Sayat Nova.

Leon Aslanov writes for the Ajam Media Collective about the “long history of exchange and dialogue [which means] that Armenians and Azerbaijanis share more than they might like to imagine”:

Music is a witness to this fact. It is an important carrier of cultural memory that can overcome the forced forgetting of the last century and remind us how closely bound these communities really are. Armenians and Azerbaijanis share not only instruments like duduk, zurna, and tar but even rhythms and melodies, like the classic Sari Aghjik/Sarı Gəlin. In this article, I explore Eastern Armenian and Azerbaijani folk music traditions that host a variety of shared songs, tales, and cultural features revealing just how intertwined these cultures are.

The most prominent example of shared musical heritage between peoples of the South Caucasus is that of Sayat Nova, an 18th century Armenian bard (known as ashough in Armenian and aşıq in Azerbaijani) who composed songs in Armenian, Azerbaijani, and Georgian. His works in Azerbaijani are either unknown or hidden from the public. This is testament to the nationalisation of Sayat Nova, in which his legacy of multilingual artistic production has been written out and he is instead presented as a solely Armenian musician. His music and melodies were inspired by a range of folk musical traditions in the region. They were notated centuries after his death during an Armenian national musicological project — part of why he became to be seen as exclusively Armenian in the future.

Songs would be passed on from village to village, leaving behind little trace of where they came from or what the “original” version was. For instance, the Armenian song Mejlumi pes is said to have been composed by Sayat Nova; but there is an equivalent Azerbaijani folk song called Yar bizə qonaq gələcək with exactly the same melody. […]

There are many examples of such songs whose melodies are identical, but are performed in differing musical styles and sung with different lyrics and titles. In certain cases, the composer of the song is known in one or both of the languages. However, this does not represent sufficient proof as to who actually composed the melody. A musician living in an ethnically-mixed town or village or a bard who travels from region to region may pick up melodies and transpose them with lyrics in their mother tongue. […]

Despite the current animosity between Armenians and Azerbaijanis, as this article makes clear there is a long history of musical collaboration. The possibilities for collaborations are endless thanks to the centuries-old development of musical traditions in constant contact with eachother. The last known collaboration between folk singers from both countries took place in a concert in Baku in 1987, a year before the initial clashes over Nagorno-Karabakh erupted. But more recently, musical commonalities have also been used as part of reconciliation efforts as documented in the following short film about the kamancha, an instrument common to both cultures.

The imagined contours of national heritage when it comes to music are broken when the similarities revealed. Debates around origins of songs and instruments become redundant when removed from nationalistic discourse. At that point, this shared musical heritage becomes something that brings us together instead of dividing us.

There are numerous images and musical clips. I love this kind of exploration of forgotten commonalities, and as always I wish nationalism would take a long walk on a short pier. (Thanks, Trevor!)


  1. It sounds like a rio Wang story. Of course from rio Wang we know that whenever two folk motifs match, it’s likely that both came from the Romani pros…

  2. You’re right, it does!

  3. Christopher Culver says

    Sounds like the musical genre in Central Asia known as shashmaqam, where in the past Uzbek and Tajik lyrics alternated pretty freely, but with the establishment of distinct Uzbek and Tajik states, performers began using only materials in one language or the other.

  4. Yes, another sad example of “nationalities” being imposed on mixed populations that had gotten along fine without them; see this post on Tajik and Sart and compare the hellish fate of Macedonia once the Greeks, Bulgarians, and Serbs started fighting over it.

  5. If anyone here likes Georgian folk music – this is a great video. Just a family singing in their yard. I don’t speak Georgian – but someone told me it has a great line about the singer going from village to village with the “guitar” on his shoulder, singing to make himself happy and annoying the villagers 🙂

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