Interviewer by: Khayala Mammadova
Jeffrey Werbock, a distinguished performing artist based in the United States and Chairman of the Mugham Society of America (MSA). He was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1951. In 1971 he moved to Los Angeles, California and the following year he met an elderly man from Daghestan who played traditional Azerbaijani music on one of their native instruments, the kamancha. From the first moment of listening to this strange and ancient music, Jeffrey was completely enthralled. With the guidance of Mr. Avshalomov, he began to study the cultures and peoples of the Caucasus Mountains, with a strong emphasis on the traditional music of Azerbaijan.
After three years of intensive work together, Jeffrey moved to Manhattan in order to be closer to the center where world music began to acquire a following while continuing to study music with his teacher until he passed away in 1987. Mr. Avshalomov’s passing prompted Jeffrey to go to Azerbaijan in search for more teachers, wishing to advance his understanding of mugham. Since then, he has given hundreds of concerts and lecture demonstrations at museums, colleges, universities and community concert venues in the United States, Europe, Israel and Azerbaijan.
Khayala Mammadova: May be we can start from your academic background, could you please give a brief introduce of yourself to our readers?
Jeffrey Werbock: All my lessons in Azerbaijani mugham music were private lessons with accomplished musicians. My first teacher was born in Daghestan,all the others were from Azerbaijan. I had a few lessons in Azerbaijan, most took place in USA.
Khayala Mammadova: Please tell us about intercultural performance and the roots of your interest in Azerbaijani national Music , how did you get involved?
Jeffrey Werbock: I first heard Azerbaijani mugham, a relatively simple version of it, in 1972 and was impressed with the power in the music to change my state of mind, away from ordinary thoughts to more “cosmic” or mystical thinking and feeling.
Khayala Mammadova: How did it happen that you began performing mugham?What is the meaning and your perception of Azerbaijani Mugham?
Jeffrey Werbock: Friends were curious about my studying how to play mugham on kamancha so I showed them what I had learned and several suggested I should share this music with others, publicly. I did not think of myself as an entertainer, more as an educator, so I began to arrange for demonstrations in colleges and universities.
The meaning and my perception of mugham is complex and requires far more space to delve into than this interview permits. I am in the final stages of writing a book about these questions so please wait for it to be published and you will be able to read about my discoveries regarding mugham music.
Khayala Mammadova: Do you believe that mugham has evolved since Azerbaijani independence?
Jeffrey Werbock: I would say that there has been a significant surge of interest in mugham since independence. I am impressed with the Azerbaijani government’s investment in mugham as well as the response from the young generations of Azerbaijanis learning mugham and showing general interest in their national heritage.
Khayala Mammadova: Mugham Society of America was established by you. What does your activity comprise?
Jeffrey Werbock: For over four decades I have made every effort to raise awareness of Azerbaijan as a source of great cultural richness, especially its traditional music, in the western, English language speaking world. If you visit my website www.mugham.net it details my efforts to promote Azerbaijan, there’s a partial list of all the great venues I’ve had the honor and good fortune to perform in.
Khayala Mammadova: What does being a Multicultural Family mean for you?
Jeffrey Werbock: The word “multicultural” seems to have more than one meaning. In one sense it seems to be a positive meaning. In another sense, it seems to be not positive, that for some people, they seem to prefer a more uniform society, a mono-culture. I prefer cultural diversity, and I have great respect, admiration, even veneration for certain aspects of oriental culture. I go into deep detail regarding this question in my book.
Khayala Mammadova: Does Azerbaijan society seem multicultural to you?
Jeffrey Werbock: In the most positive meaning of that word, yes. Take music for example. Azerbaijanis appear to have the most eclectic tastes in music. They love folk, pop, classical, jazz, rock, everything. It’s very impressive.
Khayala Mammadova: What do you consider to be one of your greatest achievements? Why?
Jeffrey Werbock: Probably the documentary film called Young Voices Ancient Song that I helped to direct, produced by The European Azerbaijan Society, premiered in Baku on Oct. 21, 2016, at the Nizami Theater. The project began in 2000 and took 16 years to complete. It was a lot of work, and in a field (filmmaking) of which I had no experience, so I think it qualifies as a serious accomplishment. Now, it needs to be shown everywhere; that is one of my current challenges.
Khayala Mammadova: What motivates you to do your best?
Jeffrey Werbock: The same thing that motivates everyone to do their best: awareness of one’s shortcomings, and exposure to those who have achieved a measure of greatness. In mugham music, I only need to listen to a few Azerbaijani children sing and play on tar and kamancha to be reminded of how far I have yet to go to being able to properly represent this art, to my satisfaction.
Khayala Mammadova: Please, tell about your future plans briefly.
Jeffrey Werbock: To get the documentary film world wide distribution, to publish my book and distribute it widely, and to continue to present my mugham program at colleges and universities everywhere, so long as I have the strength to do so.
Khayala Mammadova: You have been to Azerbaijan, what kind of things did you do in Azerbaijan that you couldn’t have done in other countries you were?What do you miss the most about Azerbaijan?
Jeffrey Werbock: Thanks to the Azerbaijani people’s interest in me and my work to promote Azerbaijan abroad, I have been invited into television studios, radio programs and newspaper articles. This has given me the opportunity to inform many people about my activities, to explain myself to others, and in general to be recognized as a person who cares about Azerbaijan and the future of its cultural heritage. This would not be possible anywhere else, so I am grateful for that circumstance. What do I miss the most? The people, of course. Every time I visit and return home to USA, all I can think about is when will my next visit take place.
Khayala Mammadova: If you could give one message to Azerbaijani National Music , what would it be?
Jeffrey Werbock: Thank you for entering my life and transforming the life of an ordinary man into an extraordinary adventure in music, and thank you for bringing me in touch with the people of Azerbaijan through our shared love of your great tradition, mugham.
Dr. Khayala Mammadova is the Head, International Multicultural Network Azerbaijan.