Why Karabakh?

Rain Sultanov is an artist, an Honoured Artist; he is a musician. But not only does he produce great music – as you will hear – he dreams of his music affecting the way listeners think and act. This album is the result of a long project to assemble the best musicians to play music he composed in response to an almost legendary region of Azerbaijan – Karabakh.


Azerbaijan’s location has inevitably led to its description as a crossroads. From the north (Russians), south (Persians, Arabs), east (Turks, Mongols) and west (Greeks, Romans, Armenians); they and others have come as would-be conquerors, travellers or traders along the great Silk Road. Within all the vicissitudes of historical intent and accident, Karabakh has always been prominent. The names by which the regions’ heights are known reflect external influence: The Azerbaijani Daglıq Qarabag is Mountainous Garabagh in English, but is more widely known since Armenia occupied the region by the Russian-style

Nagorno- Karabakh.


Tsarist Russia sought to divide and rule the peoples living on its borders. After war with Iran, Russia imposed the 1828 Treaty of Turkmenchay and acquired the northern part of Azerbaijani territory. To bolster the imperial project it then proceeded to import fellow Christian Armenians who lived south of the new border; many were planted in what had been the Karabakh khanate. Political manipulation and nationalist sentiment ensured divisions arose between the local Muslim population and the newcomers. This policy of the ‘centre’ continued after Bolsheviks replaced Romanovs. Finally, as the Soviet Union teetered, nationalists saw their opportunity and Armenia invaded south-west Azerbaijan. By the time a ceasefire was signed in 1994, 30,000 were dead and more than 1 in 10 of Azerbaijan’s total population of 8 million were refugees or IDPs (Internally Displaced People), having been ‘ethnically cleansed’, driven out of their property, homes and land.


Despite even the UN demanding an end to occupation, Armenia’s forces still hold Nagorno-Karabakh and seven other Azerbaijani districts: Kelbajar, Lachin, Gubadly, Jabrayil, Zangilan, Fuzuli and Aghdam. Rain Sultanov’s music on this disc is a response to the loss of those districts, the main towns of Shusha and Khankandi, as well as Khojavend, and to the particularly tragic fate endured by the town of Khojaly.


Cultural Heartland

No dark-haired beauties grace Kura's long banks

With drake's-head sheen and captivating faces.

My soul has fled to far-off mountain peaks.
It cannot rest in such low places. (Trans. Tom Botting)


Mollah Panah Vagif was born near the Kura river in 1717, but spent much of his long life in high Shusha as vizier to the Khan of Karabakh. That he is better known for expressing the romance in his soul than for his political achievements is no surprise to his heirs. Karabakh and, especially, Shusha have been the

well- spring of so much of their cultural inheritance.


Vagif is remembered for his poetic correspondence with Mollah Veli Vidadi, who wrote:


The soul cannot bear too long
The absence of the one it desires.
Love survives where lovers stay true.
Without constancy love expires. (Trans. Dorian Rottenberg)


He might have been describing the lament of today's Azerbaijanis over the enforced absence of Karabakh from their path of renewed independence. Sorrowful they may be, but ever constant and true in their devotion to lands that are their inspiration. This inspiration was not the sole preserve of poets; carpets are a local speciality and the weavers of Karabakh produced some of the brightest and liveliest patterns of all the Azerbaijani schools. Even the beauty of the rare Karabakh horse was celebrated by Kurban Said in his classic novel Ali and Nino:


I looked at the horse and was struck numb. There stood the red-golden miracle of Karabakh...

one of the twelve golden horses in the whole world...


And of course there has been music; Rain Sultanov is the latest in a very distinguished line of virtuosos to respond to the muse of Karabakh. Perhaps the music he dedicates to Shusha and Khojaly epitomises the beauty and the bitterness entwined in the history of this almost mythical region.



Built on peaks reaching for the heavens, perhaps naturally, Shusha has produced many of Azerbaijan's pantheon of artists. Among them was Isfendiyar Javanshir, a singer of the spiritual mugham music.

That he was given the name Khan Shushinski tells of a status and origin that found their way into

Samad Vurghun's patriotic paean to Azerbaijan:


Through Karabakh my spirit fares,

Wings over mountain here, now there;

From far away down the twilit air

Drifts the song of Khan of Shusha - Karabakh Shikestesi. (Trans. Gladys Evans)


Uzeyir Hajibeyov, composer of the first opera in the East; Natavan, princess poetess and promoter of her art; Murtuza Mammadov, whose wonderful classical tenor voice earned him the name Bulbul (nightingale) by which he is known to all – these are another three of Shusha's finest. Their bullet-riddled statues, sold as scrap by the invaders, were rescued and stand in Baku in tribute,

but also as warning against destructive martial ambition.


The music on this track has all the feelings, gifts and invention that emerge as Rain and his excellent musicians contemplate that place of legendary cultural status. Over the piano’s rippling rhythm, Alim Qasimov’s sublime voice wails a mugham lament and Rain’s saxophone breathes its yearning. A jazz trio high- lights Shahin Novrasli’s insistent trills that evoke the defiant and creative spirit of the place, inspiring the saxophone to soar its impression of Shusha’s heights before reminding us of the present longing.

It leaves us with Alim as the glorious voice that no longer sounds in Karabakh.



The single worst incident during the Armenian invasion of Karabakh was the massacre of Khojaly people on 25/26 February 1992. Under bombardment, the townspeople fled along the only way open to them; after a night’s struggle across a river, through snow, forest and mountain, they emerged on open land at dawn to be met by a storm of bullets. 613 of the men, women and children of Khojaly were killed. The tragedy and somehow enduring humanity was encapsulated by a conversation with a woman who had survived as a 12-year- old girl but who lost both parents that night. Twenty years later she told me that she had only learned of her mother’s fate when she saw television pictures of her body – she had apparently been shot as she ventured out to get water from the garden well. “I never imagined that any daughter could thank God that her mother was dead.... I thank God she died there, instead of being tortured.” However, when I asked what she tells the children she now teaches, her reply was,

“I tell them how beautiful Khojaly was.”


The horrors I have seen
How many fill my mind
That night the stones of my land turned to flame

The brides who became widows
Their eyes are in flood
How to dry their tears?
How to forget?


Alim sings of the pain that fills every Azerbaijani’s heart at the mention of Khojaly; no pain greater than that of those who survived and whose tears still flow. Shahin’s piano and Rain’s saxophone reflect the survivors’ mixed feelings of mourning, agitated protest and urge for return and resolution; Linnea Olsson’s cello laying a solemn undertone. There is poignancy and engagement here, too. The track is a lament, of course, but more than that: it is an eloquent and moving musical response to a disaster that stifles still the breath of fellow human beings. The tears continue to fall but Rain’s hope is that the music provides some consolation and arouses the humanity in others to bring resolution for those who have suffered too much.


About Aghdam it is equally hard to talk. Viewed from the ‘front line’ it is a struggle to imagine that the distant ghostly ruins were once a thriving city. “Beautiful... green”, is how a foreign journalist recalls it, even in war-torn 1992, when she was there to meet the straggle of those who survived Khojaly and to record the devastation inflicted on those who did not. Rain produces beauty from the desolation of a solo saxophone track that is punctuated with ominous dabs of percussion from Irakli Koiava that faintly echo a reminiscence of the war.


On this album Rain has assembled a wonderful group of musicians to express his musical response to Karabakh. In their music are the earth, air, water, fire and stones of a land that has both given and suffered so much. The music encompasses the past, present and future. From the traditions engendered in these lands the spiritual music of mugham and the oud embody a soul that lives on, as does Alim’s final rendering of the azan, surely a call to prayer for the future. This is not all introspection, however. Always at a crossroads of civilisations Azerbaijan is ever-open to other people and their cultures, and classical and jazz music are deeply embedded here. Rain and Shahin are both trained in the classics but are steeped in jazz too, as is clear to great effect on the energetic Kelbajar and lyrical Gubadly.


There is culture and history here; there is feeling for the loss of a creative and spiritual heartland and empathy for those who suffered physically in its loss. But all this is expressed in the beauty of music, so there is also desire for the positive: to play and share enjoyment of this remarkable culture- as Rain says:


I am grateful to all the musicians who contributed their talent to ‘Voice of Karabakh’, a very important project for all of us. I am sure that the course of these events,

and thus the course taken by the world, can be changed.


Ian Peart, Journalist, UK 

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