Azerbaijan International

Spring 2001 (9.1)
Pages 52-56

Samples of Rahim's garmon music and the Araz Ensemble are available at Click on MUSIC.

Innovation comes in all shapes and forms, but invariably the arts are among the first to signal a change in social attitudes. That's certainly the case with Azerbaijani music these days, especially as it is being performed in Iran. Rahim Shahriyari (1971- ) is among those at the forefront of the Azerbaijani music scene in Iran. He composes, sings and plays the garmon - an accordion-like instrument traditionally used in Azerbaijani folk music. And since the Azerbaijan Republic gained its independence, Rahim has gone to Baku on several occasions to bring back new music and lyrics. He and the group he helped form, the Araz Ensemble, have been dazzling Iranian audiences with their performances of Azerbaijani music, which these days includes Azerbaijani folk dances.

To best understand the significance of Rahim's efforts, it's important to know that up until the Islamic Revolution took place in Iran in 1979, there were very few opportunities to perform Azerbaijani music there, despite the fact that more than one-third of the population (at least 25-30 million people) is of Azerbaijani descent. Since 1998, when President Khatami came to power, Azerbaijani music has fared much better. We asked Rahim about the impact of the garmon on his own life as well as the growing popularity of Azerbaijani music in Iran.

Azerbaijani Rahim Shahriyari lives in Tehran and even though he's only 30 years old, he's already an important figure in the development of Azerbaijani music - a genre that is becoming increasingly popular in Iran.

Above: Recently the Iranian government has become more open in allowing Azerbaijanis to perform their own music in Iran. (There are an estimated 25-30 million Azerbaijanis living in Iran.) Here Rahim Shahriyari and his group, Araz Ensemble, perform in Tehran. Women (wearing head scarfs here) are also allowed to perform but not as featured soloists if men are present in the audience.

Despite the fact that there is a substantial population of Azerbaijanis living in Iran, up until the Revolution [1979] Azerbaijani music was rarely heard in public music venues. Rahim says that these days the openness toward Azerbaijani music has increased even more. For instance, on radio stations, he can hear his own music being played daily, even though all of the programming is in Persian.

Azerbaijanis are not the only ones who tune in to Azerbaijani music. "For the last six years that I've lived in Tehran, I've been giving three or four major concerts a month," Rahim says. "We usually attract an audience that's about half-Azerbaijani and half-Persian. Not so long ago when we gave a concert in Gorgan, a city in the northern part of Iran, it was mostly all Persians who attended."

According to Rahim, it doesn't seem to matter that most Persians don't understand the words to the Azerbaijani songs. "I remember once I was singing at a ceremony and this Persian woman was trying to sing along with me to one of Tofig Guliyev's most popular songs - 'Sana da Galmaz' (Your Beauty Won't Last Forever). [For the musical score and words to this song, made popular in the 1960s-1970s, see Azerbaijan International (AI 3.4), Winter 1995]. Even though she couldn't pronounce the words very well, she really made a great effort to sing along with me. It just goes to show how much Azerbaijani music is appreciated."

Araz Ensemble
Several years ago, Rahim created the Araz Ensemble, which now has 17 musicians including dancers and singers. The group takes its name from the Araz River, which divides what is known as Northern Azerbaijan (Republic of Azerbaijan) and Southern Azerbaijan (now Iran), a political division that occurred in the early 19th century with a treaty at the conclusion of war between Russia and Iran.

Above: The Araz Ensemble recently performing in Iran. Note the women's choral group which accompanies a male soloist. However, during Novruz celebrations in the United States in 2000, Zoya Sabet, an Iranian singer (below), who lives in Los Angeles, was the featured soloist with the Araz Ensemble. Their concert also featured songs from various other ethnic groups living in Iran as well. Zoya learned the lyrics for several Azeri songs.

The musical ensemble includes five women, which in itself is quite remarkable. Just a few years ago, women were not allowed to perform onstage at all, despite the fact that during the Reza Shah's time (up until 1979), there were many women performing as soloists, for example,
Googoosh [See AI 8.3, Autumn 2000]. These last few years, women have begun performing in groups, not in solo performances yet, for women audiences. While some Persian groups now have both men and women performing as well as singing together, Rahim says that Araz was the first Azerbaijani ensemble to do so. The Araz women include four Azerbaijani singers and one woman who performs on the canon, or santur - an instrument with strings that are tapped with hammers rather than plucked, like a dulcimer. The Araz female singers are also members of the Iran Symphonic Orchestra.

The female chorus joins Rahim in singing Azerbaijani songs like "Yasha Azerbaijan!" (Live Azerbaijan!) "Before, nobody would have dared to recognize the Azeri language or Azerbaijani culture," Rahim says. "You know, it takes guts to sing about Azerbaijan, about its language and its nation in Iran. In the past, you could never have said, 'Yasha Azerbaijan! Yasha manim khalgim!' (Live Azerbaijan! Live my nation!) Now we sing such songs openly. I'm happy that Baku and Iranian musicians can come together and sing 'Yasha Azerbaijan!' That's a revolution in itself."

In 1998 and again in 1999, Rahim and some of the members of the Araz group performed in concerts in the United States with featured female soloist Zoya Sabet. Though Persian, Zoya learned the eight Azeri songs that Rahim taught her for the concert, which also featured folk songs from various other native languages in Iran. A CD called "Yasha Azarbayejan" has since been released with the Azeri songs; it was produced by Parviz Gharib-Afshar of Shiva International Enterprises.

Dancers are also a new twist to the Araz ensemble. "This year, 22 years after the Iranian Islamic Revolution, we've now been able to add 12 Azerbaijani dancers," Rahim explains. "Some of them are young kids, but others are professional dancers who used to dance 30 years ago. They didn't dance for many years because it was prohibited. But I managed to get the government's permission to let them dance on stage again."

Left: Iranian singer Zoya Sabet recently produced a new CD entitled "Long Live Azerbaijan" (Yasha Azarbaijan), which contains eight Azerbaijani folk songs.

The performance took place at the ten-day annual festival commemorating the establishment of the Iranian Revolution on February 7-16, 2001. This year 90 ensembles participated, including groups from India, Georgia, Germany, Italy and Spain. Rahim's group rehearsed nine months in anticipation of the event. Other Azerbaijani groups that performed did not have dancers or women. "Newspapers were writing about the Araz Ensemble as a big hit at the Festival," Rahim says. "Each group was allotted three days to perform, but they gave us six days."

Another new trend worth noting is that lyrics now refer to love and relationships between men and women. Before, singers used to sing about nature, native land and such things.

Mixing Azerbaijani traditional musical instruments with symphonic and Western instruments is new, too, as is having musicians from North and South Azerbaijan perform together in Iran. During a recent festival, Rahim's group performed with two brothers from Azerbaijan: guitarist Chingiz Sadikhov and drummer Aflan Sadikhov. The group also invited a clarinet player from Baku - Abdulagha Huseinov. "That was the first time that a guitarist had performed with Azerbaijani musicians in Iran," Rahim says. "We also had the percussionists play a duet with Housein Afshari, one of the drummers in our group. It was another first for Azerbaijani music in Iran."

At this same festival in Tehran, another musician from Azerbaijan, Zulfugar Rajabov, joined the ensemble, playing percussion on different-sized tea saucers and giving a phenomenal performance.
"People were amazed," Rahim says. "It was the first time that Iranian people had heard Azerbaijani music played on tea saucers! I invited Zulfugar to the festival to demonstrate the broad range of Azerbaijani music that is available."

Rahim usually sings pop songs himself, but he always invites some mugham singers to perform more traditional modal pieces. Some of the music that Rahim performs is his own compositions. For the lyrics, he looks to some of the Azerbaijani poets living in Iran, such as Ali Huseynzade (Dashgin) or Mahmud Dastpish (Valeh).

One of the most recent performances took place in February of this year at the Tehran Mudiriyyat University, where the Araz Ensemble gave a concert for about 500 Azerbaijani students. University officials had seen them perform at the Festival and invited them to the university. Some of the students came up after the concert and told Rahim: "Today, we discovered that we are Azerbaijanis and that we must be proud of it." He was so glad that some of the students were being affected by the music.

People often applaud the power of music to heal. The therapeutic power of music has clearly been a powerful influence in Rahim's life. "I lost my father when I was seven years old, so my youth was really difficult, especially until music entered my life at age 18. Life was tough and I had to study, work and earn my own money. I kept looking for a way to express my grief because I felt like my heart was going to explode. It was the garmon that took away my sadness.

"I used to watch garmon players as they held the instrument against their chests. Opening and closing those bellows, sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. Then lifting the instrument up high and bringing it down low. That's how my heart had felt from childhood - racing, going slow, sometimes feeling exuberant, sometimes depressed. That's why I decided that the garmon was the instrument for me. Of course, I liked other instruments, too, but I thought that the garmon could best express my heart's grief. Once I started playing the garmon, I could get free of that heavy grief. The more that I played, the more my sadness left me."

A Late Start
Rahim grew up in Tabriz, one of Iran's largest cities, which is mostly populated by Azerbaijanis. His grandfather came from the "other side", he explains, meaning Baku. Borders between the two countries were quite open until the late 1920s, when Stalin began the process of isolating the Soviet Union from the rest of the world, and many Azerbaijanis fled south to Iran.

Rahim says that his family wasn't particularly musical. "My grandfather had a very good voice," he recalls. "So did my father. But they were never involved professionally in music. At 15, I took first place in Tabriz in a singing contest for young people. But I didn't start doing music professionally until I was 18, in 1989 when I started playing the garmon. At the university I studied accounting. Now when I look back, I wish I'd spent those years studying music instead."

After returning from the army at the conclusion of the Iran-Iraq war in 1989, Rahim bought his own garmon and couldn't keep his hands off of it. He put himself through private music school for three years and practiced as much as eight to nine hours a day. He studied with two different garmon masters: Yusif Azimzade from Tabriz and Vagif Asadov from Baku. "It was my instructor from Baku who taught me proper fingering technique," Rahim says. "I had learned the wrong way.

"In Iran, we don't have music conservatories like the Baku Music Academy," he explains. "I often tell people that I learned to play the garmon at Azerbaijani weddings. Actually, you can learn a lot from them. At a typical wedding, I often play for eight hours - about 150 different songs. Since there are so many requests for favorite pieces, it requires a broad repertoire."

Contact with Azerbaijan
Rahim has visited and performed in Baku on several occasions since Azerbaijan became independent (late 1991). He remembers how excited he was to meet famous Azerbaijani musicians for the first time: "When tar player Ramiz Guliyev, singer Arif Babayev, kamancha player Munis Sharifov and tar player Firuz Aliyev were in Tehran, they heard me play the garmon. They were surprised. 'We didn't know there were any garmon players in Iran,' they told me.

"In fact, the first time that Ramiz Guliyev heard me play the garmon, I was 23 years old. He told me he thought that I had been practicing the instrument for at least 20 years - actually, it had only been about five."

Since that time, Rahim has performed in several concerts with well-known Azerbaijani musicians such as Ogtay Hajiyev, Behbud Agakhishiyev, Mukhtar Novruzov and Hilal Mammadov. He and his garmon have appeared in Baku, Turkey and the United States. After Noruz (New Year's Day, March 21st) this year, he's planning to take ten musicians from Iran and ten from Azerbaijan to tour Sweden, Norway, Holland and Germany.

The last time Rahim visited Baku, he says, he was concerned about some of the trends that he saw taking place there. He was disappointed to discover that Azerbaijanis were listening to Turkish and Western pop music rather than Azerbaijani music; he's concerned that they will lose their own music.

Recent Recordings
Rahim has already recorded several CDs of his music. In March 2001, a CD of garmon music called "Ipak"(Silk) was released in Iran. Two of the songs on the CD are his compositions; the others are Azerbaijani folk dance music, such as "Tarakama".

Two other CDs have been released in the United States, including "Galmadin" (You Didn't Come), a reissue of a CD of garmon melodies that was released in Iran seven years ago. Soon to be released is another CD, called "Bayaz Gejalar" (White Nights), produced by ParsVideo. This CD features pop songs that used to be popular in Baku, such as "Ana" (Mother), "Baghlar" (Gardens) and "San Allah Gal" (For God's Sake, Come).

Rahim has been working on two more pop CDs, one of which is called "Aghlama" (Don't Cry) and contains two songs devoted to Karabakh. Another CD, "Shan Mahnilar" (Cheerful Songs) is soon to be released. It will feature Murtuza Barjasteh, a Persian singer living in Los Angeles. Rahim taught him the 11 Azeri songs that are on the CD. Rahim himself is part of the chorus, along with women singers.

The energetic Rahim has high hopes for his music - not only in Iran, but also Azerbaijan and other places in the world. "In the future, I would like to bring musical instruments together from different countries. I would have an American playing saxophone, a Spaniard playing guitar, a Persian playing piano and an Azerbaijani playing garmon. I would have an Azerbaijani singer performing next to an Italian - all sorts of combinations. Perhaps, that's how we can save Azerbaijani music and make it known widely throughout the world. That's my dream."

Rahim Shahriyari was interviewed by Editor Betty Blair along with staff members Vafa Mastanova and Farida Sadikhova. Samples of Rahim's garmon music and the Araz Ensemble are available at Click on MUSIC.

For more information about father and son tar players Ramiz and Ayyub Guliyev, see "
Sing Tar, Sing" in AI 7.4, Winter 1999.

Azerbaijan International (9.1) Spring 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2001. All rights reserved.

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