Khakurinokhabl. Zachir: Circassian Religious Chants

by Ored Recordings

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Although the ethnographic material being presented was re- corded more than a half year ago, the fact that it was difficult to
comment and contemplate on Circassian Zachir as a phenom- enon has not allowed us to make a fully fledged release until
Zachir (also Zikr, Zekr) is a unique genre of spiritual songs
within the Circassian tradition. The term originated from the
Arabic word dikr, meaning remembrance. In our case we deal
with the remembrance of Allah. In the Islamic tradition, there
are two forms of Zachir: silent and loud ones. The silent Zachir
is meant for the remembrance and praise of Allah within the
mind, whereas the loud Zachir is meant for the remembrance
of Allah aloud.
Zachir is also one of the forms of the Sufi spiritual practice
that is followed by processions, song recitation and dance-like
In contrast to the Sufi practice, the Circassian Zachir diverts
from the path of traditional understandings of Zachir. Zachir is
not a ritual but a type of song that resembles, by its function and
content, spiritual songs in the Russian tradition.
According to the folklorists, Zachir emerged as an indepen- dent genre at the turn of the XIX century*. Its textual content
(in Circassian and Arabic languages) is represented by verses
of the Circassian effendis and famous religious leaders. Mostly,
those verses tell about the basic foundations of Islam. Zachirs
devoted to the Prophet Muhammad are also typical.
In the Islamic tradition, glorifying the prophet’s name is called
Salawat. This term came to the Cirassian religious practice as
well, where it is called Shalawat (Circassian: щъэлэуат). Over
time, the folk process has erased the difference between Zachir
and Salawat to a significant extent. The informants commonly
call spiritual songs devoted to the birth, life and death of Muhammad
the prophet’s Zachir (Circassian: Пегъымбарымизэчыр).
In reference to those songs the researchers note an interesting
fact. Having come to the Circassian folk community, the im- age of the prophet Muhammad gained features that epics also
possess: the textual structure and the peculiarities of descrip- tions in Zachir devoted to Him are similar to the texts from Nart
saga. We might conclude that the canonical religious image is
in the process of folk transformation.
Similar to other types of the Circassian folk songs, Zachir is
usually a group performance. In the majority of non-religious
genres, however, the main plotline is sung by a lead singer, with
the background voices performing counterpoint (Circassian:
жъыу) and singing refrains. Zachir is performed in a different
way. All group members sing together in chorus without a coun-
terpoint and traditional Circassian refrains. Yet, one may distinguish
the lead from background voices.
At times in the auls of Adygea, one can see groups of a permanent
composition forming to sing Zachir. Usually the lead
vocal is assigned to a singer who performs most enthusiastically
and confidently. Along with the religious knowledge and
authority of a singer, the qualities of his voice and performance
are taken into account.
Despite the ensemble nature of a band structure, this is not
about a collective of art professionals or any other officially established
musical band. Yet some researchers say that the way
people get together to perform Zachir resembles the way Circassian
musicians – storytellers (Circassian: djeguako) used to
perform to musical accompaniment**. It might be the case that
the way people perform Zachir today stems from more archaic
forms of performance.
Another unique feature of Circassian Zachir is a fusion of
oral and written traditions. As in any other sort of folk music,
informants know Zachir texts by heart. The songs of the secular
genres are always performed from memory while sight-reading
is considered either a diversion from a tradition or a taboo. When
it comes to Zachir though, the case is opposite: the Zachir text
is written in a copybook and is used during each performance.
One of the reasons is the fact that text is rendered a sacral item
that cannot be a subject to improvisation and modification. It
might be due to the influence of Orthodox Islamic culture that
disapproves of any innovation.
The influence of religious dogma and written culture on the
Zachir goes beyond that. The handwritten copybooks also have
sacral meaning. They are kept away from moisture, dust, and
anything that might cause damage to them; they are stored out
of children’s reach. A demonstration of the copybooks to the
faithless is undesirable / unwelcome. The process of performance
itself is sacralized: it might be the case that folk people
have projected some Quran functions to any written artifacts
containing religious texts.
Nevertheless those copybooks also include some texts that
differ from the rest of the material. For instance, some ballads
or verses dedicated to famous Circassian religious leaders are
of that nature. In such a case, the informants say that a song
was included into a copybook due to its vast spiritual potential
relating it to that genre.
As with any aspect of the spiritual culture, Zachirs are often
performed on special occasions. For example, such occasions
include Eid al-Adha and Eid al-Fitr. Zachirs are also performed
during Mawlid – a celebration of the birthday of the Islamic
prophet Muhammad.
Nonetheless, the Muslim holidays are not the only occasion
in which Zachirs are performed. Spiritual songs are sung on occasions
such as childbirth, farewell parties, and in some other
cases as well. Still, time and place for performance is not
strictly determined: Zachirs can be performed with no special
reason. Since those songs possess ethical and spiritual energy
(in accordance with the folk world view), people can get together
and sing these songs without reference to any ritual. Zachirs
are also performed at the request of folklorist; it is sufficient to
express your interest while showing tact.
The gender aspect has a special place within the practice
of Zachir: spiritual songs are performed either by a male
group or by a female group. At the beginning of the 20th century,
Zachir was primarily a male genre. However, the situation has
changed. Nowadays, in Circassia Zachirs are performed pri- marily by women. In Kabardino-Balkaria one can hear Zachirs
in an all-male company as well.
Today the Circassians have an ambivalent attitude toward
Zachir. While the old generation welcomes this tradition, some
young Circassians strongly disapprove of it. Some claim that this
tradition is a diversion from the canon and a disruptive innova- tion. In one way or another, Zachir represents the aspect of Cir- cassian culture that we want to capture and try to understand.
This release is our first experience of working on Zachirs.
Our interest in this genre was triggered by Kazbek Nagorko, who
often collaborates with Ored Recordings. Today he is one of the
most active and distinctive Circassian folk musicians. During
one of our numerous talks, Kazbek suggested that it would be
worth recording Zachirs as well. This is because Zachirs are an
integral part of Circassian culture and have the high artistic value
along with more ancient songs. Simply put, he likes listening
to and singing Zachirs as much as Nart sagas***.
It is rather interesting how the young performer relates to
Circassian spiritual music. In most cases, a person performs
either Zachirs or more authentic folk music which, roughly
speaking, is attributed to secular music today. Kazbek himself
mentioned that he could not find young people who would agree
to perform spiritual music with him. Of course, this is not about
a conflict between religion and ones ethnic identity; however,
one might notice some dissociation between the two spheres.
Kazbek is different in this respect because since his early child- hood, he has been familiar with ancient folklore as well as Zach- irs.
He offered his help with making a trip to one of the Circas- sian Auls where this genre is still alive and actively present. We
chose Khakurinohabl, a Abadzekh Aul (village), where Kazbek
has a warm relationship with performers Sara Seukhova, Galimet
Koboleva, and Zuret Edegova.
Kazbek got familiar with them by accident. Once, having
heard their performance, he approached them and started a
talk about Zachirs. He himself recordered quite a few of their
songs on his iPhone.
Kazbek’s enthusiasm, piety, and unique manner of singing
enabled him to build rapport with the performers of Khakurinohabl.
This, in turn, let the performers to think that recording and
releasing their performances is worth doing.
To avoid recording in the artificial / staged environment, we
decided to set out for an expedition during Ramadan, a sacred
month to all Muslims. At that time of the year, women perform
Zachirs while gathering in the local mosque for the Namaz
prayer. Thanks to that, our presence was more or less unno- ticed.
Usually, we ourselves actively interview the informants, but
this case was different. During this expedition Kazbek Nagorko
played the role of interviewer. First of all, this is because he
understands the object under study better. Secondly, he is a
friend of the performers. This enabled us to avoid hesitation and
achieve the desired atmosphere.
That evening, we managed to record 15 Zachirs. Interestingly
enough, not only did Kazbek interview the informants but he
also had a chance to perform with the group. He sang along
with them and advised them on which Zachir to do. At one point
he was invited to sing to the accompaniment of female voices.
This is an absolutely unique case: the joint performance involv- ing men and women happens quite rarely. Kazbek managed to
gain the performers’ trust, which, in turn, allowed for them to
make an exception. In our opinion, it was not a pre-planned decision;
rather it was a natural result of developing rapport with
the artists.
Currently, it is hard to elaborate on meaning and stylistic
peculiarities of each Zachir recorded. All the recordings are
named according to their titles in the original copybooks from
which Zachirs were sigh-read.

*An interview with Unarokova Raisa Batmirzovna, the head of the
Centre of Circassian Studies at Circassian State University, Doctor of
philology, Professor (18.03.2016, Ored Recordings Archive).


***Pshintal (Circassian пшыналъэ) Epic sagas narrating about
Nart warriors in the form of songs.

Sound: Timur Kodzoko
Sound editing: Timur Kodzoko
Photography: Milana Khatsuk
Cover art: Milana Khalilova
Notes: Bulat Khalilov, Yaroslav Suzdaltsev, Olesya Altynbaeva
Recorded in Khakurinokhabl, Adygea, Russia
5th July 2015


released July 5, 2016



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Ored Recordings Nalchik, Russia

Field recordings of authentic traditional music from Caucasus, Russia and the World

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