Azerbaijani people share a common trait: their eyes fill with tears when they are asked to describe their experiences of mugham. Mugham is a branch of traditional Azerbaijani music founded upon a matrix of modal structures. Yet mugham goes further: for its native performers and listeners it signifies a philosophy, a spiritual quest in search of truth, experienced as an intensely emotional trance state that is propelled through music. In the complex post-Soviet milieu which is simultaneously progressive and conservative, pro-Western and nativist, neo-colonial and nationalist, mugham binds and provides meaning for Azerbaijani people. Defining Azerbaijani identity, mugham is deeply anchored in the vast realm of Islamic beliefs. Hence, this musical tradition, often referred to as the “shared Muslim way of thinking,” incites intimate conversations suffused with quotations from the Quran, Sufi writings, and treatises about Islam and art. In performance, these meanings are encoded through sung poetry, movements of bodies, techniques of playing, and inner states.
In my work, I hope to be able to understand what mugham means to the Azerbaijani people as a philosophical journey and, perhaps, how being moved emotionally and spiritually shapes their sense of self in present-day Azerbaijan.