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16 June 2021

Sari Gelin - Who Does it Really Belong To?

Rediscovering the folk song whose melody bridges cultures in a divided region.

Sari Gelin - Who Does it Really Belong To?

The Saz (or Baglama in Turkish) is a resonant lute instrument, known in both Azerbaijan and Armenia by the same name. Image: Dreamer Company/Shutterstock

On a cold bright day on Toronto’s Yonge-Dundas Square, a grey-haired gent opens a violin-style case and pulls out a tar (figure-of-eight shaped lute). He starts to play to nobody in particular, barely noticed in passing by purposeful pedestrians. Then a flautist arrives. And a guitarist, to make a trio. A few shoppers have now stopped to watch the event, which is clearly being filmed. Are they famous? Where do they come from? A scarf-wearing woman stands emotionless, all in black. A heavy-set man approaches purposefully wearing shades, a thick black moustache and military pants. He’s carrying a heavy black box that looks set to cause a bomb scare. But inside the box is a piano accordion, and his female accomplice turns from menacing statue to gently whirling dancer as the ensemble is completed.

Yes, it’s one of those heart-string-pulling flashmob videos that has grabbed my attention on Facebook. Despite myself, I can’t help being drawn into the candid-camera style event that entertains curious Canadians in an eye-catching few minutes of artistic click-bait. This particular performance is by diaspora Azerbaijanis, and they are playing Sarı Gelin, a haunting masterpiece which every Azerbaijani knows and considers ‘their own.’ It seems ubiquitous. The tune bookended Azerbaijan’s Olympic-style 2015 European Games featuring as part of the score for the lavishly high-tech opening and closing ceremonies. Mugham superstar Alim Qasimov squeezed in a few refrains from the song as a novel introduction to the 2012 Eurovision Song Contest. In Baku, I’ve heard it played by orchestras, in jazz concerts and even at a rock gig. Artists of all genres seem somehow able to tweak the tune to appeal to rapturous fans of outwardly disparate musical tastes.

But it’s not just in Azerbaijan that the song is beloved. Daghestani singer Misty, generally seen as a Russian Deep House diva, performs it in English. The BBC Farsi service recorded a version by Iranian musicians, one of several such ensembles that have given the song a more Sufi-esque vibe. Turkey loves the song too – typically using a different set of lyrics that place the action around Erzerum in Eastern Anatolia. Listen to Cem Adrian’s extraordinary performances, whether dual-octaved with full orchestra or falsetto with flamenco-edged guitar.

Play the same melody in Yerevan, and people will be delighted: there too, they will hear ‘their’ classic. The name in Armenian is Sari Aghjik (Girl of the Mountains) or occasionally Vard Sireci (I loved a rose) rather than Sarı Gelin (Blond Bride). Armenian artists have made countless variants, some very traditional, others with a hint of gospel-pop and or a folk-meets-rock vibe as presented in one contestant’s entry on Armenia’s version of TV talent contest The Voice.

The timelessly popular music could be seen as a cultural bridge between people separated by politics. But sadly, in recent years, things seem to be working the other way around.

This common heritage should be an uplifting tale of cultural sharing. The timelessly popular music could be seen as a cultural bridge between people separated by politics. But sadly, in recent years, things seem to be working the other way around. On virtually any YouTube clip of the song, comments are likely to be peppered with invective claiming the melody for ‘their side.’ One of Djivan Gasparian’s many haunting versions is captioned by its YouTube poster as being “Pure Armenian… stolen by Turks both Anatolian and Azerbaijani” while a comment on a Ruben Matevosyan version says, “Armenia has not only invaded Azerbaijan’s territories; but also attempted to appropriate its glorious history, culture, cuisine and traditions. #armenianplagiarism.” Whole academic theses have been written about such attempts at cultural appropriation of Sari Gelin/Sari Aghjik. And on Wikipedia, moderators struggle to stop contributors from battling over the song’s origins. Some Armenian bloggers link the song to the Ottoman Armenian massacres of 1915, while the flashmob video that inspired the start of this article was itself being distributed as part of a memorial to the Khojaly massacre of Azerbaijanis.

This is deeply sad.

Should timeless folk music really be fixed to its language and culture of creation?

Should French music fans hate Frank Sinatra’s My Way because it was ‘stolen’ from Claude François Comme d’Habitude? Or should it be Egyptian? After all, Cloclo was born in Ismailia!

Of course not. The idea is ridiculous. And even more so for a song like Sari Gelin/Aghjik, so old that it dates back way before the national borders of the people who are fighting for its ‘ownership.’ Could the song be Azerbaijani and Armenian and Turkish and more? All and none?

Could the song be Azerbaijani and Armenian and Turkish and more? All and none?

Let us dream of a time when the song becomes a platform for showing what is shared rather than a memorial for what has been destroyed. Music can transcend borders and celebrate the joyous shared culture of the region’s different peoples. Perhaps this is already starting to happen. On Arif Sağ’s Turkish version, he’s playing an electric bağlama, a resonant lute-like instrument recognizable across the Caucasus as a saz in both Armenian (Սազ) and Azerbaijani. There’s a mugham-meets-throat-singing performance that reaches culturally eastwards towards the steppes of Tuva. And the song has already brought together musicians from Azerbaijan, Armenia and Iran on a single mesmerizing version. For some nationalist listeners, this appeared to be a step too far but, the usual flurry of counter-claiming comments were capped with these pertinent final words from #Ultimate_Persia: “My god people, calm down - we are all neighbours and share the same history in our region – don’t let hate and nationalism overcome our love for music.”

Well said.