Khojaly 25 years on – an evocative musical remembrance in the centre of neutrality

Press Release: Despite being on the eve of Novruz – the favourite family holiday of Azerbaijanis – the month of February is always filled with sorrow in Azerbaijan, and amongst those around the world who support the rule of law and believe in the sanctity of human life. This is because, 25 years ago, that month saw the single worst atrocity of the Armenian–Azerbaijani conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh. The Khojaly massacre took the lives of 613 civilians. The death toll included 106 women, 63 children and 70 elderly people.

The event, held amidst the 17th century surroundings of the Inigo Jones-designed neoclassical surroundings of St. Paul’s Church (the Actors’ Church) in Covent Garden on 24 February, and organised under the auspices of the Justice for Khojaly campaign, commemorated the victims of the Khojaly massacre, which occurred on 26 February 1992. Attended by a capacity audience of around 300 multinational London-based music aficionados, the event was filmed for broadcast by London Live TV, which has an average daily reach of 265,000 viewers across London and the South-East (BARB, 16–22 January 2017). The concert featured some of the most renowned Azerbaijani classical musicians and vocalists living in London.

Throughout this evocative and emotional evening, the overwhelming sense was of loss and the umbilical connection of Khojaly, part of Nagorno-Karabakh, with Azerbaijani music. Many of the greatest Azerbaijani classical composers – all of whom combined the microtones of mugham with western classical music – were born or had familial connections to the region. The father of Fikret Amirov was a khanende (mugham singer) from Shusha, Nagorno-Karabakh, and this was evident in five of his Miniatures, as performed by pianist Gunel Mirzayeva.

Soprano Seljan Nasibli then gave an impassioned rendition of Sevil’s Lament from Amirov’s 1953 operatic masterpiece Sevil, her haunting voice sending chills down the collective spines of the attentive and silent audience members.

Both pianist Ayyan Salahova and cellist Jamal Aliyev performed popular and contemplative works by Chopin and Rachmaninoff, and the concert concluded with Pierre Thilloy’s Khojaly 613, a tone poem representing the horrors of that fateful night. This harnessed the power of violin, clarinet and string quartet to evoke the sounds of marching, screams and machine-gun fire, incorporating folk music themes to devastating effect, featuring Azerbaijani violinist Nazrin Rashidova, Latvian clarinettist Anna Gagane and the French chamber music ensemble Quatuor Chagall.

One unforgettable moment saw the ancient church bell chime during the violin solo, and for a second this was transformed into a death knell. As the music ebbed away, clarinettist Anna stood at the back of the church, providing the audience with an aural experience that was both moving and mesmerising. All audience members were given a CD of this outstanding contemporary work.

Lionel Zetter, Director, TEAS, commented: “This event tonight is designed to help us remember that man can be inhumane, and that war has terrible consequences – particularly for the civilians swept up in it. It is also designed to highlight the fact that the perpetrators of the massacre at Khojaly and in other places in the region are known.

“Justice demands that the four UN Security Council resolutions instructing Armenia to withdraw its occupying forces should be implemented. Justice also demands that Armenia should be sanctioned for defying these resolutions, and for its occupation of its neighbour’s territory.

“So please believe me ladies and gentlemen, there will be justice for Khojaly, in this life or the next.”

Armenia continues to occupy Nagorno-Karabakh and seven surrounding regions to this day. Currently nearly 20 per cent of Azerbaijani territory remains occupied, and approximately one million refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) are spread across Azerbaijan. The evening was dedicated to the memory of the Khojaly victims and those Azerbaijanis who have only one wish – to return to their homes and lands.