The Azeri master of Mugham: From war to the Royal Albert Hall

After being spotted while working as a porter having been shot in war, Gochag Askarov became a celebrated folk singer.

Gochag Askarov: From war to the Royal Albert Hall

Baku, Azerbaijan – Gochag Askarov didn’t notice the warm stream of blood flowing down his face until his comrade pointed it out.

The pair were part of a village militia helping government troops defend territory in Azerbaijan’s Fizuli region during the Nagorno-Karabakh war with Armenia, which raged from 1988 to 1993.

Just 15 years old at the time, Askarov traced the source of pain to his left eye. A fragment of a bullet was lodged inside.

“I tried to pull it out, but I realised I could take my eye out with it, so I left it there,” he tells Al Jazeera at a cafe in the capital, Baku.

Unbeknown to the teenager, the loss of his eye would be the first episode in a journey that would lead to him becoming one of the country’s most well-known and highly regarded singers.

Askarov is considered a master of Mugham, a traditional Turkic and Central Asian form of folk music known for its poetic lyrics and powerful vocals.

“I’ve played at the Royal Albert Hall in London, the UNESCO concert hall in Paris, even as far as New Zealand,” he says while flicking through pictures from his concerts on his phone.

He lands on a video, which he plays with a self-effacing smile; an impromptu sing-off with Pakistani Qawali singers at a folk music festival in Greece.

After losing his eye, Askarov fled with hundreds of thousands of others and began life as an internally displaced Azeri in Baku.

His village of Gochahmadly was captured by Armenian forces and has been held by separatists since, meaning the 39-year-old has not been able to return home in more than two decades.

There are lots of good Mugham singers in Azerbaijan but very few have voices as beautiful as Askarov's voice.

by Sanubar Baghirova, ethnomusicologist

In Baku, he first took up residence with relatives but eventually sought to make his own way in life, taking up a job at the city’s historic bazaar.

There, he would carry goods to cars for the city’s wealthy inhabitants, killing the boredom when business slowed down by singing Mugham songs.

One day, one of his customers took notice.

“He told me that I had a special talent and if I didn’t do anything, it would be going to waste.”

The conversation was enough to sow the seeds of Askarov’s ambition.

Within months he enrolled at the Asaf Zeynally Music College and later he trained at the Hajibeyov Baku Academy of Music, the country’s premier higher education institute for studying music.

Askarov finished top of his class, distinguishing himself with a vocal range his classmates struggled to compete with.

The singer then made his way on to the national TV circuit, where he caught the eye of producers from the BBC, which, in 2007, asked him to come to London and perform at the Royal Albert Hall.

His life since has been as a jet-setting international performer and mentor to a new crop of folk singers. 

A performance by the Mugham singer, Alim Qasimov, in Baku. [Robert Prezioso/Getty Images]
A performance by the Mugham singer, Alim Qasimov, in Baku. [Robert Prezioso/Getty Images]

According to Sanubar Baghirova, an ethnomusicologist and UNESCO expert, what makes Gochag special is his voice and unique interpretation of Mugham.

“Voices are like human faces, some of them look common and others attract us with their beauty and harmony, they make us gaze at them and gain pleasure from looking at them,” Baghirova said.

“There are lots of good Mugham singers in Azerbaijan but very few have voices as beautiful as Askarov’s voice.

“It’s of a rare, beautiful temper … and also of a great volume and range.”

Baghirova said that Askarov’s songs embody passion, drama, and a “spiritual dimension”, despite being outwardly secular.

Despite the challenges of globalisation and the introduction of western forms of music into Azerbaijan, Mugham continued to maintain an appeal among the country’s youth, she said.

“Young musicians may listen to jazz or pop music but nevertheless they still listen to Mugham.”

When a British TV team came to film Baku’s musical college at her invite, the producers were shocked when they saw the number of young students enrolling in Mugham classes.

Like Baghirova, Askarov has no fear that his art form will disappear.

“I believe it will be loved in the future, as it is loved now, and was loved before,” he says.

“I think Mugham will only disappear when people stop accepting the existence of God, because it was given as a gift to the oriental cultures by God.”

Source: Al Jazeera