Anna C. Oldfield’s book, elaborated on the basis of her PhD. Dissertation, consists of a comprehensive approach Azerbaijani female ashiqs from the viewpoints of history, anthropology, gender studies, and history of literature. The forward by Sarah Atis and the author’s introduction resituate the study in the general field of Turkish studies, underlying the poetical dimension followed in this research. Indeed, all along the book, A. C. Oldfield exemplifies her topics by a number of quotations of poetry, with valuable transcriptions and translations. Poetry here is not only considered a literary production of ashiqs, but also as a “window into their lives as professional women minstrels in the changing historical landscape of Azerbaijan (p. 11).”
After a first chapter devoted to a general presentation of Azerbaijan, the author considers the origin of the ashiqs’ art through mythical narrative borrowed mostly from The Book of Dede Korkut, the major epic of Oghuz Turks, which links the ashiqs to the figures of the shaman and of the ozan. As it seems quite difficult to assert when exactly did appear the first female ashiqs, legends and myths as they have been perpetuated in dastans are treated by A. C. Oldfield as historical sources, and as representations of social ideals. The fourth chapter is an accurate description and analysis of the ashiqs’ world and activity. The formation and transmission of lineages, the ashiqs’ social role, the regional schools of singing and playing, and their links with diverse regions of the Caucasus, Turkey and Iran are well-developed. The complex system of hawa (melodies) linked with emotions, rhythms and versification is explained with lots of details. The author shows that the ashiqs’ repertory has both court and folk roots, as it is largely suggested by musical intersections with mugham (the court or “classical” musical repertoire of Azerbaijan). The mejlis (traditional performance venue still found today, even if much more on television), is also described and its competitive aspect underlined. A. C. Oldfield does not forget to emphasise the upheavals that have resulted from the Soviet conception of culture. The second part of the book consists mostly of biographies of female ashiqs of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Based on historical facts, on legendary narratives, on the poetry composed by these female ashiqs, and on historical data, these portraits allow the author to stress the musical and poetical features of Azerbaijani culture. As A. C. Oldfield notes, the ashiqs’ world is a largely legendary side, and their orally established tradition works as a social model (of the warrior, of the lover, of the poet, etc.). The third and last part of the book gathers data on female ashiqs from the 1980s to 2000s. In this period of time some have become very famous, locally then at national level. The constitution of different types of fame ― from local singers to pop ashiqs ― is well-analysed, before an overall conclusion on the identity issue and on the question of tradition and transformation.
Besides the author’s remarkable analysis of poetical texts, this book makes use of a number of captivating data for bringing the female ashiqs, their music and their poetry to the light of issues like language, religion, Soviet culture, history writing, and the interaction between the oral and the written. At the same time, these issues are often superficially touched, the author considering her object in a very wide chronological framework. A. C. Oldfield shows primarily interested in performance. She demonstrates the centrality of poetry in the understanding of the ashiqs’ work. However, her consideration on her sources remains unclear and ambiguous. Dastans are sometimes treated as objective data, and sometimes as social constructions of ideals. E.g., “Dastans (. . .) are the registers of history made into legend (123)”. And such is also the case of Soviet sources and local hagiography. At the end of the book, the author quickly endeavours to introduce female ashiqs’s societies as “imagined communities,” emphasizing their feminist and identity posture ― which appears as a hastily tentative to anthropologically label female ashiqs’s societies. Still, despite these reservations, A. C. Oldfield’s book constitutes a precious sum of data on Azerbaijani female ashiqs and on poetry as social performance.