Album review

″Love Party″ by Ya Tosiba: Sufi in the house

A wonderfully subversive and witty album, Ya Tosiba′s ″Love Party″ slyly pokes fun at authority and present day life in Azerbaijan. With electronics simulating traditional instruments from the region, it draws on the Sufi ′meyknana′ tradition for its lyrics. Review by Richard Marcus

Keen to revitalise traditional forms of expression, musicians are increasingly using modern electronics to both keep them alive and make them relevant to the urbanised landscapes of modern life. A new release by the duo Ya Tosiba, (vocalist Zuzu Zakaria and electronics whizz Tatu Mosak), ″Love Party″, on the Asphalt Tango label is one of the more interesting examples of this trend. Not only is the melding of lyrics and music exemplary, but the original source material used by the musicians is unlikely to be known to anyone outside their native Azerbaijan.

While the music's electronic nature gives it a modern sound, lyrically its roots are in the mystical Sufi tradition. The vocals to the songs on the album are drawn from texts whose origins can be traced back to a genre known as meyknana. Normally meykhana acts are booked to play wedding parties and perform strictly for male audiences. Meykhana means wine house in Persia and the places where these performances are held are called meykhana medjlis – Sufi get-togethers and places for the religious chanting of Islamic literature.

In today's Azerbaijan the genre has evolved in a number of ways, from being used in the creation of new products for consumer consumption to providing the voice of resistance for a marginalised people. Needless to say ″Love Party″ falls into the latter category. Just the fact that the lead singer is female in a genre that was once male only is radical enough, but the group also sings in the street vernacular, with lyrics that blend Russian, modern Turkish and the dialects of Baku, one of Azerbaijan's main cities.

Social comment couched in metaphor

As befits the genre, which relied on metaphor and allusion to make its points, Ya Tosiba's songs use traditional and modern lyrics to comment on life in both modern Azerbaijan and current society in general. A simple reading of a song's lyrics won't be much of a revelation until you start thinking of them in more than just literal terms. Take the album's opening track, "Keci" (The Goat). It is a old rhyming fairytale written by Bebir Sagani in the Turkish Dastan style. It tells the rather convoluted story of a corrupt king and how his callous disdain for the people impacted on their lives.

Yet in spite of his despotic nature, he receives his come-uppance in the end, "Yes whoever want to trap an innocent/Will sooner or later fall in itself". Unfortunately, as you can tell from that line, the translations into English either aren't the most accurate or are limited by the language's ability to transmit the intent of the original. However, despite the linguistic awkwardness, we are able to discern the moral of the story – if you prey on the innocent for too long, you will suffer their fate eventually.

Football – love it or hate it

While other songs on the disc are along similar lines, "Qurban Gelir" by Eliaga Vahid Isgenderov is about the abuse of religious power, some are definitely more modern and have been written about contemporary subjects. The most obvious of these is "Futbola" (To Soccer) written by Agahuseyn. As the title says the song is about football – or more accurately hating it. "Even if I was tied up/ I would never like soccer./I have a friend, amateur and footballist/He is hitting the ball as if he is a specialist/I beg him to go and study become a journalist/I cannot change the mind of this infidel."

While this is quite funny on the surface, there is also an underlying tension: "He has played off all his belongings for football/Now he is selling his carpets and tables". While the sport in itself is not intrinsically bad, the obsession some people feel for it can cause great damage.

Cover of Ya Tosiba's "Love Party" (released by Asphalt Tango)
Voice of resistance for a marginalised people: ″the fact that the lead singer is female in a genre that was once male-only is radical enough, but the group also sings in the street vernacular, with lyrics that blend Russian, modern Turkish and the dialects of Baku, one of Azerbaijan's main cities,″ writes Marcus

However, other songs on the disc address more specific issues relating to recent history in the country. "Quco", (The Bully) once again by Isgenderov, is about the fall of Soviet rule in the early 1990s.

"I used to be a bully, I was respected/My art was to swear and curse the nation/Now my dreams are unrealised memories/I can not hit, I can not kill/I can not harass anyone."

Here we hear of the downfall of those who, through the apparatus of the state police, kept the majority under their thumbs. Told from the point of view of the person who has lost the power to instil fear in his neighbours, it is a salutary tale about a bully who gets his just desserts.

Remaining true to form

What's amazing about the lyrical content of this album is not just what they talk about, but how the subjects are addressed.

They manage to keep true to a form that dates back hundreds of years even when they are talking about subjects as modern as football or the sudden proliferation of cars on the streets of Baku in the 1980s, "Masin" (The Car) and the resulting chaos.

The cadences and rhythms of both Zuzu's vocals and the accompanying music make it almost impossible to discern which song utilises traditional lyrics and which was written within the last decade or two.

While there's a danger with electronic and house music that the sound overwhelms the message of the lyrics by being too much of a distraction, the advantage is that it ensures a wide listening audience. Zuzu and Mosak, along with contributions from Jorgen Skjulstad (aka Centre of the Universe) and Tatu Metsatahti, have managed to find that delicate balance where the music is an essential part of each track, without being a distraction from what they are trying to impart with each piece.

With electronics simulating traditional instruments from the region and lyrics which slyly poke fun at authority and present day life in Azerbaijan, ″Love Party″ is a wonderfully subversive and witty album. While there's no doubt this disc would get plenty of play in clubs around the world, it is also one of those rare house modern electronic discs that are a pleasure to listen to as well.

Richard Marcus

© 2017

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