The Ashes of a Song Smoldered Away

25 years have passed since the death of the outstanding khananda (singer) Sakhavat Mammadov

25 years have passed since the death of the outstanding khananda (singer) Sakhavat Mammadov

Autumn 1991 stood out for all citizens of the disintegrating Soviet Union.

After the failed August putsch of 1991, it had already become clear to everyone that the superpower and ‘hope of the world proletariat’ was living out its final months.

In the state of affairs that had taken shape, almost all the republics of what was in fact already the


USSR declared their independence at the same time that very real war was heating up in Azerbaijan. That autumn, the Karabakh conflict, which began in the winter of 1988, transformed into the open, bloody confrontation of two republics of the former superpower – Armenia and Azerbaijan.

Then, on September 22, 1991, the presidents of Russia and Kazakhstan, Boris Yeltsin and Nursultan Nazarbayev arrived in Stepanakert with a peace-building mission, and were accompanied by the president of Azerbaijan, Ayaz Mutallibov.

However, even the mediating initiative of this caliber of guests didn’t bring about an improvement in the situation. On the contrary, after these initiatives the bloody, apocalyptic conflict only gained strength and an ethnic war filled with frenzied hatred burned at its full strength (although ‘internationals’ made appearances on both sides), the result of which was innumerable victims and destruction on both sides.

The war that was unleashed that dire autumn of 1991 continued, with varied success, until the beginning of May, 1994, when a ceasefire agreement was reached.

An ethnic war filled with frenzied hatred burned at its full strength

But that autumn, in addition to the start of a bloody war, yet another unbearable tragedy took place – on September 30, 1991, Sakhavat Mammadov, the ‘golden voice’ of Azerbaijan, renowned at his 37 years of age, tragically passed away in a car crash which took place in unclear circumstances.

Background in brief:

the khananda (a professional folk singer, who performs mugham in the countries of the Middle East) Sakhavat Amirkhan oglu Mammadov was born on October 23, 1953 in the village of Abdal – Gülabli in the Agdam district. In 1971 he entered the Asaf Zeynally Music School, took lessons in mugham from the renowned khananda Hajibaba Huseynov, and continued his education in the Azerbaijan State Institute of Arts. In 1989 he formed the instrumental ensemble Karabakh. His new interpretation of mugham, unusual strength of voice and inspired gift for performance won him recognition and fame.

He was often called the ‘Karabakh Nightingale’ for his unique tone of voice and magnificent performance of mugham. But the khananda’s calling card became the song “Azad bir quşdum” (“I was a free bird”) from the play “In the Year 1905” (“

1905-ci ildə

”) by the outstanding Azerbaijani playwright, poet and screenwriter Jafar Jabbarly:

I was a free bird,

From the nest I took wing,

I happened into a garden

In such youthful years.

I crossed paths with a hunter,

Who shot me straight through the heart,

And I fell to the ground

In such youthful years.

The play “In the year 1905” tells of the love of an Azerbaijani boy, Bakhshi, and an Armenian girl, Sonya, set in the Caucasus in the midst of the bloody events of 1905, and was written by Jabbarly in 1931.

The tragic clash of two peoples, the colonial policies of the Russian superpower, the figures of revolutionaries and the imperial authorities, simple workers and peasants, the local elite and the national bourgeoisie, incredibly illustrative and at times unclear in their opposition to one another, served as a clear description of that hopelessly dark time.

He was often called the ‘Karabakh Nightingale’

The central characters in this play – Sonya and Bakhshi, from the renowned Karabakh village of Tuğ, which at that time was located in the Shushinsky Uyezd of the Elisabethpol Governorate, which was half Armenian, half Azerbaijani. All the play’s narrative is told from the point of view of the narrator – Elder Bakhshi.

In the first scene, during a dance by the leading heroine Sonya, the play’s author tells the following via the narrator:

“Elder Bakhshi: They have common melodies, common songs, common dances, a common wedding and common way of life.”

The impetus for composing this play was provided by the writer’s trip to Georgia and Armenia in summer of 1929, during the month of cultural unity of the peoples of Transcaucasia, where the author, while on a walk, saw that, “

in essence, these two peoples comprise one people. And if that is the case, then what was it that at one time drove these peoples to bloody clashes?”


Outline of the History of Azerbaijani Soviet Literature

, publisher – Academy of Sciences of the USSR, 1963).

Clearly the tragedy of this dreadful inconsistency had such an effect on the author that he decided to bring to life heroes from both peoples in literature and describe those tragic events via an artistic lens.

Джафар Джаббарлы (1899-1934) – драматург, поэт и сценарист.
Jafar Jabbarli (1899 – 1934), play – writer and poet

The play’s finale, despite the storms of socialist realism raging through literature and aesthetics at that time, is tragic:

“Having sang the first part of the melody, Sonya fell silent, closed her eyes and ceased to move. Forever. Bakhshi bent over her. For the first and the last time he kissed her cold lips. They brought Sonya and buried her in Baku.

And the elder Bakhshi took in little Bakhshi.

The tragedy of this dreadful inconsistency had such an effect on the author.

Fate was merciful to the author – in addition to his colossal artistic gift, he was also gifted with an early death. Jabbarly died at a young age in 1934, in this way ‘evading’ the ‘big purge’ at the end of the ‘30s, the label of ‘enemy of the people’ as a former Müsavatist, as well as the charms of that period: torture in the prisons of the NKVD and oblivion.

Perhaps the heavens were merciful to the singer as well, and chose the best fate for him, so that he didn’t see the ashes of the villages of Karabakh?…

Sakhavat Mammadov was buried in Agdam, in his home village of Abdal-Gülablı. At that time, in autumn of 1991, fierce fighting was already taking place there, and on May 15, 1992 the village was even almost seized by Armenian fighters, but they were then beaten back by Shirin Mirzoev’s battalion.

Perhaps the heavens were merciful to the singer as well, and chose the best fate for him?…

A special, marble gravestone, with an image of Sakhavat and the dates of his life and death, was prepared for him in Baku. But the truck that was carrying this stone to Abdal-Gülablı didn’t make it there – the village was subject to intense fire from modified Alazan

cloud-seeding rockets

, artillery, and small arms. On September 12, 1992, the village was occupied by the enemy.

The unmarked grave of Sakhavat Mammadov remained ‘over there’, on the other side of the front line, in the completely destroyed village of Abdal-Gülablı.

Lieutenant-Colonel Shirin Mirzoev died even earlier, on June 18, 1992.

The village of Tuğ, with its mixed population, home of the heroes of Jabbarly’s play, was occupied by Armenian forces on October 31, 1991. Azerbaijani villagers no longer exist there.

“Elder Bakhshi: Turk and Armenian capitalists weren’t opposed to the abdication of the Romanovs. They strove towards national autonomy. But they were perplexed by the question of what would happen with the industrialists, and who would receive dominance. Romanov’s experienced servant, the Governor-General, had a great understanding of this and built all his plans around this.”

The Karabakh tragedy has already continued for more than a quarter century without any sort of resolution, and it seems time for it to exist no longer – not as a military conflict, and not as a political one. The ‘Nagorno-Karabakh Republic’, declared in that same autumn of 1991, has for a quarter century not been acknowledged by anyone from the international community, including Armenia itself.

Sakhavat Mammadov’s grave remained ‘over there’, on the other side of the front line…

The war has left deep scars in the conscious of both societies, and as a result of it in both countries there came to power the criminal regimes of Sargsyan and Aliyev. In the propaganda of both regimes, the phenomenon of the ‘external enemy’ is used with incredible success, and is essential in distracting people from any demands for democratic reform and liberalization.

The stand-off that continues to this day occasionally heats up, and at any moment might transform into a big war. The most recent major skirmish between the opponents took place in April of this year and despite major losses on both sides, no major changes took place.

The residue of a quarter century of opposition between two peoples has left only people killed, murdered, imprisoned and expelled from their homes; ruined cities and villages burned to ash, rivers of blood and ruined souls…

There still remains the song, about a free bird that took wing from the nest and fell to the ground, from a singer who departed so early. As all artistic people, he had an autobiography – he sang his own fate.

“Let the history of the past, written in blood, lie in this grave forever. Let the unbroken thread of new, brotherly life united our hands forever.” –

after these words from the narrator, the curtains close on the play. Clearly these words contained the meaning of this outstanding play from the great humanist Jafar Jabbarly.

The gravestone with the image of khananda Sakhavat Mammadov remained for long years in the courtyard of the Baku home of his brother Firuz. The khananda’s silhouette on the stone, awaiting its instillation over the singer’s lonely grave in the ruins of the destroyed Karabakh village Abdal- Gülablı, seems to bear a great sadness.

What, in the end, did his relatives not endure… After long years in the courtyard and then in the garage, the stone was given to a firm that makes gravestones and the singer’s silhouette was removed.

The gravestone with the image of khananda Sakhavat Mammadov remained for long years in the courtyard of the Baku home of his brother Firuz.

It’d be interesting to know what the worker felt, who removed the singer’s image from that stone, the singer whose unmarked and likely already lost grave remained in the burned-down village.

Did this master of his craft, in performing such a symbolic act of final despair, understand that a quarter century after the death of the singer, it was he who was entrusted with the honored responsibility of the ferryman Charon – since hope dies last?

Of the singer, only the recordings and the words of his song have remained, words describing his fate, smoldered to ash –

I was a free bird.

ГлавнаяNewsThe Ashes of a Song Smoldered Away