How 'mixed-heritage' songs survived the Nagorny Karabakh conflict
For almost thirty years, Armenia and Azerbaijan have been embroiled in an information war, which has also engulfed the music industry. Social networks remain ablaze with heated discussions, as users from different sides of the conflict argue over who wrote this or that popular track. Some songs, however, have proved impossible to carve up, or to wage war over. Created as a collaborative effort, they remain ‘shared property’ to this day.
The Parrot: A Legacy That Was Passed On
‘Greetings to you, comrades,
To see you I am glad.
In the rugged Caucasus
I my sheep did herd.
Now my trusty parrot
Happiness will bring –
My parrot tells your fortune,
And my parrot sings.’
Although it does not make much sense and is even a little questionable grammatically, for some time this song was a well-loved hit in Baku. It was sung by Boris Davidyan, a Baku Armenian performer very popular in the Azerbaijani capital in the seventies and eighties. His songs tell the lively story of the criminal underworld.
To the public, he was known simply as Boka – the name he used when singing in restaurants or at weddings.
Boka’s repertoire ranged from ‘blatnye’ ballads (street songs depicting criminal subculture, sometimes referred to as ‘Russian chanson’) and romances about thief subculture to odes to his native Baku and somewhat coarse humorous ditties. Naturally, such songs could not be performed on the Soviet stage, but at informal gatherings and sung in courtyards to the strumming of a guitar, they were very popular.
To this day, many still argue over which of Boka’s songs were written by the performer himself, and which belonged to other composers. In any case though, Boka’s main asset was doubtless his style.
Singing in Russian, the performer had an accent – perhaps, from Baku, perhaps simply Armenian. He also used local words and expressions, which made his songs even more colourful.
‘Dolya’ (‘The Share’), a cult ‘thieves’ song’. Source: unofficial Boka fan website.
In the late 1980s, when the Armenian-Azerbaijani conflict was already in full swing, Boka took cameo roles in two films: Vagif Mustafayev’s ‘Merzavets’ (‘The Scoundrel’) (1988) and Rasim Odzhagov’s ‘Khram Vozdukha’ (‘Temple of the Air’) (1989).
Strictly speaking, his role in ‘Temple of the Air’ cannot be called a cameo, since the action takes place at a time before Boris Davidyan’s birth. Boka’s role in this film is more generic, the ‘symbolic’ restaurant singer (at one time, indeed, this is what Boka was). In this film, incidentally, the singer also performs ‘Madame Parrot’.
In the 1990s, Boka was living far away from Baku. The war in Nagorny Karabakh had ended, although the conflict remained. Around that time, cassette recorders began to appear in most households. ‘Madame Parrot’ could often be heard blaring out from these, albeit in a different version sung by Eyub Yagubov. Although this performer’s voice was somewhat different to Boka’s, he contrived to imitate the singer’s trademark Baku intonation with great success. These ‘blatnye’ ditties were indeed what brought Yagubov his early fame, as he supplemented Boka’s repertoire with new songs in the same style and genre.
Later, Eyub Yakubov changed his image, taking on a more serious repertoire. Journalists have often criticized the singer for making a name for himself by singing ‘Armenian songs’. Yakubov’s response was invariably that the songs were not Armenian, but from Baku, that they were almost folkloric, and that performing them could in no way be seen as reprehensible.
These days, Boris Davidyan lives in Los Angeles. He still gives concerts around the world, and in his interviews often mentions Baku as his native city, a place that left him many warm memories. His fans in Baku attempt to reconcile their love for his songs with their sense of patriotism. Most commonly, they are able to find a compromise through their belief that whilst Armenian, Boka was also from Baku, that he was ‘one of them’, and so there is nothing wrong with liking his work.
‘One more song we’ll sing you,
My parrot and I.
One more song, and then
We will have to retire.
His heart, it is aching
He’s weary, I know,
Away to his bed straightaway he must go.’
Around that time, the more refined audience tended to look down on Boka. These listeners did not spend time in restaurants. Instead, they preferred hearing Muslim Magomayev, Rashid Beybutov and Mirza Babayev. Well-known across the Soviet Union and beyond, these three performers were celebrities, whose songs could often be heard on the radio and the television. Their repertoire was of course nothing like the Russian chanson performed at weddings. The song ‘Ya Vstretil Devushku’ (‘I Met a Girl’), for instance, was first sung by Rauf Atakishiyev in a Tajikfilm studios film. Later, it was performed by Rashid Beybutov, and became a hit for many years.
The song’s music was written by the Nagorny Karabakh Armenian composer Andrey Babayev. In the late 1940s, Babayev worked in the Baku Philharmonic before moving to Moscow, where he continued to collaborate with Azerbaijani performers regularly. Among these were Rashid Beybutov, for whom the composer wrote many more songs, and the actor and singer of the same name, Mirza Babayev.
The best known, most successful and active Armenian-Azerbaijani musical pair, however, was certainly composer Arno Babadzhanyan and singer Muslim Magomayev. If Babadzhanyan’s songs brought Magomayev fame, the singer could also be said to have made the composer better known by promoting his work.
Muslim Magomayev would often recall how in 1988 he gave a solo concert in Moscow’s Rossiya hall. The event was entitled ‘Remembering Arno Babadzhanyan’. Just a few months later, the conflict broke out in Nagorny Karabakh. In 2006, Magomayev decided not to perform at a concert in memory of Babadzhanyan, feeling that his participation would likely ‘be misinterpreted’. A year later, however, the musical album ‘Muslim Magomayev: Remembering Arno Babadzhanyan’ appeared in Moscow.
Thirty Years On
The songs performed by Boka eventually gave rise to an entire new genre, which came to be known as Baku chanson. These were humorous ‘blatniye’ songs often dealing with criminal subculture, but with a specific taste of Baku. Nowadays, they are not so popular with Azerbaijani youth, although they are still often requested at weddings.
The songs of Muslim Magomayev and other celebrities, written by Babayev and Babadzhanyan, are still well-loved today. They can often be heard on the radio and the television, and new versions continue to appear. They are real ‘golden oldies’; a legacy of the still relatively recent Armenian-Azerbaijani friendship, which even thirty years of conflict have been powerless to destroy.