“Voices of Peace” – the UK’s Azerbaijani Diaspora Celebrate and Dream of Healing in the Caucasus

Mark Elliott

A year after the dramatic retaking of Shusha that brought the Second Karabakh War to an end, Azerbaijanis have been celebrating ‘Victory Day’ (Zəfər günü). In Baku, merry crowds waved flags from their cars, a parade carried a mind-bogglingly long ribbon of flag snaking down the main seafront boulevard, and an impressive firework display lit up the evening sky.


In the Twittersphere, some memes were based on military images and clenched fists, but many others were more subtle. Azerbaijani President Ilham Aliyev’s social media team went with an image of a newly sprouted young orchid suggesting regrowth. This mirrored other events around the world, where peace and reconstruction were the main themes rather than a sense of triumphalism.


The UK has a vibrant Azerbaijani diaspora for whom the concert was a social occasion as well as a musical treat.

A great example was the celebratory evening in London, fluently compared by Farida Panahova[1] for the UK’s Azerbaijani diaspora and their friends. It was held at Chelsea Old Town Hall - the mural-filled 1907 neo-classical building best known as the venue for Judy Garland’s 1969 wedding.


The triple celebration commemorated 30 years of Azerbaijan’s independence, ‘Flag Day’ (Nov 9) and, of course, the 2020 victory. Starting with a minute’s silence for those who died in the war, the evening was titled “Voices for Peace” and managed to steer remarkably clear of political posturing.


A family event.

Some children came colourfully dressed in national costumes, but generally, the atmosphere had a relaxed, family ambience with low-key welcome snacks and ample pre-show time to connect with friends. However, the programme itself was anything but amateurish, showcasing a truly astonishing level of musical talent from a whole parade of Azerbaijani and Turkish artists. As the title implied, several of the performers were singers. Fidan Haciyeva and Gulshan Ibadova both demonstrated high-octane voices of such operatic power that they shook the chandeliers.


Having led stirring versions of both British and Azerbaijani national anthems, operatic superstar Fidan Haciyeva returned with her ultra-powerful Carmen to blow off the roof (well, almost).

The instrumentalists were equally memorable. Turkish cello-star Jamal Aliyev, dressed in what looked oddly like vicars’ robes, played two soulful, deceptively simple pieces with organic majesty. Violinist Nazrin Rashidova entranced the crowd with an un-mic’ed excerpt from Qara Qarayev’s “Seven Beauties.” A real highlight was Gunel Mirzayeva’s creative piano piece, a minuet-meets-mugham composition counterpointing and melding baroque and traditional Azerbaijani themes. A little heavier on the bombast was the music-video interlude Qarabaq Shikestesi – We Will Rock You introduced by musician-producer Emin Mecnunbeyli. The video, released this week on YouTube, manages to mash up rock-edged drumming and guitar with heavily amped Azerbaijani classical instruments backing a potted visual history of Shusha and the region from peace to conflict and back again. There are also several nods to a secondary message of Azerbaijan-UK friendship.



 Emin Mecnunbeyli’s music/history video, Qarabaq Shikestesi – We Will Rock You

The evening continued with many more fine performances, including a pair of duelling kermanchas and a musical medley that developed from a walk to a trot to a flourishing canter which felt like a sophisticated take on Azerbaijani wedding music.


However, what was most memorable for me was the general tone of the speeches. In past years I have attended quite a few Azerbaijan-sponsored concerts that focused almost inevitably on tragedies while simultaneously, if a little paradoxically, touting a little too vigorously the country’s strengths. Of course, it was understandable that Azerbaijanis felt galled by the lack of world attention on their losses and ‘frozen’ struggle, but the tone of the propaganda sometimes seemed too strident to be effective.


These days, it seems, the whole tone has changed. Naturally, victory in the war changes the basics, allowing a move away from decades of collectively perceived victimhood, but there’s also a sense in which a new generation of diaspora has gained its own maturity and informal self-confidence - no need to exaggerate achievements nor to dwell on the details of the past. The only hint of Armenia-bashing that I detected came from an Irish guest-speaker who pleased the crowd by speaking a few words of Azerbaijani but then gave a somewhat backward-looking tirade that felt discordant in the otherwise bridge-building context. 


Organiser and compare Farida Panahova listens as Ambassador Elin Suleymanov inspires the audience with a positive vision for a peaceful post-war future.


In contrast, Azerbaijan’s new ambassador to London, Elin Suleymanov, concentrated more on a hopeful vision of the future in a heartfelt speech that felt personal and remarkably light on political crowing. Insisting that the 2020 conflict was not a war of choice, he marvelled that it had nonetheless unlocked excellent prospects for peace. He also shared his sudden realization that he could finally say that he’s the ambassador for a whole, free country [rather than one under occupation] for the first time in his career.


“Music has no boundaries – peace is the leading charter of humanity, and all that gets in its way has to be challenged” – Emin Mecnunbeyli


Image: @sabi_hasanova / Twitter

This London event was just one in a global series of celebrations that included many other concerts, gallery shows, parades and even the lighting up of the Niagara Falls in the colours of the Azerbaijani flag. Meanwhile, the mood was contrastingly sombre in Armenia, with reports suggesting as many as 10,000 protesters on the street.



[1] Chair of the British Azerbaijan Community (BAC)