Tofiq Bahramov, the ‘Russian linesman’

Last weekend England beat Norway 0 – 1 in a friendly football match at Oslo. Great Britain beat Norway at Eurovision too, although this was hardly cause for celebration as coming 25th, just a few points above 26th-placed Norway at the very bottom, is really nothing to be proud of. Many admire ‘null point’ Norway’s steely determination to achieve dependably low scores in this annual cheesy telefest, but those behind the Great Britain entry probably expected far more. But what what can you expect from a septuagenarian crooner named after an obscure German opera composer?

As we all now know, this year’s Eurovision was held in Baku, the Azerbaijan capital. The jury is still out as to whether this ex-Soviet country in the Caucasus geographically belongs to Europe or not but, for the purposes of this competition, Azerbaijan is as much a part of Europe as Norway or France…or even Israel.

I travelled to Baku back in 2000 and returned once more for a brief stay in 2010. In 2000, Baku had seemed quite a threadbare sort of place but by the time of my second visit the Azeri capital had visibly enlarged upwards and outwards to resemble a high-rise building site, with lofty buildings mushrooming near the port like blue glass monoliths. Now there was ferocious traffic too, but I braved this to seek out the Tofiq Bahramov football stadium in the north of the city. The national stadium, which had originally been a contender for the Eurovison 2012 venue, was not easy to reach on foot and necessitated the hazardous crossing of lanes of teeming city traffic. It would seem as if one of the consequences of rapid urban development is to make travel through the city on foot difficult, undesirable and even unwise. Planners seem to assume that, given shopping malls, high-rise offices and a blanket spread of MacDonalds outlets, the hapless pedestrian will happily abandon bipedalism for more appropriate means of locomotion. Clearly, those of us preferring foot power just stand in the way of progress with our unreasonable demands for footpaths, pavements and pedestrian crossings. But I digress.

The England football team’s most glorious moment back in 1966 may well owe a debt to Azerbaijan.  The sympathetic ‘Russian linesman’ at the 1966 world cup was actually an Azeri national named Tofiq Bahramov, although at the time Azerbaijan was an autonomous republic within the USSR. It was Bahramov who decided that Geoff Hurst’s extra time shot that bounced off the crossbar had actually crossed the line – a controversial decision that proved to be a vital turning point in the game in England’s favour. The final 4-2 scoreline clinched it. After the game, Bahramov, along with the referee and the other linesman,  received a golden whistle for his duties from HM the Queen. We can only presume that he would still have been given it even if England  had lost the final.

A statue of Tofiq Bahramov blowing a whistle in refereeing pose stands outside the national stadium that has borne his name since his death in 1993. The statue was unveiled in 2006 when England came to Baku to play Azerbaijan and none less than Geoff Hurst turned up to make a speech at the ceremony; FIFA president Sepp Blatter also attended. Ironically perhaps, the stadium, built in the shape of a ‘C’ to honour Stalin (C = S in the Cyrillic alphabet), was partially constructed by German prisoners during World War II. Bahramov had himself fought against the German army during WWII and on his death bed more or less admitted having a pro-English prejudice at the 1966 final –  an apocryphal story tells that when asked why he allowed the goal to stand he simply said, ‘Stalingrad’.

Azerbaijan – Azerbaijazz

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.