Interview by Charlie Crooijmans
Amsterdam – Last year Ell and Nikki from Azerbaijan won the Eurovision Song Contest with their love song Running Scared. Following Eurovision tradition, that the winner gets to host the following festival, this year’s contest will be held in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan. According to activist and singer-songwriter Cirttan (Azer Mamedov) who is truly running scared and had to flee to the Netherlands for safety reasons, it will have a strong effect on the Azerbaijani authorities if the European countries would boycott this musical event. He says that for sure Azerbaijan will be a very good host. It will want to show the world all of its modernity and prosperity. What we won’t get to see, according to Cirttan, are the poor conditions of the Azerbaijani people. Corruption is a way of life and the people are afraid to stand up for themselves. On Music Freedom Day (March 3, 2012), globally organised by Freemuse, Cirttan played some of his songs at the Soeterijn Café in Amsterdam. On the eve of this event we had a conversation about his hopes and fears for Azerbaijan and his role as an activist.
How is your current situation?
”I live with my wife and daughter in the north-eastern part of the Netherlands. We just got a A-Status (a refugee status) and we will soon get a house.”
Did you have the desire to be a musician from early on?
“I started to play music for myself. When I was 16 years old, it was still during the Soviet times, the school of music was free. But my parents wanted me to get a decent job. In 1996 I got a scholarship in Turkey and that’s the place where my story starts! I got to know who I am and what I want from life. I studied Economics of Labour and Industrial Relationship (HR) and I worked in Turkey as a freelancer in finance and logistics. But I never wanted to work in this field. It was an eye-opener for me to see that the people in Turkey can be educated and informed unlike the people in Azerbaijan where the conditions are very limited. In Turkey (1997) I got my first computer and my first guitar. I didn’t have any lessons. I watched how others play and friends gave me some help. I still don’t see myself as a musician, more as a poet.”
What are your songs about?
“I am not a political singer. I sing about freedom and love. In my acoustic rock songs I use symbols not to hide but to make it nicer. I want to be clean from any ideology. I am not a communist, no patriot and I have no religion. We must pay attention to what happens in the world, we are linked. Lots of people don’t realize that we are globalized. So this is my global view and my micro target is Azerbaijan.”
When did you start to become an activist?
“In 2009 I met my wife in Istanbul. We think alike. She was the head of the Youth Movement Dalga (which means ‘wave’) to fight for the rights of the students and against corruption at the universities. She works as a journalist and blogger. When two bloggers (Emin Milli and Adnan Hajizadeh) got arrested, I wanted to join their campaign to fight for their freedom. It went around the world because of Amnesty International. One of them got 2 years and the other 2,5 but they got released 1,5 year after they were arrested. Just for criticizing! Now we want to be an example for the youth, and we are still ready to support any peacefull action against dictatorship in Azerbaijan.”
What are the conditions in Azerbaijan?
“The situation in Azerbaijan is very bad. We are a victim of geopolitics and of the Aliyevs Clan that rules in the country. (Ilham Aliyev is the President, he is the son of Heydar Aliyev, who was Azerbaijan’s president from 1993-2003, CC) There is still a war going on with Armenia. The war zone is a free zone for weapons and narcotics. Azerbaijan is a society of fear and hatred. There is corruption in all departments: military, health, foreign affairs etc. There are no sound conditions for the young generation. The government wants to create robbers and people who don’t have to think. It’s all about money and consumption. On the outside the big buildings look great, but no one knows what will happen when there will be an earthquake. All due to corruption. If you want to, you can have a comfortable life with a car and a house. To have a home is the most important thing for young people in my country. But it’s easy to lose it because there are no property rights. There is no control. We have this saying: ‘long life to the snake that never touch me’. If it doesn’t bite me, there is no problem.”
Is there no way for the people to express their discontent?
“On March 11 the “Great People Day” was launched on Facebook, a movement inspired by the spring revolution in Egypt. There weren’t any demonstrations, you just had to show your protest to the government by hanging out a flag, wear a red shirt or put a photo on the Internet. No provocations, because it’s too early, the government won’t give any chance. Still 200 people got arrested, some of them in their own houses! There is a team in the MTN (the intelligence agency, CC) who works on the Internet. With the names on Facebook they can easily track the address.
“Very recent there was a demonstration in Quba (you can read more about it in this article, CC). This time the government listens to the people, afraid to lose their reputation internationally. The governor had to step down (of course he was sent to take a post in another city, or department, or ministry). Then the people start to understand that they cán change. The revolution must be peaceful. We have to change the political system to a social one, one that protects the people! We have the potential to be a rich country because of our oil sources.”
When did it start to become difficult for you?
“On the Great People Day I decided to organize a concert on the 18th of March. We also wanted to raise money for two families. For the family of a 9 year old who got killed by an Armenian sniper and the family of the 19-year-old student who got arrested. They ‘found’ drugs in his pocket and he got jailed. Medical report showed that he didn’t smoke at all. The only mistake he made is joining a demonstration. His family is very poor. The entrance was free, just donation required for these two families. We knew the government would like to stop the concert, and we did everything against any provocation. That’s why I invited somebody from the American Embassy in Baku. But two hours before the show, during the sound check, the administrator came in. He got a call from the presidential office saying that the concert must be cancelled.”
How did you deal with this?
“After that I couldn’t go to any bar or venue to play my songs. Everyone is afraid to work with me. The theatre of Baku didn’t give me a stage, because they were afraid to lose the place. Me and my friends organised mobile concerts sending announcements by sms a few days before. We set up a project financed by some US Organizations like USAID (United States Agency for International Development). In different places we could combine music and lectures. It worked. But we couldn’t reach a lot of people, not more than 50. On the street there was always a policeman. Sometimes you’ll recognize who is from the MTN. They probably came to the lectures as well. In the announcements we didn’t mention the name of the project just the place.
“I wanted to record an album, but I coudn’t find anybody to work with me in the studios because of fear. This disturbs me. To go on like this you have to be a very self-motivated person. But it hurts too. You really start to think that you want to do something bad. When I was in Baku, I noticed that they tapped my phone. When you are a persona non grata, they will always check you more than others. I started to fear for my family and I was afraid that I would be arrested or killed. So we decided to flee the country.”
How can you continue spreading your message?
“We (me and my wife) are self-motivated persons, and we will go on with our actions to recreate Azerbaijani society and country. We aren’t people to quit. Sociologist and musician Nicklas Wallén from Sweden helped me a lot in Europe. We started to do a project on Swedish and Azeri songs to show that we are the same, we only live under different conditions. We are writing songs for this. Freemuse is also very important to me. I want to give shows all over the world and I will try to take part in all kind of festivals against censorship and for freedom and democracy. To tell that we are not isolated. And of course I communicate through Facebook. I make simple videos on the Internet and it works! The people start to know what I do. This is the role of my life. Fame is not important. This is my goal. I want to have a good country for my daughter. I want to be able to express freely and explain myself. This is why I am out of Azerbaijan.”
Mother clean up my hurt
Your tears like drugs
Mother clean up tears of brothers
That still there
Father hold my hand
Hold it for tomorrow
Trust me now
Let the history happen
This is Baku, where the Eurovision Song Contest will take place…