By Nigar Orujova
A short movie about Azerbaijan's Mugham will be presented around the world in the near future.
The irresistible power of Mugham -Azerbaijan's folk music- has inspired Jeffrey Werbock, the American who devoted his life to Azerbaijan's music, to create a documentary film that is going to be presented at all the major short film festivals.
Werbock has worked for more than 30 years to study and improve his skills in playing Azerbaijani Mugham to perfection. Now, he's taking a deeper look into the matter. He devoted his efforts to creating this movie, which will make Azerbaijani Mugham more popular around the world.
During his last visit to Baku, Mr. Werbock told AzerNews about the movie and the history of its creation.
"When I come to Baku, I usually have multiple purposes, one of which is connected to promoting Azerbaijani culture, meeting with people, and discussing projects," he said, stressing that this time his visit is also connected to a very important business.
"We are working on this ethnographic documentary film project about the miraculous phenomenon of the Azerbaijani children who are capable of singing one of the most complex forms of music in the world known as Mugham," he said.
Werbock considers Mugham a very complicated form of art, stressing that not only the Azerbaijani elite, but mostly common people love this complex form of art.
"When I first heard about Mugham, the first time I listened to it, I recognized its sophistication and appreciated the depth of feeling and the intensity of experience. So, when I was first told that children can sing Mugham, I thought they were joking. I thought maybe they can sing a very simplified version of it," Werbock said.
Werbock continued to be suspicious until 1999, when he was invited as a jury to a Mugham competition for children.
"I thought, 'come on'! It is unbelievable even when grown-ups do it, now you're telling me children can do it too? First, I did not believe it, but I began to hear stories about it, and I started to ask people about it. Someone said, 'Oh, yes, when I was in Karabakh, I saw this nine year old boy' and I said, 'Nine years old?' I am a grown-up and I've been struggling for decades to try to understand this, now you are telling me children are capable of doing it?" he exclaimed.
When he heard their performance himself, he could not believe it was true.
In 2000, Werbock was called to judge a similar competition once again, and he agreed on one condition; to visit the refugee camps, which were the homes for those who became IDP and refugee as a result of the Armenian occupation of the Azerbaijani lands.
"I have multiple reasons for wishing to go to the refugee camps. My number one reason was to see with my own eyes and personally experience what the refugees' life was like, how they were living and surviving, how they were getting along and whether or not they were able to keep their culture alive, especially with the recognition of Karabakh as the place where the Mugham was originated. And they said the children in Karabakh were the best singers," he explains.
Werbock wondered what was happening with Mugham in the refugee camps. And they visited the camps to see what the children were studying to learn how to sing and play Mugham, which was astonishing for him.
"I've made an 18-minute ethnographic documentary called "Children Sing Mugham" about this phenomenon and brought it back to America. BP, which has sponsored the visit, has also sponsored the expenses of getting a video editor in New York, who made a nice montage, and I began to distribute it wherever I went to perform and give a lecture on Azerbaijani Mugham," he said.
Werbock started distributing the copies of his short movie and advising his students to see it until he had the idea to expand this documentary in order to make it into a movie for film festivals.
In its new form, the movie could attract an even bigger audience; not just a narrow ethno music college studying some "strange" phenomenon, but a generally-educated cultured audience.
Werbock began to work with young Canadian documentary filmmaker, specialized in musical documentaries, and visited the camps again in 2008.
"We brought him out there and he experienced a very severe form of cultural shock. He had never been in the eastern world before and he saw the villages of the refugee camps and the conditions they were living in. And he became passive and could not do anything, so I had to direct everything.
"We were out there for three days looking for singers and musicians. There were two singers and one musician I was interested in. I had my eye on one singer in particular because he sang about being away from home. There are all kind of words that go with Mughams, some of them classic poetry. But this boy had taught himself to sing about their lost home and how he missed it. The words that he sang were really striking. It turned out that he was a 14-year-old boy with a young boy's voice, and he sang from the depth of his heart, saying, "I heard the houses had burned and I heard the graves had burned, my heart wants the ashes"," he recalls.
Werbock came to the conclusion that this boy was a phenomenon. "This one boy in particular was striking; not because his voice was very great; he was a fine singer, but nothing special. However, the delivery was incredible. The way he wiped his eyes and said, "Hey, friends, the reason I am crying now is because I've been made a stranger in my own land"."
Thinking about the power of Mugham that can make children be able to sing it, Werbock highlights the overwhelming energy of this music that came across an ocean and a continent and grabbed him, an American with no ties to Azerbaijan, and completely turned his life upside down and inside out, and made him devote his life totally to the promotion of Mugham in the western world.
During his second trip to the refugee camps, Werbock found two singers; one, called Mahir, was an excellent singer who sang classic poetry, and the other, a boy called Nizami, who sang patriotic song; searching for the latter became the core story of the movie.
There were many reasons behind shooting this film.
"The number one reason was to show the world the incredible culture of Azerbaijan, especially Mugham. The second reason was to show the amazing phenomenon of children who can sing mugham. We are not talking about one or two prodigies, but hundreds of children singing Mugham. The third reason was to show this boy that sang patriotic songs with such powerful feelings. The fourth reason was to search for him. Of course, there was a fifth reason about Mr. Jeffrey Werbock, the "crazy" American who devoted his life to this whole thing," he said.
There was also a sixth reason, which Werbock did not know at the time. When he interviewed the great performers, singers, and experts of Mugham - Agakhan Abdullayev, Arif Babayev, Ramiz Guliyev, Ehtiram Huseynov, Siyavush Karimi - they were saying that when Azerbaijan was forced to became a Soviet country, Mugham was not supported by the system.
"Actually it was dangerous to play Mugham, and they were prosecuting tar players. The Soviet man must support the concept that the communist ideology, and not nationality, is the driving force of people's life. Mugham did not support the communist ideology, it supported the national feeling of being Azerbaijani; therefore, it was not in such a good condition," Werbock stressed.
He noted that he was not aware of this fact until he started the film's project. Werbock highlighted the Azerbaijani government's support for Mugham, and the tremendous amount of resources used in building the Mugham center.
"I have never seen another country in the world do anything like this. They support musicians and schools. They've just built a brand new conservatory and are being supportive of their traditional art, not just music. For this alone, they should get a tremendous amount of credit. By these actions, Azerbaijan is setting an example for the rest of the world in this regard," Werbock said.
His film includes all these things. It is not a lecture, but is telling stories with different kinds of ideas.
Creating this film was very complicated even for directors, and the executive producer changed them twice. Finally, Jeffrey Werbock's wife, an excellent filmmaker who graduated with honors from the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, got approval to finally create this film.
"We've been working since July to this day to perfect this film, because our goal is to get in every major film festival in the world. My one goal here, in addition to that, is to make sure this video document will be in the archive of every university in the western world. I want it to be shown in classrooms, and for students to see it. Young children in America should see what young children in Azerbaijan are capable of doing, because that would be an inspiration to our children," he said.
Werbock, a cultural warrior, devoted his life to the goal of raising the profile of Azerbaijani culture, people, and history among the countries of the world and making it recognizable.
Another wish of Werbock is to see Azerbaijani people back in their historical places in Nagorno-Karabakh. He also intends to help build a Mugham school and theater in Shusha, the pearl of history and culture in Azerbaijan, which is currently under Armenian occupation.
The opening night of this over-50-minute movie which is very significant for the Azerbaijani culture is expected to be held soon in Baku.