Azerbaijan International

Winter 1997 (5.4)
Pages 28-31

Piecing Together History, String By String
The Reconstruction of Azerbaijan's Medieval Instruments

by Jean Patterson

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Traditional Instruments: Majnun Karimov Brings Medieval Music to Life

Click here to hear a sound sample

Azerbaijani folk music ensembleBy studying manuscripts and miniature art, musicologists have discovered that more than 60 different string, wind and percussion instruments existed in ancient and medieval Azerbaijan.

Photo: The National Ensemble of Ancient Traditional Musical Instruments in front of the Shirvanshah Palace in the Inner City (Ichari Shahar). The musician's costumes are based on 14th century miniature paintings.

They know the names of most of these now-extinct instruments, such as the "chang" mentioned by Azerbaijani poets like Nizami. (The "chang" is featured on the cover of this issue.) Until now, however, many details about these instruments have eluded historians.

For the past 25 years, Azerbaijani musicologist Dr. Majnun Karimov has been searching for the answers to questions about what these instruments looked and sounded like. Through careful research and study, he has literally pieced together a portion of Azerbaijani musical history by recreating some of these ancient instruments.
1 Thanks to Karimov, instruments such as the chang, barbat, chogur and rubab can now be heard once again.

Chang and Barbat
One of the greatest thrills in Majnun Karimov's music career took place in 1988 at the 500th Jubilee (birthday) of Shah Ismayil Khatai2 when an ensemble o f musicians performed on medieval instruments that he, himself, had reconstructed. It was a dream come true for Karimov to recreate the sweet, melodious sounds of stringed instruments so that a contemporary audience could appreciate. His work has become a major contribution to the cultural history of Azerbaijan.


Majnun first became interested in folk instruments as a young boy when his mother brought her father's tar to their home. Mostly, it hung on the wall in his house, but from time to time, his father would take it down to play. Later, Majnun's father bought him an accordion.

His serious research on traditional Azerbaijani instruments began in 1972 after he graduated from the Baku Music Academy. At that time, he began searching the classical writings and art miniatures for clues that would unlock the musical secrets of the past. For several years, he researched the manuscripts at Azerbaijan's National Manuscript Institute. Eventually in 1995, he completed his Ph.D. thesis on "The Ancient Stringed Musical Instruments of Azerbaijan."

Azerbaijani folk music instruments
Azerbaijani folk music instruments Azerbaijani folk music ensemble
Left: Chang, Center: Barbat, Right: The National Ensemble of Ancient Traditional Musical Instruments performing inside the Shirvanshah Palace in the Inner City (Ichari Shahar) in Baku.

First Attempt
Karimov's first attempt at building a replica was for the " rud " (pronunciation rhymes with "food"), a large-bodied, four-stringed instrument made partly of wood and partly of leather. Similar to the "ud," the neck of the rud is longer. The process took several months after much trial and error. "Sometimes the measurements weren't right," Karimov confesses, "and I would have to disassemble the whole thing and start all over again. It took me so much time to prepare the strings which were supposed to be made out of gut and silk thread using a special technique. Then I had to figure out how to adjust them. Finally, I was able to play it. The "rud" had such a beautiful timbre reminiscent of a very old sound. It inspired me to push on to work on other instruments."

Majnun Karimov - Azerbaijani folk music ensembleLeft: Musicologist Majnun Karimov with eight of the ancient instruments he has reconstructed.

And so he did. Nine early instruments, completed during the 1980s, are currently on display in the Ethnic Instruments Department of the State Museum of Azerbaijani Musical Culture.

Thanks to Karimov's efforts, a special laboratory was opened in 1991 at the Baku Music Academy to "restore and improve old musical instruments."

Karimov insists that many factors must be considered when building these instruments including the correct choice of timber, its seasoning and moisture content. Even the time of year when the tree is felled must be taken into account. The sap is lowest in January and February. Wood that is full of sap can develop cracks as it dries. Karimov notes that wood that has dense annual rings produces a stronger sound.

There are two ways to assemble instruments according to Karimov. One is to fashion the parts separately and put them together as with the "barbat." The other method is to plane a block of wood down to the correct specifications as is done with the chang. It's much easier to plane wet wood. Afterwards, the roughly hewn wood is allowed to dry for a long time at a specific temperature. A few years later, the wood is worked again. Finally, the frets and stem are attached.

Karimov has found that the strength of the wood is particularly important for the neck and fingerboard because of the pressure caused by tuning. The fingerboard can become distorted if the material is not strong enough. He recommends walnut and pear pegs because they can withstand atmospheric factors of humidity and temperatures and maintain stable tuning.

Various species of trees are used for these old instruments including mulberry (Morus alba), walnut (Juglans regia), red willow (Salix acutifolia), pear (Pyrus communis) and apricot (Prunus armenica). The strings are mostly made of silk, horsehair or animal gut.

Sounding boards are usually made of mulberry or walnut and those covered in leather create the greatest resonance. In addition to sheep skin, sometimes fish skin, the Absheron gazelle skin or even the inner lining of an animal heart is used.

Early Music
Evidence shows that stringed instruments were common in ancient Azerbaijan. Archeological excavations in the village of Shatirlar near the city of Barda uncovered an earthenware piece dating between the 4th and 3rd century B.C. depicting a woman playing an instrument similar to the chang.

Much of what we know about Azerbaijan's musical heritage during the Middle Ages comes from folklore and classical poetry. Important examples are the writings of poet and philosopher Nizami Ganjavi (12th century), the poet Fuzuli (16th century) and the studies of eastern musicologists Urmavi (13th century), Maraghayi (14th century) and Navvab (19th century).

Maraghayi was especially interested in the restoration and improvement of stringed musical instruments. In his work "Magasid Al-Alhan," he provides information about numerous musical instruments such as: udi gadim (old ud), udi kamil (improved ud), shashtay, kamancha, jiganak, Shirvan tanbur, Turkish tanbur, rubab, shidirgi, shahrud, mugni and nuzha.

Musical instruments were also depicted in miniature paintings made by artists of the 16th and 17th centuries, such as Sultan Muhammad Aga Mirek, Mirza Ali, Muzaffar Ali and Mir Sayid Ali. These tiny pictures have become important documents for reconstructing these instruments.

The question is always asked: What happened to these early instruments? Innovation and changing times brought the demise of some of these instruments. In other cases, instruments were adapted to fit the needs of the time and older designs were replaced by new ones. In some cases, a completely new instrument evolved. Many musicians think that the "tar" originated from the "chogur." The chogur had 22 frets and was used between the 12th-18th centuries. Research shows that the chogur's assemblage and sound structure of these two instruments were very similar. Mirza Sadig Assadoglu ( Sadig -jan) modified the five string tar to 13 strings. After his death in 1902, it was simplified to 11 strings.

Chang and Barbat
Two examples of instruments that Karimi has rebuilt are the chang and the barbat. The chang is the forerunner of the harp and seems to have been used extensively in medieval Azerbaijan. Some believe that the chang was derived from a hunting weapon, such as a bow. Its sounding board seems to resemble a fish. Like the harp, the chang is plucked with the fingers of both hands.

Maraghayi wrote that the chang had leather stretched over the sounding board, and that the strings, sometimes as many as 24, were made of threads. In his article "Music and Dances of the Ancient Turks," Dr. Faruk Sumer, who has studied the ancient musical instruments of the Turkish peoples, mentions that two changs were found during the excavation of the Altay grave site in Turkey dating to 250-500 B.C. Legend suggests that the chang was created by the Almighty. Actually, in some early drawings, the chang is depicted as a holy angel.

The barbat is a member of the lute family, a pear-shaped stringed instrument. Miniatures by the artist Mirza Ali show that its body was bigger than that of the lute, and that it had a long neck. Written sources tell us that the barbat was played much like the ancient lute, although tuned according to different intervals. The 12th century Azerbaijani poet Afzalagdin Khagani wrote that the barbat had eight strings, was made of animal gut and had four sound openings, called "four little stars." Musicologist T. Vyzgo describes it as having an Arabic derivation, originally called an "al-ud."

The barbat was chiefly played at palace feasts, often along with the chang. Nizami describes the chang and the barbat as complementary instruments: "Nekisa took up her chang, Barbad took up his barbat. And the sounds resounded in winged harmony like a rose in harmony with both color and fragrance. Barbat and chang, intoxicating and robbing one's strength."

More Music to Come
It's possible to hear these instruments being played again today in Azerbaijan by the Ancient Instruments Ensemble, a group created by the Folk Instruments Museum in 1996. Karimov is the director of this 12-member ensemble. The group's repertoire includes folk melodies as well as music written down by Urmavi and Maraghayi, in an alpha-notational system based on what is known as the ABJD system (pronounced "ahb-jad" which rhymes with the word, "pad") . These four letters name the sequence of first letters in the Arabic alphabeta lef, beh, jim, dal. Each note was represented by a single letter or a letter combination . For example, note 1 was "A," note 2 was "B," note 3 was "J," etc. As the progression continued, letters were written in combination, such as "AA," "AB," "AJ," etc. Duration of notes was also indicated.

With great effort, Shamil Hajiyev, a musicologist associated with the Ensemble, has adapted a music computer program to transcribe the alphabetic notational system and convert it into a melody line.

To learn one of the old melodies, the members of the Ancient Instrument ensemble listen to the melody line played on his computer laptop and improvise the harmony for their various instruments. Needless to say, it's a long and tedious process. English composer and musicologist George Farmer (1882-1965) has also researched Urmavi's works and deciphered some of these early melodies.

Work continues at Karimov's laboratory, as more ancient instruments like the "golcha gopuz," the "nuzha" and the "mugni" are being researched and restored. It is Karimov's hope that research and restoration of the ancient folk instruments will be able to continue until many of the mysteries and harmonious sounds created in the past are available for contemporary man to enjoy as well.

Majnun Karimov is the head of the Laboratory for the Reconstruction of Ancient National Music Instruments, located in the basement of the Academy of Music at 98 Shamsi Badalbeyli Street. Tel: (99-412) 98-69-72; Home Tel: 91-95-48.

The Museum of Folk Instruments, located in the former residence of the famous tar player, Ahmad Bakikhanov, is at Zargarpalan 119. Contact: Tapan Gaziyeva at (99-412) 94-60-62.

UP 1 The medieval instruments described in this article are all stringed instruments. They include barbat, chang, chogur, golcha gopuz, gyjak, mugni, nuzha, rubab, rud, shashtay, Shirvan tanbur, shahrud, shidirigi, Turkish tanbur , udi gadim (old ud ), udi kamil (improved ud) and tar.

2 Shah Ismayil was the founder of the Persian Safavid Dynasty (1501-1736). An Azerbaijani, he lived in Ardabil (an Azerbaijani city located today in Iran) and played a vital role in subjugating local tribes and in unifying the fragmented Persian Empire. Shah Ismayil was also the leader responsible for proclaiming Shi'i Islam the state religion which, in turn, served to create a national consciousness among the various racial elements of the region.

Azerbaijan International (5.4) Winter 1997
© Azerbaijan International 1997. All Rights Reserved.

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