“Dastans” (epics), songs and legends and sagas are passed from generation to generation and get modified depending on a storyteller and her/his skill to memorize plot details and picturesque poetical images.
Folk narrators, keepers of the nation’s priceless spiritual values, have great merits in preserving and enriching folklore. Such narrators were named “ozan” in ancient Azerbaijan and “ashig” (“falling in love”) later, or in the 16th-17th centuries.
The most ancient epic opus, dedicated to the life, love and heroism of ancient ozans, or today’s Azerbaijani ashigs’ ancestors, is “Kitabi Dede Gorgud”, a popular dastan, dated from the 7th century. A narrator, Dede Gorgud was calling to peace and praised courage, valor, loyalty and love 1,300 years ago.
Both ozans and ashigs were readers, singers and accompaniers of their own songs at the same time. Ozans’ main musical instrument was the gopuz, a string-bow instrument. According to tales, this instrument was invented by Dede Gorgud himself, who perfectly played it. Today’s ashigs use the saz, an eight- or ten-string-plucking instrument, which they skillfully use dance music as well.
Azerbaijan’s professional ashigs can be divided into the two categories, or performers and poets.
Performers don’t write lyrics themselves. Professional narrators, they subtly feel native-folklore specifics. Depending on their individual talent, they introduce different variations, which is particular for prosaic folklore (dastans and legends).
Poets, along with narration, are into own poetry. Among such ashigs, there were gifted poets as Gurbani (the 16th century), Abbas from Tufargan (the 17th century), Valeh (the 18th century), Alesker(1826–1926), Huseyn from Bozalgan (1875–1949) and others, who strongly influenced not only ashig poetry, but also the written literature of Azerbaijan. Such ashigs are called “ustad”, or “outstanding masters” They had their own students and even entire schools. Ashigs’ poetry was loved by people; that’s why their songs were by word of mouth. This oral tradition was being held within several centuries, and it was the 19th and 20th centuries when intensive collecting and publishing ashigs’ poetry started.
A syllable is the most popular measure of ashig lyrics. Most ashig songs have the couplet form of stanzas. Couplets are each instrumentally introduced and separated.
National poetry genres, “goshma”, “muhammas”, “ustadname” and “gifilbend”, and their forms, “gerayli”, “divani”, “goshma” and “tejnis”, are ashigs’ favorites.
The so-called “gyezelleme”, praising the protagonist, are especially known in the lyrical genre of ashigs’ creativity.
Verses in the “ustadnameh” genre, consisting of admonition-songs, are worthy of special interest.
However, of course, dastans, namely its heroic-and-epic forms, are the most spread genre of ashigs’ works. In dastans, vocal-and-instrumental parts are alternated with poetry dialog fragments. A dastan about brave and fearless Koroglu, the 16th century’s popular hero was particularly known.
In old times, ashigs traveled the country, alone or with companion musicians, staying in cities and villages and performing at crowded places, weddings and holidays. Ashigs’ repertoire consisted of different love-lyric songs composed either by themselves or other ashigs, but popular songs were performed most of all. A necessary part of an ashig’s set-list was epic sagas and heroic or romantic dastans. The heroic song “Misri” is often performed at the time of a dialog, or ashigs’ competition “deyishme”, when they improvise for a given theme.
Such public poetic contests with the participation of two, three or even four ashigs are the most prominent events in every poet-ashig’s life. Poem-songs are improvised at the time. One of ashigs starts with one couplet-stanza for a certain theme. The second couplet must be sung by the opponent with not only the same theme, but also meter and according rhyme connecting stanzas into an integral poem. To complicate a contest, ashigs proposing poetic riddles to each other. An ashig who lost the tempo, meter or failed to guess a riddle loses the contest and, by a tradition, must give her/his saz to the winner.
Not only was a skill to inventively and picturesquely weave a whimsical riddle into poetic images highly appreciated, but also a competing ashig’s ability to easily and fast solve it and neatly reply.
The art of Azerbaijani ashigs has several schools, according to certain regions of the country. Their manners of performance vary. For instance, ashigs representing such regions as Goychay, Ganja, Kelbejar, Gazakh, Tovuz, Borchali, Shirvan and Salyan obviously differ from each other by their individual mastership and preserve the local folklore traditions with particular perseverance.
There are women as well among professional ashig-poets such as Peri (the 19th century), Amayil (the 19th century), Basti (died in 1936), Dildash (born in 1912) etc. Besti, who traveled throughout Azerbaijan, competed with many ashigs and had students and followers, was especially famous.
Azerbaijani ashigs enjoyed popularity throughout all the Caucasus. Nowadays, ashighs are also particularly popular and respected. Well-known ashigs of today, А. Mikayilov, B.Kadirov, А.Rustamov, Sh.Hajiyev, P. Salahli, and others continue developing ashig poetic traditions.