Folklife, tombaks and kamanchas

As is often the way on my travels, I didn’t have an agenda for my visit to Washington DC other than catching up with a dear friend and seeing the fireworks. My friend’s brother mentioned that the Smithsonian were holding a folklife festival, so when I went off exploring the city, I decided to check it out. There was the AIDS Memorial Quilt stretching out across the Mall as far as the eye could see, food tents and stalls everywhere, and a full schedule of performances.

folklife aids memorial quilt

I was fortunate enough to happen by on Azerbaijani Thursday during a breathtakingly beautiful performance of mugham music, sponsored by the Karabakh Foundation, a non-profit dedicated to the preservation and sharing of the culture, arts and heritage of Azerbaijan.

folklife tombak kamancha azerbaijan mugham mugam Pezhham Akhavass Imamyar Hasanov

Azerbaijani mugham music concert at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival.

On stage were two exceptionally talented musicians. Pezhham Akhavass, percussionist, is a modern day master of the tombak; a goblet-shaped drum carved from a single block of wood. I have never seen anyone’s hands move as quickly as his did when he was drumming.

folklife tombak kamancha azerbaijan mugham mugam Pezhham Akhavass Imamyar Hasanov

Pezhham Akhavass playing the tombak

With him on stage was the extraordinary Imamyar Hasanov, virtuoso on the kamancha; an  ancient stringed instrument made of mulberry or walnut wood and played with a bow of horse hair.

folklife tombak kamancha azerbaijan mugham mugam Pezhham Akhavass Imamyar Hasanov

Imamyar Hasanov prepares to show festival-goers what the kamancha is capable of.

The concert, entitled “Undiscovered Treasure: The Kamancha of Azerbaijan,” focused on the power and beauty of this delicate stringed instrument, and was so dazzling, it made me wish I could go back in time to witness their concert the previous week, “Music from the Land of Fire.” I shot a short video of Imamyar in action on the kamancha; you’ll hear Pezhham’s drumming too.

If you ever have a chance to see either of these guys in performance, do!

For another unusual DC adventure, see here.


About ailsapm

Hi there! I’m Ailsa Prideaux-Mooney. I’ve lived in many places, and travelled to many more. I had a lot of fun getting there and being there, wherever there happened to be at the time. I climbed a castle wall in Czesky Krumlov, abseiled down cliffs to go caving in the west of Ireland, slept on the beach in Paros, got chased by a swarm of bees in Vourvourou (ok that wasn’t fun, but it was exciting), learned flower arranging in Tokyo, found myself in the middle of a riot in Seoul, learned to snowboard in Salzburg, got lost in a labyrinth in Budapest and had my ice cream stolen by a gull in Cornwall. And I’m just getting started. If you’ve enjoyed what you’ve read so far, I’d love you to follow my travelogue - - and remember, anyone who tries to tell you it’s a small world hasn’t tried to see it all.
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35 Responses to Folklife, tombaks and kamanchas

  1. Sounds wonderful!

  2. adinparadise says:

    I’ve never heard of either of these instruments, Ailsa. The Kamancha is beautiful, but does remind me of a wooden colander. 😉 That Memorial Quilt is a sight to behold. You had a lovely visit, and were so fortunate to take in all this wonderful music, as well as seeing your friend and the firework display.

    • ailsapm says:

      Haha, that’s hilarious, adinparadise, the musical instrument that can strain the water off your spaghetti too. Yes, I’ve had quite a few adventures in the past week, it’s been wonderful. 🙂

    • RMohr says:

      The kamancheh Imamyar played is a modern innovation by Peter Biffin, an Australian instrument maker using a system similar to an American resonator guitar. Brilliant adaptation! The traditional Kamancheh has a wooden bowl lathed from a solid block or wooden ribs and having a skin head. Kayhan Kalhor and Habil Aliyev also play Biffin Kamachehs. I would have loved to have seen this in person!!

  3. Wow! Love that music.

    • ailsapm says:

      Me too! When they kicked it up a notch and the drum came in around 2:30 it was all I could do to stop myself from dancing around with lots of wavy arm action. 😉

  4. pommepal says:

    You find amazing things if you just go with the flow, amazing quilt and what unusual instruments, great photos

  5. fgassette says:

    I love these kind of unexpected finds. Thanks for sharing.


  6. That is one amazing musical journey with visuals that excites the senses. Thanks.

  7. what a beautiful looking musical instrument the kamancha is, and great sound too. Thank you for sharing it with us.

  8. Madhu says:

    That sounds like Indian music!! And the drum like the ‘Tabla’! Thanks for sharing this Ailsa, had never heard of these instruments before

    • ailsapm says:

      It does sound like Indian music, Madhu, so beautiful! I’m glad you enjoyed my little trip to Azerbaijan in the middle of DC!

  9. The kamancha is amazing looking. I love hearing different types of ethnic music!

  10. The story of ‘the quilt’ is touching and very inspiring. I’ve never seen any of these instruments before!! They look interesting and exotic!

    • ailsapm says:

      It was very moving to see all those quilts stretched out across the mall – there were also readers (part of the Names Project) who stood at a microphone and read list after list of the names on the quilts.

  11. I love this Persian inspired music, Ailsa – so redolent of the steppes and flickering firelight, men planning and scheming, boisterous in their camaraderie, women swaying together, watching from dark interiors …

    • ailsapm says:

      You are a poet, Wanderlust! Yes, it is terribly evocative, isn’t it? I had a hard time staying still enough to video it, it begs to be danced to!

      • Yes, I’m sure you did, because it wasn’t written to be listened to sitting still, except around a camp fire, perhaps, legs crossed, body swaying ….

        • ailsapm says:

          I was actually standing off to the side when I was videoing, which made the temptation even harder to resist! Although I did notice when playing back the recording that I was swaying every so often 😉

          • Ahha! Know about that. Years ago, in the bad times when there was the occasional bomb, or curfew that kept travellers away from my island paradise, I was at a Perahera here in Colombo, and because there were so few people, I was standing right in front, where I had the best view of everything. I didn’t realise it at the time, but this is also where the TV cameras were, and everyone I met in subsequent days commented on how much I’d enjoyed the Perahera, and how they enjoyed my dancing …

          • ailsapm says:

            Haha, that’s a great story, your five minutes of fame! 🙂

  12. Wow, very inspiring. The best travel experiences are always the unplanned ones, that’s for sure. 🙂


  13. Kelsey King says:

    Thank you for your coverage of the Azerbaijani component of the Smithsonian Folklife festival. The Karabakh Foundation, a non-profit in Washington, D.C., works hard to present Azerbaijani culture to American audiences through concerts, film screenings, art exhibitions, lectures, and more. Azerbaijan has a rich heritage and history, a fact made clear to those who had a chance to hear the powerful and mystical mugham music (Azerbaijani folk music) performed on the National Mall during this years Folklife Festival and taste the Azerbaijani food offered there. For more information about Azerbaijan and the activities of the Karabakh Foundation, please visit

    • ailsapm says:

      Hi Kelsey, I have to say this was the highlight of the folk festival for me. These guys were spectacular. Thanks so much to your foundation for sponsoring their performances. xxx Ailsa

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