Eurovison Song Contest 2011. This year it is Azerbaijan’s turn to take the honours at the annual whine and cheese fest. As this year’s winners become next year’s hosts, May 2012 will no doubt see Baku, the Azerbaijan capital, shimmering with a million sequins and strobe lights as it reverberates with the overblown oompah-pop that characterises this glamourous event.
So exactly where is Azerbaijan, you might reasonably ask? Is it part of Europe? Well, politically yes; geographically and culturally, not really. What matters here is that Azerbaijan has been part of the European Broadcasting Union (along with Israel and Morocco) since 2008 and so is eligible to enter the annual Eurovision Song Contest.
South of the Caucasus Mountains, straddling the Caspian Sea’s dark, once sturgeon-filled waters, Azerbaijan is but a stone’s throw from Central Asia. With Persian, Turkish and Russian colonial influences, current-day Azerbaijan has a culture that owes a debt to all three neighbours. To the casual visitor though, it probably seems more like an oil-rich Turkey than anywhere else and, rather than Euro-friendly pop music, it is the thick black stuff that sweats copiously out of the Apsheron Peninsula and Caspian seabed that normally attracts most attention from the rest of the world. In truth, Azerbaijan’s precise geographical provenance is really not that important unless you are one of those misguided individuals that consider ‘Asia’ to be some sort of pejorative (for instance, try telling someone from Tbilisi that Georgia is not really part of Europe).
Eurovison notwithstanding, music has long been a thriving force in the country. Even New Orleans-style jazz was once regularly performed in Baku restauarants in the heady days of the early 20th-century oil boom. During the Soviet period such music was labelled ‘capitalist’ and unceremoniously banned – rather ironic considering that Hitler had already done exactly the same thing in 1933. However, jazz never dies, it just withers a bit, and following Stalin’s death in 1953, a new form called mugham jazz that fused jazz and traditional Azeri folk forms began to emerge in Baku. A major proponent of this new music was the pianist Vagif Mustafazade whose daughter Aziza continues the musical dynasty as a well-respected international artist today. You can read Vagif Mustafazade’s story here.
There’s a small museum dedicated to Vagif Mustafazade in Baku today, and a statue. There are also clubs where mugham jazz is performed nightly by enthusiastic Azeri musicians. In its own modest way, the Azerbaijan capital has quietly become an unpaid member of the international jazz pantheon: New Orleans, New York, Paris…Baku. Not bad for a city that sits 28 metres below sea level. Coincidentally, New Orleans is mostly beneath sea level too so perhaps there is some sort of link between musical innovation and sub-maritime altitude.
Somehow it seems doubtful that there will ever be a statue dedicated to Eurovision 2011 winners Eldar Gasimov and Nigar Jamal. You probably won’t hear much evidence of Vagif Mustafazade’s mugham jazz in Running Scared, the Eurovision winner either. There again, the UK’s 2011 contenders, the thirty-something ‘boy’ band Blue, manage to disguise their Evan Parker influences pretty comprehensively too.