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Craftsmanship and performing art of balaban/mey

Balaban is one of the centuries-old woodwind instruments of Azerbaijan. It is also referred to as "yastı balaban" (flat balaban) "balaman," or "mey" in different regions. The name of this instrument is derived from the words "bala" (small) and "ban" (rooster crow), meaning "small, early crow". The balaban produces a soft and velvety sound rich in dynamic nuances.  Primarily an ensemble instrument it is often played in duets, with the nagara (drum) or daf (frame drum) for songs, dances, and purely instrumental pieces. Sometimes the performance of ashiq (poet-singer) is accompanied by balaban.                                         

The balaban is made from apricot, walnut, mulberry, or pear wood. It is 28 to 30 cm long and has eight finger holes and one thumb hole. The reed is inserted into the globular head, and the sound of the instrument is regulated through the clamp.        

The balaban is a woodwind musical instrument used by many peoples of the South Caucasus and Central Asia today. The history of balaban dates to ancient times. A woodwind musical instrument made of bone, dating back to the 1st century BCE, found in a prehistoric settlement of Mingachevir, Azerbaijan, is considered the prototype of balaban. According to other research, the balaban has a history of 4-5 thousand years. The silver ring found by the archaeologists in the area called Garatapa, located near the village of Bargushad in Ujar region, has the image of a balaban player engraved with a blue gemstone. Mentions of this musical instrument can also be found in the ancient Oghuz epic "Kitabi Dada Gorgud" and the works of classical Azerbaijani poets.     

The Azerbaijani poet Gatran Tabrizi, who lived in the 11th century, mentions the name of this musical instrument in several places of his divan (collection of oriental lyrics). The works of the genius musicologist of Azerbaijan Abdulgadir Maraghali also contain references to the balaban. Such sources are not found in any other culture.       

Unfortunately, the names of the balaban players of that era have not come down to our time. The Azerbaijani poet and historian Iskander Munshi, who lived in the 16th century, mentions the names of zurna (a double-reed instrument with a conical bore similar to an oboe with a loud sound) players such as Ustad (master) Asad, Ustad Huseyn and Shahmammad Surnayi in his works. The instrument that zurna players initially learned to play was the balaban. Therefore, they can also be considered balaban performers. Another evidence of the balaban being Azerbaijan's national musical instrument is a painting by the Russian artist Grigory Gagarin. The artwork depicts the gatherings of Mahmud Agha that took place in Shamakhi in the mid-19th century, and the balaban player Murad Mirzalioghlu. The founder of the modern Azerbaijani zurna-balaban school is a master of flat balaban Ali Karimov. This skilled zurna-balaban player left a mark in history under the name of Kalvali Ali Dada.                                                         

Renowned composers who paid attention to the individual performance characteristics of the balaban used it in their compositions. A solo performance of the balaban is prominently featured in works such as Uzeyir Hajibeyli's "Second Fantasy", Muslim Magomayev's "In the fields of Azerbaijan", Haji Khanmammadov's "Symphonietta" and several other pieces.       

It is difficult to find a second musical instrument that expresses the inner world of a person, his melancholic feelings - love, longing, heart's cry - as candidly and meaningfully as the balaban does. The sorrowful and plaintive sound resonates with the whispers of the soul and whinings of the human heart. Western musicologists stated that the balaban sound is the only musical instrument very close to the human voice. The balaban more accurately articulates the voice in the inner world of a person, the shades of harmony, serving as both a confidant to human beings and a means to bear and alleviate the pains of the mortal world.     

There are unique performances of our ancient folk music, ballads, mughams, as well as famous composer's songs. When we mention songs like "Sarı Gəlin" (Sari Gelin), "Vağzalı" (Vaghzali), " Mirzəyi" (Mirzeyi), " Uzundərə" (Uzundara), " Heyvagülü" (Heyvagulu), "Gözəlim sənsən" (You are my beauty), and "Sən Gəlməz Oldun" (You never came), we immediately think of the mesmerizing performance of the balaban.     

The balaban, being rooted in the "Segah" mode, one of the seven principal mughams in Azerbaijani music, is regarded as an integral part of Azerbaijani musical heritage. Its skilled performers are undoubtedly Azerbaijani Turks whose souls are kneaded by mugham.             

Azerbaijan has had numerous exceptional performers of this instrument throughout its history. Today, Shirzad Fataliyev, Alikhan Samadov, Rafael Asgarov, and many other professional young balaban players, whose names may not be widely known, are elevating and promoting the Azerbaijani folk and composer songs on world stages through the sound of the balaban.             

It should also be noted that our hostile neighbors, the Armenians, have attempted to appropriate our music, songs, dances, and musical instruments from time to time. Like many examples of Turkish national culture, the balaban has also been targeted. Today, the word "duduk" which is used in Armenian orthography originates from the Azerbaijani "düdük". The balaban is also known in different parts of Azerbaijan under the names of “Yasti balaban” (because of the flattened cane), “mey”, “balaman” and “düdük”.       

One thing should not be forgotten, that throughout history there have been many people who reached out to the rich culture of the great Turkic world. If we liken this rich heritage to a huge, well-rooted tree, those who throw stones have only been able to enjoy its small fruits. The tree, however, stands firm on its roots throughout the centuries, just as it does today.  

On December 6, 2023, the multinational file "Craftsmanship and performing art of balaban/mey " (Azerbaijan and Türkiye) presented jointly by Azerbaijan and Türkiye was inscribed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage at the 18th session of the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage held in Kasane, Botswana.      

Three more multinational nominations of Azerbaijan were included in the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage at the 18th session of the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. These include "Art of Tazhib" (Azerbaijan, Iran, Tajikistan, Türkiye, and Uzbekistan), "Iftar and its socio-cultural traditions" (Azerbaijan, Iran, Türkiye, and Uzbekistan), and "Mother of pearl inlay" (Azerbaijan and Türkiye) as examples of intangible cultural heritage.                                                                                  

Thus, the number of our elements included in the UNESCO Representative List of Intangible Cultural Heritage has reached 23.