Azerbaijan has always been located between cultural traditions, absorbing words and ideas from the vast empires that have surrounded it. So it is fitting that the only thing everyone agrees about today’s meykhana – a form of poetic improvisation – is that it is a unique product of the Absheron peninsula where Baku is located.
Some say it originated with from Sufi dervish traditions, while others see its origin in more secular literary forms. Even the word meykhana, which can be literally translated as “the place of wine,” – although “spirits” captures the meaning more closely – yields many interpretations, from heavenly nectars to back alley taverns.
Banned during much of the Soviet period for its potentially provocative nature, meykhana was briefly encouraged during WWII to propagandize against the Nazis. After it had served its purpose, it was again banned by the authorizes and left to incubate in the hands of a few underground poets who passed it at great personal risk through informal schools that continue – and have multiplied – in the present day.
An offshoot of Persian or Arabic Ghazel poetry and Azeri Mugham, Meykhana is the poetry of the streets recited by a common person for a fee at weddings, good for a chuckle and maybe a raised eyebrow or two. But in the right hands, it also became the epitome of protest and integrity.
The men – and rarely a woman – pick a topic and then tap out a 6/8 rhythm with their fingers on the table or a nagaradrum. They take turns improvising a chorus and individual verses under strict rhythm, plucking inspiration from anywhere they can find it. While different schools have different approaches, the basic criteria are constant: adherence to rhythm, rhyme and theme. A sense of humor is highly recommended.
Meykhana is often compared to the indirectly political Russian bards like Vladimir Vysotsky or early American rap music, because it has existed outside the established culture, propagated by copied cassettes and originally beloved by a small but committed group of fans. Today meykhana is more popular than ever, with several competitions on television each year.
While meykhana made the leap to televised competition in the early 1990s, it can best be understood if you visit a smoky, simple teahouse in the Baku suburbs of Mashtaga, Ahmedli, or Yasamal – the three most popular, but by no means only “schools” in Azerbaijan. Experienced meykhana poets typically perform at weddings, but these hangouts are where the informal practice takes place, often everyday, for a student of meykhana.
Mehman Ahmedli, a lifelong meykhana poet, echoed many of the other poets interviewed when he said, “It is growing to be very popular now because is some money in it, so there are hundreds of wannabe meykhanists – but there are maybe a dozen real ones, the rest is air.”
Mehman says that while the most important thing about a good poem is its lyrical power, protest was once a much bigger part of the recitations. "Before it was local, in your courtyard, but now it’s on TV and seen everywhere so you have to know some limits,” he said. Mehman mentioned a poet named Ghengis "maybe 7 or 8 years ago" who "said everything - all of that stuff, about all the things you cannot talk about - way, way past the line."
"It was beautiful," he added. “We didn't know him, no one knew him well, but then he just disappeared completely.”
Kerim Novruzov, a widely respected meykhana poet from Mashtega, said he has studied the classic poetry and literature of Azerbaijani and Persian writers for most of his life. He has seen meykhana emerge from the underground following Azerbaijani independence and he has watched it spread throughout a country transformed in countless ways.
“Meykhana has always been about everyday life, it is a communal approach to consciousness,” said Novruzov. “Problems everyone knows and sees, like the drains flooded after the rain – this is our material.”
“Azerbaijan and meykhana exist in parallel,” he added, “One reflects the other.”
Novruzov explains that personal attacks on people are not common, except if two poets are competing with one another. Meykhana critiques tend to shy away from direct political attacks, both because polemics make for bad poetry and an element of self-censorship.
“On TV you can say whatever you want, but then you have to answer for it,” Kerim said, referring to the meykhana competitions on Azerbaijani television stations.
Mehman Ahmedli, a lifelong meykhana poet who runs the Ahmedli (a settlement of Baku outside the main city) school, agrees that meykhana has become commercialized and risks becoming a victim of its own success. "Back then it was about love - we were hungry, had no money, but we did not care about being popular," he said, "And today everyone just races to get on TV and get the money."
Shirzad, a longtime Meykhana enthusiast also from Ahmandli who has archived meykhana performances for over a decade, explained meykhana’s relationship with politics with this allegory: “If someone throws you a dumbbell, you tense up before you catch it, but if it’s just a cottonball you don’t flinch. Meykhana is the needle inside the cotton.”
Not all Azeris see today’s meykhana in this light. Ali Novruzov a blogger and activist (no relation to Kerim), explained how he sees meykhana as his friends nodded in agreement: “It’s like a cancer for Azerbaijan – put it in a museum already! It’s just another tool to make zombies of the youth.” He directed his main critique toward the televised meykhana program, drawing a distinction with what he said is the genre’s more activist roots: “Meykhana is not oppressed anymore, it’s worse: it’s subsidized.”
“I guess it is opposition: opposition to girls smoking cigarettes, homosexuals and other ethnic groups,” said Ali Novruzov, “If you protest so indirectly, you haven’t said anything.”
Meykhana invariably draws comparisons to hip-hop, both in its content and message. One of Azerbaijan’s first hip-hop groups, Dayirman, came to prominence with their wartime anthem “Karabakh or death.” Emin Efendi, the director of Dayirman Productions, said that while hip-hop and muyhkhana follow different paths, the individual artists all know one another.
“We grew up in the same ghettos afterall,” he added.
While Meykhana has been integrated in pop culture, Azeri hip-hop has never been more turbulent. A song released in 2009 called “Azadliq [Freedom]” from the rap group H.O.S.T. featured Dayirman and ventured where no maykhana can. With lyrics like:
“I am a Karabakh veteran / under the eyes of the police. / I am a superior with many funeral tents / under my armchair. / I am tombstones / with villas erected above them!... Save me from / illiterate physicians! / Free me from / illusory elections! / Expel me / from moneyversities!” (it’s got plenty of flow too – check it out here, full lyrics here)
Azeri hip-hop has moved in a new direction, surpassing or betraying its meykhana roots, depending on who you ask. While members of H.O.S.T Alliance could not be reached for comment, other poets and fans said both the group and its fans have been periodically detained and warned against further provocations. The group has not followed up with similar anti-establishment music.
“There’s a time and a place for each type of music,” said another renowned Bakuvian rapper Ibrahim “Oran [Uranium]” Ibrahimov, “All my words, thoughts, feelings come out best in rap, but meykhana is in my blood.”
To see a video of some meykhana from the Ahmedli school, check my article on EurasiaNet.org.