As noted in the Wikipedia entry, the instrument is said to come from Azerbaijan, but with the little time I’ve had to look it up, I have come across other references stating the chaganeh originated in Iran.  Until I know more about the instrument I’ll simply say it’s of Central Asian origins.

The only video clip I’ve been able to find is this:

As you can hear, the range and timbre are very similar to that of the kamancheh and other spike fiddles of Central Asia and as you can see in the photo from which the above photo was extracted, it seems to be used as part of the standard art ensemble (Mugham) of Azerbaijan.  Just from this photo and what I know about Mugham ensembles it looks like the chaganeh can stand in the place of the kamencheh.

Mugham ensembles have long been integrated with Western musical instruments mainly due to Soviet rule.  What we generally don’t learn about with regards to Soviet music is that many of the countries bordering the Soviet Union and Europe found interesting ways to institutionalize their folk and Art music traditions with the Western music traditions of teaching or performing.  In the case of Azerbaijan, “hybrid” ensembles were formed which included both Western Classical instruments and Mugham ensembles.  A beautiful example is this youtube clip that I often use in talks, of the Mugham virtuoso Nəzakət Teymurova singing Qal Sene Qurban.

Mugham Opera is another genre that had emerged due to this hybridization.  This is basically a mixed genre Opera with Mugham vocalists as soloists and often incorporating a hybrid dance form that is a mixture of ballet elements with art/folk dance from Azerbaijan and Central Asia.  Here is an excerpt from Mugham Opera, Koroğlu based on Koroğlu dastanı (Epic of Koroğlu). Written by Uzeyir Hajibeyov with libretto Habib Ismayilov, with poetry by Mammed Said Ordubadi.  Nəzakət Teymurova again, the soloist.

In 2009, Yo-Yo Ma and his Silk Road Project with extensive oversight by Alim Qasimov (also a member) created a chamber version of Hajibeyov’s Mugham Opera, Leyli və Məcnun (Layla and Majnun), which the Silk Road Project toured around the US that year.

Alim Qasimov is probably the pre-eminent Mugham vocalist worldwide.  Obviously due to his participation with the Silk Road Project, but he has also worked in collaborative projects with other Western groups such as his recent recording project sponsored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture with the still innovative Kronos Quartet.  Here’s a short documentary about that collaboration mainly showing some of the rehearsal process for working out an arrangement of the song, Köhlen Atim (sometimes translated as “My Spelndid Horse” but simple “My Horse”):

Strings just seem like a natural fit for doing a wide variety of World music styles.  Much of that has to do with the fact that they are not fretted, which makes it so much easier to play the “microtonal” and “non-standard” scales not found in Western musical traditions.  And while the violin has seemed to take precedence for being adopted into indigenous styles, as I’ve been trying to show in this blog-post series, the cello has also been incorporated, or in some cases already have some models for usage (I’ll especially touch on that when I talk about the Yayli Tanbur from Turkey).

Going back to the original quote above, there is at least one video of Alim Qasimov singing a concert version of Kor Arab (which literally means “Blind Arab”) on youtube.  If you can stand the fact that the video quality is poor, you can get an idea of why “hearing the ethereal voice of Azerbaijani mugham singer Alim Qasimov put their [Silk Road Musicians] years of conservatory training into serious question”–and if you get a chance, pick up the album and hear the Silk Road Project’s version of the tune.



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