Azerbaijan’s music festival mixes pop and politics
A singer with an Armenian-sounding last name performed a song written by Russian foreign ministry spokesperson at the festival hosted by the Azerbaijani president’s ex-son-in-law.
If your last name ends in “yan” and you are headed to Azerbaijan, you can be expect to be treated with suspicion. Russian singer Zara Mgoyan was the latest to find this out, as one of the star attractions of the glitzy Zhara (“Heat”) pop music festival in Baku.
The festival was designed as a celebration of the glamor and gaudiness for which the Russian pop music scene is well known. But it became yet another testimony to how the feud between Armenia and Azerbaijan, centered on the disputed territory of Nagorno-Karabakh, spreads to anyone or anything connected to either nation.
The surname suffix “yan” is not music to Azerbaijani ears, as it is associated primarily with Armenia. And so Mgoyan, unsurprisingly, was widely assumed to be an ethnic Armenian. As a result, the organizers of the festival took a lot of zhara from the Azerbaijani public for inviting an “enemy” to perform in Baku.
“Shame on those who invited an Armenian singer to Baku, and those who allowed it!,” went one Facebook post, as quoted by JamNews. “Be cursed, traitors of the motherland,” said another. Who's next, yet another asked, Kim Kardashian?
Amid the kerfuffle, the founder of the festival had to make a public service announcement. “Zara Mgoyan is not an Armenian,” said Emin Agalarov, the Azerbaijan-born Russian pop star, in a statement. Mgoyan's background, in fact, is Yazidi, he said. Many were not convinced, and some did some internet digging and found some pro-Armenian statements that Mgoyan reportedly had made in the past.
Meanwhile, the festival featured two Russian pop stars with actual Armenian roots, Philipp Kirkorov and Irina Alegrova, whose fathers changed their last names long ago to drop the “yan” ending. Their appearance in Baku sparked little controversy, though Kirkorov did say that for two decades, until this year, Azerbaijani diplomats had prevented him from entering the country.
One Russia pop diva, Lolita, came to Mgoyan's defense. “It is nonsense to bar a person just because some idiot said something about the person’s ethnicity,” Lolita told reporters. “There are only four blood types and people are divided only in two categories: piece of crap and not piece of crap.”
Mgoyan herself responded to the controversy diplomatically. “I believe that music, culture, and sport know no boundaries, no nationality and festivals like Zhara are a testimony to that. This festival brings together people from various countries, of various nationalities and various faiths,” she told reporters. She also likely scored points by noting that she had paid her tributes while in Baku to the country's founding father, Heydar Aliyev.
Speaking of diplomacy, during her performance at the festival Mgoyan performed a song co-written by an unlikely collaborator: Maria Zakharova, the formidable spokesperson of the Russian Foreign Ministry.
Zakharova is better known for her no-nonsense, feisty responses to criticisms of Russian government, and for her no-holds-barred takedowns of foreign journalists. But she appears to have a softer side as a songwriter and likes to let her hair down once in a while. Her busting of some lively Russian folk dance moves at an international summit in Sochi became an online hit.
Zakharova herself attended the festival in Baku. “It is one of the rare occasions when you can combine business and pleasure,” the glamorously attired Zakharova said in red-carpet comments to the media. She also met her Azerbaijani counterpart and the two discussed, among other things, the scourge of fake news, restrictions on free speech, and dangers to journalists – to be sure, important topics in both countries.
The main organizer, Agalarov, also brought a bit of international intrigue to the picture. He was formerly married to Leyla Aliyeva, the daughter of President Ilham Aliyev, but the two divorced in 2015.
These days, Agalarov is best known for his involvement in organizing a heavily scrutinized meeting reportedly meant to offer Donald Trump’s campaign dirt on his 2016 competitor, Hillary Clinton. Agalarov has denied the allegations and also denied offering Trump prostitutes during the 2013 Miss Universe pageant in Moscow. Trump came to Moscow with a complement of the most beautiful women in the world, Agalarov told Vice News, so he could not have possibly offered anything better than that.
In a video for his recent single, Agalarov poked fun at his acquaintance with Trump. The clip depicts a hotel-room pillow fight among some beauty pageant contestants, enjoyed by Agalarov and a Trump lookalike – and surveilled by some sort of intelligence gatherers – along with some shady-looking document transfers. Hot, indeed.
Giorgi Lomsadze is a journalist based in Tbilisi.