Our Daily Bread 567: The Oldest Voice In The World (Azerbaijan) ‘Thank You For Bringing Me Back To The Sky’

April 3, 2023

Dominic Valvona

CREDIT: Marilena Umuhoza Delli

The Oldest Voice In The World (Azerbaijan) ‘Thank You For Bringing Me Back To The Sky’ 
(Six Degrees Records) 6th April 2023

There can be few remote corners of this well-traversed globe left unrecorded, yet the celebrated polymath and renowned in-situ recordist Ian Brennan and his wife, but most importantly partner on these sonic expeditions, the filmmaker and photographer Marilena Umuhoza Delli, have found one such spot on the Azerbaijan border with Iran. So remote in fact, almost untouched by modernity and technology, that the language spoken in this mountainous village is almost unintelligible to even those living in the valley below.

Settled by the atavistic Talysh people of this region, this outlier of naturalistic and hardened living is an ancient place with challenging origins shrouded in thousands of years of obscurity. Perhaps ancestors of the old Iranian tribe the Cadusii, this unique ethnic community, clinging and camped out on the southern mountains of Azerbaijan, is famous for its longevity; said to be the home of the oldest ever recorded human, at (an allegedly) 168 years old! But despite that remoteness, the ever encroaching dreaded Covid-19 pandemic found its way there, and by the time Brennan and Delli travelled to this outcrop, the number of centenarians had diminished greatly. As if the pandemic wasn’t tragic enough, our sonic explorers found that the living conditions for these elders were extremely harsh: no indoors plumbing, forced to sleep on floorboard mattresses. And so this project, just the latest in at least fifty recordings by Brennan, became an antidote of a kind to anti-ageism.

As dangerous places, states in flux and aftermaths of genocide go, compared to many of Brennan’s tour-of-duties (Rwanda, Vietnam, Cambodia, Pakistan etc.) Azerbaijan, on the surface, seems a far less hostile safer bet. However, that Southern Caucus region’s decades old fight with its western neighbor Armenia over the complicated and disputed landlocked Nagorno-Karabakh region (the Armenian’s refer to it instead as the Artsakh) reared its ugly head again in 2020; only brought to a conclusion (of a sort) by a trilateral agreement overseen by Russia in November of that year. In a window of opportunity Brennan and Delli made the trek in late 2021. Just months later, Russia would of course invade Ukraine.

CREDIT: Marilena Umuhoza Delli

What they both discovered and recorded for posterity is a most incredible document of elderly sagacious voices very much alive, yet all to aware of their own mortality. Surviving COVID but left to mourn those that didn’t, this should be a lamentable, saddening proposition. Far from prying in on a collective trauma, with a number of the performers obviously distraught and in a state of anguish at times, Brennan’s hand was indeed kissed by a long-since retired shepherd, who repeated his gratitude (giving the album its title in the process): “Thank you for bringing me back to the sky”.

This album could, like so many previous recordings in this vain, be said to act as a sort of therapy; a release. It certainly isn’t in the spirit of Lomax, saving old voices before they disappear; an ethnomusicologist exercise in Western preservation. As a subtle augmentation of elements are added, with some vocal performances, aches and talks further transported by a number of past Brennan collaborators (Kronos Quartet, Tinariwen, The Good Ones and Yoka Honda) on the bonus tracks.  

For those new to Brennan’s hands-off approach, the set-up is as un-intrusive and natural as possible. The surrounding environment isn’t just welcome to bleed into each recording but invited. This translates into the creaking of a door; the crackled flames of a furnace; and in the case of the afflatus-touched ‘Lullaby’, what sounds like a rhythmic trudge through water.

Whilst most expressions, deliveries of earthy travail and more heavenly thanksgiving are pretty stripped back, soft but effective uses of mirrored and echoed reversals are used on the warped piano yearned ‘My Mother Lived To Be 110’, and the more avant-garde piano and spoken ‘The Young Men Are Sent To Die In Rich Man’s War’. This turns some recordings into portals to other worlds, others, like something from Zardoz, or even psychedelic and otherworldly.

Voices are effected on the reverberated, forewarned ‘Son, Don’t Go There, The Road Is Dangerous’, turning a couple of different vocals into something both giddy and esoteric. I haven’t asked or searched it out so do forgive my ignorance, but the poetic ‘You Are A Flower Yet To Grow’ sounds like it has some kind of accompanying bassoon blowing away on it; and ‘Pepe, Pepe (Donkey Song)’ features what I can only describe as a sort of primitivism jazz horn. There’s hand drums being respectively rattled and hit on the longer, lyrically melodious dance, ‘Bulbul (Nightingale)’ and the more Persian sounding ‘Screaming From The Mountain Top For My Son’.

CREDIT: Marilena Umuhoza Delli

Amongst the often more distressed offerings and terms of abandonment, wise advice to longevity comes in the form of the trolley-full-rattled-crockery (or so it sounds) accompanied heartfelt ‘The Secret To Life: I Was Loved’, and the acoustic guitar wobbled and bandy-stringed, talked ‘The Secret To life: I Worked Hard And Ate Butter’ – dairy lovers like me take comfort; although my work rate of honest craft and toil will have to be increased considerably if that’s the case to long life.

A quartet, as I mentioned earlier, of collaborative transformations have been added as “bonus” material. All those involved have at some point crossed congruous and valuable paths with Brennan in the field or studio, the first being the Kronos Quartet who lift a sorrowful Talysh mountain border voice with a treatment of neoclassical held and bowed strings and gravitas. Yuka Honda, meanwhile, evokes Die Wilde Jagd and The Pyrolator on the sophisticated electronic and minimalist Techno affected ‘Prayer Overheard’.

One of Mali’s Tuareg luminaries of desert rock and blues, the much lauded Tinariwen, cast a near Medieval and Oriental dream spell on ‘Ghosts’, and the Rwandan farming bluesman, The Good Ones, provide an elasticated, stringy and stripped backing for the female-voiced ‘A Lifetime Still’ – complete with a light chorus of birds.

Loss, bereavement, the wise observations of those uncomplicated voices, this latest recording from Brennan and Dilli (who records each project through her lens) encourages a dialogue and offers a unique angle on ageing, or rather, the abandonment and prejudice of growing old. In a time in which we’ve grown to distrust, cast off and denigrate old age in the pursuit of eternal youth (cosmetically and through the filters of Instagram), the old are looked on with embarrassment and as a burden; their deaths on mass, as they were shunted out of hospitals into care homes to spread COVID, until recently, seen as just a unfortunate result of the pandemic. We’ve come to see ageing as a reminder of our own unwanted mortality. As I’ve said, those voices come alive in the presence of Brennan, cutting through the pretence and bullshit with the most emotionally profound wisdom and anguish of the times. With such a skilled touch, Brennan loses none of the atavistic traditions yet transforms his hosts’ song into the “now” with a near-psychedelic, otherworldly and spiritual production of folk and the avant-garde. This is quite unlike anything else you’ve heard.    

Hi, my name is Dominic Valvona and I’m the Founder of the music/culture blog monolithcocktail.com For the last ten years I’ve featured and supported music, musicians and labels we love across genres from around the world that we think you’ll want to know about. No content on the site is paid for or sponsored and we only feature artists we have genuine respect for /love. If you enjoy our reviews (and we often write long, thoughtful ones), found a new artist you admire or if we have featured you or artists you represent and would like to buy us a coffee at https://ko-fi.com/monolithcocktail to say cheers for spreading the word, then that would be much appreciated.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: