Photo illustration by John Lyman



Echoes from Sumgayit: When Azerbaijan Went Rock

At the intersection of Sumgayit’s Samad Vurghun and Sülh streets, two worlds meet. To the north are the cafes and restaurants near Sumgayit Boulevard, a promenade along the Caspian Sea’s shores. To the south is the Peace Dove, a simple yet elegant monument from the Soviet era aimed at spreading messages of peace, hope, and humanity.

But this crisp Stockholm-style grid of city streets is much more than its landmarks. It is ground zero for Azerbaijani rock music.

“Sumgayit is an industrial city that’s bred to keep working and survive,” said Aydin Jalilov of Ulduz Tours, who launched the city’s new walking tour of prominent locations. “We’re often overshadowed by glitzier destinations like Baku and Shaki, but we have so much to offer. For many of us here, rock music has always been a genre with youth at its heart.”

Even to an outsider, Sumgayit appears like a brutalist tsunami from a faded sepia photograph. The city’s grimy nature is soaked in urban legends and concrete jungle. Nevertheless, Sumgayit boasts the highest concentration of rock bands in Azerbaijan: Banda, Debut, Mirazh, Mozalan, Sirr, Spark, and Yuxu.

As the Soviet Union dissolved and Western influence spread during the late 1980s, Azerbaijani musicians tried to preserve local music traditions while also adapting new influences. But with Azerbaijani rock, mainstream popularity was never the point. It began as a rugged, noisy, even experimental music style – anti-commercial and edgy. The genre consisted of a self-conscious corrective blended with a cry of personal and political frustration, an effort to leave the status quo all shaken up.

Rasim Muzaffarli, 65, is known for being one of the pioneers of Azerbaijani rock, which subsequently faded after Azerbaijan’s independence from the Soviet Union.

“Azerbaijani rock’s first wave goes to the formation of the Experiment OK band in the late 60s,” he says. “The second wave hit in the 1980s when [the] Ozan mugham-rock band emerged. After the band dissolved, their influence primarily impacted Sumgayit. In my opinion, we are going to see the full power of the third wave in [the coming] years.”

“There is a great need for professional producers in rock today,” Muzaffarli says. “But I believe if a new rock band with unique repertoire and style becomes successful, they are going to get full support from producers as well.”

And although Azerbaijani rock music never reached the level of popularity compared to other emerging music genres like hip-hop, it is still around, whether via endless jams in garages, underground venues, and smoky backstage rooms. And it continues to inspire a new generation of rock bands and aficionados to make music.

“Azerbaijani rock has enjoyed something of a renaissance in recent years,” explains drummer Salim Novruzov.

“Local musicians lack approaches that might enable them to effectively manage the complex practical and personal challenges that music careers often pose,” he says.

Azerbaijani rock got a second life with the arrival of the Internet, which flooded the country’s youth with new music. A small but vibrant scene developed, with occasionally startlingly contemporary reference points. But in a country where digital piracy was already the norm, dwindling leisure budgets push people to be more reluctant to spend money on music.

Until international recognition can become a reality, rock bands frequently reach out to pop music singers to book concerts together. New bands who struggle to break into the concert scene find it tough to stay afloat on concert ticket sales alone.

Local musicians heavily rely on financing their own productions and streaming, contrary to what many artists have done at their beginnings when they earned money performing at weddings and other such events.

“If the band isn’t famous, people don’t want to pay,” says Milan Mammadov, a Krasnoyarsk-born rock musician. “The regrettable thing is that the quality is better than ever but now there is no audience for it,” he says.

Emil Guliyev, a drummer with the Sumgayit-based hard rock band Tetraqon, also shares Mammadov’s scepticism.

“I think that rock and metal in Azerbaijan started to die before they reached maturity. The future looks promising on the surface, but these are but mere glows on sea waves carrying off a floating corpse,” he said.

“Because of the popularity of artists like Yuxu and Coldünya in the early 90s, I thought there might be a commercial audience for rock among millennials. But I was wrong.”

As for the future of Azerbaijani rock music in general, Guliyev is typically philosophical. “Nobody knows what the future holds,” he ponders. “In the end, it doesn’t matter, as long as we’re having fun!”