Azerbaijan’s oil wealth is transforming the little-known former Soviet republic, but behind Baku’s modern façade lies a traditional heart best explored through a long musical heritage
The so-called “singing rock” of Gobustan makes a plausible claim to be the oldest musical instrument on Earth. Nearby rock carvings in this national park, about 90 minutes' drive from Baku, date back up to 10,000 years and include pictograms of dancers celebrating the bizarre sonorities of the mysterious stone. Music started early here, and makes the perfect guide for a tour around a nation emerging from centuries of obscurity.
The defining national sound is the mugham, a distinctive vocal tradition that blends the muezzin’s call with Indian raga, evoking the desert but reflecting the lively, cosmopolitan history of this former Silk Road staging post. In the heart of Baku’s Icheri Sheher (Old City), singers at the atmospheric Mugham Club (9A Rzaeva St ) improvise intensely emotional tales of their beautiful homeland or lament betrayed lovers.
Outside, the labyrinth of passages studded with slender minarets and dotted with enthusiastic carpet sellers divides the city’s most famous sites - the elegant Shirvan Shah Saray palace and the brooding Maiden’s Tower. The imaginatively designed Mugham House, under construction on the waterfront, seems to jar with this historic tradition - yet in reality it’s yet another of Baku’s many reinventions.
The first oil boom in the late 19th century posted a ‘new town’ of lavish villas outside the city walls. The musical tradition received a boost as well - the elegant Philharmonia (2 Istiglaliyyat St) brought European sophistication to the shores of the Caspian while the opera house (93 Nizami St) heard local composers blend the classical tradition with that mugham sound. Today’s pop acts continue the trend - disco mugham heads for Eurovision.
But there’s more to this country than just Baku. Generations of singers hymned its beauties, from the peaks of the Caucasus to the tea plantations of Lenkoran. Day trips can show you the Gobustan reserve and the unique mud volcanoes, or the Fire Mountain near Zabrat and Surukhani’s Ateshgah temple, sacred to Sanskrit-speaking flame worshippers trading to and from the Himalayas.
Better still is a tour to Sheki. The six-hour drive crosses Baku’s semi-arid hinterland, swings through the low hills on the way to Shamaki, weaves through Ismailli’s lush woodlands and ends in the snowy peaks close to the Georgian border. Take a room in the ancient Karvan Saray, like the camel trains of old, and explore the mountains. The nearby village of Kish, with an ancient Christian church, and the hillside scramble to the ruins of Gelersen Gorasen (Come-and-see Tower) are both popular but the jewel in Sheki’s crown is the sumptuous Sheki Khan Saray. This fabulous 15th-century palace may be small but it’s perfectly formed. Sumptuous stained glass and magnificent mosaics will thrill even the most jaded cultural palate with a riot of color from Azerbaijan’s brief golden age. There's plenty to sing about here.
The region is also famous for two culinary specialities: Sheki halva, an indulgently gooey treat of nuts and golden syrup that proves irresistibly moreish, and a thick and filling lamb broth known as piti. Locals insist that this bears no relation to the similarly named dish available in Baku and elsewhere around town. Azerbaijan's cuisine in general is a mixture of Turkish and Asian, with fish shashlyk kebabs in a tart pomegranate sauce being one of the star dishes at the grand open-air restaurants like Baku's out-of-town Channaq Gala.
Back in Baku, music lovers dance to the strains of Mugham jazz. The highlight is the annual international Jazz Festival in early June, but every night sees local musicians swinging at the Karvan Jazz Club (4 Aziz Aliyev St), in the shadow of Maiden’s Tower. Enthusiastic mentions of Mugham-jazz maestro Vagif Mustaffah-Zade or contemporary folk-boogiemeister Rain Sultanov always go down well. And a bottle of the local Xirdalan beer doesn’t hurt either. In spite of a chequered history, this is a country with a smile on its face and a song in its heart.
BMI and AZAL both fly direct from London to Baku. Tourist visas can be purchased at the airport on arrival ($100 for UK and US citizens).
Where to stay
Expense account oil execs flock to the plush, suburban Hyatt Park from $330 a night (1033 Izmir Ave).
For a better location and more realistic prices, try the Meridian (39 Zeinali St) in the heart of the Old City, where a deluxe single is $180.