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Rəhman Məmmədli
Azerbaijani Gitara Volume 2
Bongo Joe
Review by Bruce Miller


cd cover Mountains function as natural barriers between cultures, and the Caucasus region, a landscape squeezed between the Black and Caspian seas, serves as example of how this can be. Comprising Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, and the Dagestan area of Russia, and framed by the Caucasus Mountains, these countries and regions act as a barrier between Eastern Europe and Western Asia. And needless to say, musical traditions connected to, but not exactly like their cross-continental counterparts, flourish. Stringed instruments such as the tar, the gopuz, the saz, and the avar tambur drive sometimes frantic, other times hypnotic classical Caucasus modal music known as mugham. So, when Jolana electric guitars, imported from what was then Czechoslovakia, became popular in the 1960s, musicians tuned them to quarter tones and deployed them to move the mugham into the latter half of the 20th century and beyond.


Rəhman Məmmədli, whose music relies heavily on traditional sounds from the Caucasus, is perhaps the leading example of electrified mugham, something Bongo Joe’s new collection makes apparent. Using distortion to parrot Azerbaijani vocal styles and adding frets to better achieve traditional accuracy, his music overflows with intensity and mountain-swept power. Check out “Uca Dağlar Başında” to hear it. The tune begins with his guitar, playing a suspected chord over a subtle synth bed, the piercing high tones echoing as off the mountains themselves before the canned rhythm track kicks in, adding chords for him to flit between, his guitar tussling with itself, scaling heights and plummeting to cavernous depths.


Another track, the meditative “Xarı Bülbül,” creeps along atop a repeated percussion line, with Məmmədli applying wavering tremolo with his left hand, something that connects his music directly to gopuz while his trills conjur the drive of the tar.

Elsewhere, the music is overpowering, insisting on immersion. Opener “Qoçəlı” begins with torrents of notes, spitting from Məmmədli’s guitar like bullets. Eventually, a rhythm appears as the guitar drops mini-detonations of whining sonics until the track fades. A 2019 video from Azmaz TV (below) demonstrates his style wonderfully. Watch it and then check out any clips of Azerbaijani Tar masters and note the similarities. Like electric guitarists in Mauritania, instead of using the instrument to drag Western styles and approaches into the region’s music, Məmmədli draws the instrument to scales and melodies already established locally. Still active, he tours Europe this coming June, and has a new album in the works. Bongo Joe has used the guitar as bait to attract listeners far outside the Caucasus to the region’s music, sounds that conjures spells as they travel between mountains.

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