Azerbaijan International

Autumn 1996 (4.3)
Page 74

Azerbaijan's Own Ancient
Version of Rap Reappears

by Balasadig

by Aghasalim Salimov
Performed like "Rap"

A poor man doesn't sleep at night because he needs money.
He has so many wishes, but they don't come true.
He looks for money so long but can't find it,
Money, son of a bitch, is the enemy of the poor!

If you had money, you could build a ten-story building,
The poet doesn't even get inspiration without money,
And the child can't go to school without money,
See how sweet money is.
Money, son of a bitch, is the enemy of the poor!

A man with money can eat chicken pilaf every day,
And all his problems can be solved one by one.
If you have money, you never catch cold.
It is a mattress, it is a blanket.
Money, son of a bitch, is the enemy of the poor!

If you have money, people will find you themselves,
They will be like flowers all around you,
Wherever you go, pretty women will find you,
Money, son of a bitch, is a lover!
Money, son of a bitch, is the enemy of the poor!

I have seen many rich people
Whose wealth was left to a stranger.
If you don't have money, you even have to forget your dead relatives.
Money provides the wake, money is funeral.
Money, son of a bitch, is the enemy of the poor!

Money finishes school, not you.
The one with money can deceive a molla so fast,
Money saved Abdulla from the death penalty.
See what kind of sultan money is.
Money, son of a bitch, is the enemy of the poor!

From "Absheron Meykhanas," Rahimagha Imamaliyev, ed. (Baku: 1993).
I remember as a kid growing up in the village of Mardakan1 that the boys in the neighborhood used to gather around to recite meykhanas together. It was great fun. We'd snap our fingers or drum them on anything available-a table, a box of matches, a book, anything-just to feel the power of the rhythm.

"Meykhana" is a Persian word meaning "a place where people get together to drink and talk or recite poems." The roots in Azerbaijan can be traced back at least a milennium to the Sufi tradition. Today it is one of the most wide-spread folklore genres on the Absheron Peninsula

Traditionally, it is an oral form of poetry which is recited spontaneously without any preparation, effort, or premeditation. At least two people are needed to perform it. It's likely that meykhana would remind Westerners of rap with the exception that in its traditional form, it was performed in total spontaneity.

Performers can choose any topic. One person creates a four or five line stanza and then the other person picks it up without missing a beat. Gifted performers can develop any subject-cars, money, women, work, contemporary events-anything. But more important than the topic itself is the ability to maintain the performance-its rhyme and rhythm. Sometimes it can go on for hours. The language of meykhana is the language of the street. Often Russian words are mixed in with Azerbaijani.

Some people think that the ability to recite meykhanas is a gift from God since it's so difficult to respond spontaneously and sustain the pattern for any length of time unless you are uniquely gifted.

Forbidden During Soviet Period
Meykhanas didn't sit well with the Soviet authorities. First of all, the metrical patterns associated with meykhana were forbidden because of their associations with Eastern poetry, Arabic script and, ultimately, Islam.

Secondly, as a genre, meykhana is built upon spontaneity, which can rapidly turn into satire and cynicism. The performer has a powerful tool in his hand if he chooses to attack political systems, injustice and inequality.

Finally, performing meykhana flourishes best in groups; it never used to be performed by a single person. It takes at least two people; others quickly gather around attracted by its rhythm. So the unpredictability and potential spontaneity of a gathering made officials skeptical and distrustful.

It used to be that whenever people performed publicly, the police would interrupt and dismiss the crowd. Children or teenagers risked getting whacked by their teachers for saying them and, in turn, that made parents forbid their children from letting them involved, too-not because they considered meykhana shameful. Instead of being proud that their children were so talented, parents cowered, fearing that such intelligence would get them into trouble. But who could prevent two or three young boys sitting under a fig tree in a corner of a country garden reciting them?

Periods of Meykhana
In this century, meykhana can be identified by three periods of development-pre-Soviet (before 1920), Soviet (1920-1991) and post-Soviet (1991 to present).

During the first period, meykhana lived freely. The second was like prison; today it's free again although not many people are paying enough attention to it.

The quality of meykhana used to be much higher. Pre-Soviet meykhana was the highest as it had not yet been separated from its own roots and traditions where performers were incredibly skilled. Meykhana was like a "tar"
3 in tune back then. The Soviet period tried to break a few strings bringing it to the state we find it in today. Let's hope this is just a temporary transition.

I can remember when people recited meykhanas that had only two lines. The second person had to pick up the couplet without missing a beat. It was extremely difficult. The interval was too brief. Nor could the performer deviate from the topic, rhythm or rhyme. Today meykhanas are typically 4 or 5 line stanzas and even one of the lines is likely to be total nonsense. The standard is not as high these days.

Meykhana Today
Few meykhanas have actually been recorded. Nobody would have dared to recite insulting poems openly at that time; therefore, so many of the meykhanas have been lost and authors unidentified. Sometimes the verses survived only because they lived in people's memories.

There's a new trend developing these days of writing them down and performing them from memory. Such a trend is likely to make the content richer and more poignant. It will mean that more and more, meykhana will take on much of the appearance of Western performances of rap-those highly polished critiques on society rendered by the highly developed skill of a single individual.

Balasadig Aslanov is one of the most well-known meykhana poets in Baku. These days he's writing the meykhana down.


1 Mardakan-an old resort village, close to the sea east of Baku on the Absheron Peninsula where Oil Barons used to have summer homes.

2 Absheron refers to the peninsula on which Baku is located. It's the "head of the eagle" in terms of what the map looks like.

3 Tar is an Eastern musical instrument used in performing "mugham" or modal music.

Azerbaijan International (4.3) Autumn 1996.
© Azerbaijan International 1996. All rights reserved.

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