"The Land of Our Origin": Music and History in the Norway-Azerbaijan Connection

By Solomon, Thomas | Yearbook for Traditional Music, January 1, 2016 | Go to article overview

"The Land of Our Origin": Music and History in the Norway-Azerbaijan Connection


Solomon, Thomas, Yearbook for Traditional Music


The path from science to art is not long.

-Thor Heyerdahl1

In 1995 Norwegian archaeologist and adventurer Thor Heyerdahl went public with his theory that Scandinavia had been populated by people who had, in the distant past, migrated from present-day Azerbaijan in the Caucasus (Heyerdahl 1995). While academic archaeologists and historians scoffed at Heyerdahl's theories and dismissed them as pseudoscience, the idea that there was an ancient connection between Azerbaijan and Norway, and that the people living in those two nations today might have common ancestors, captured the imaginations of people in both countries. Despite being dismissed by the academic scientific community, Heyerdahl's theories became a source of inspiration for artists, especially musicians. Heyerdahl's speculative approach to research may not have conformed to accepted methodologies for the scientific study of history, but musicians found in Heyerdahl's theories a fruitful point of departure for exploring their purported common past through collaborative artistic projects that prioritized collective creativity based in a common historical imagination. In effect, Heyerdahl's theories became the basis for ways of doing and aestheticizing history through musical practice where the standard for success was based on the production not of verifiable facts, but of aesthetic experiences. This paper provides an account of two of these initiatives.2 But first I offer some brief remarks on the nature of history, and then a quick overview of Heyerdahl's theories and their critiques.

History, music, historical subjectivities

The stories explored in this article about what canbe called, after the title ofHeyerdahl's (1995) first published statement on the topic, "the Norway-Azerbaijan connection," point to basic questions about the nature and practise of history-what it means to be "doing" history and what counts as legitimate history. Ethnomusicologist Anthony Seeger offers a deceptively simple definition of history that provides a useful starting point for exploring these issues: "History is the subjective understanding of the past from the perspective of the present" (Seeger 1991:23, emphasis added). Seeger goes on to argue that:

Events do not simply happen; they are interpreted and created ... Members of some social groups create their past(s), their present(s), and their vision(s) of the future partly through musical performances. Musical structures, values, and performance practices are themselves informed by concepts of history, and their realization in the present is a demonstration of certain attitudes about the past and the future. (1991:23-24)

Pushing a bit further Seeger's argument that historical events are created and interpreted, I suggest that history is ultimately not about the establishment of objective, verifiable facts-getting the story "right" about "what really happened"-but about imagining the past and using it to create meaning in the present. History is about the creation of a historical consciousness in which human subjects (both individually and collectively in the form of social groups such as nations) and subjectivity are deeply embedded. From this perspective, history (like Geertz's (1973) notion of culture) is an interpretive tool that we use to tell ourselves stories about ourselves-who we think we are, where we think we've come from, and where we think we are going. History is thus always a "fiction"-not meaning "false," but in its original Latin sense asfictiö, something made or fashioned (Geertz 1973:15), a contingent product and process of the historical imagination.

While academic historical research frequently draws on social scientific methods, history as a meaning-making practice ultimately belongs to the humanities. The uses of history in practices of identity-making go far beyond issues of the scientific verifiability of historical "facts" or simple chronology (Treitler 1984). Understanding history as an open-ended, interpretive orientation to the past opens up the possibility for recognizing other ways of "doing" history besides academic study using scientific methodology that depends on language and results in little more than a limited set of discursive claims about events in the past. …

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