International Centre for Circassian Studies (ICCS)
The Circassian Minstrels
Speaking about Circassian song and poetry, it is impossible not to mention their versifiers and balladeers. In the old days, musical traditions were upheld by a professional class of roving minstrels whose members were collectively and singly known as джэгуакIуэ; jegwak’we, or players. Some of the more accomplished of these were lured by, and became attached to the aristocratic classes. In origin, the bards were usually commoners, and they did not receive any special education or training, relying on their inborn talents. They engaged exclusively in the art of poetry and song. These bards singly or in bands roamed the land; their instruments affording them not only safe conduct, but also rapturous welcome. They performed songs and recited heroic poems at festivals and for the pleasure of the upper classes, which received them in their exclusive guesthouses.
Their exquisite music talents and social skills afforded them to play the role of masters of ceremonies (хьэтиякIуэ; hetiyyak’we) at dance parties and their entrancing eloquence made them premium toastmasters at banquets and festivals. They were improvisators par excellence, delighting (or slighting) in airing satirical songs extempore. They also played the jesters, donning the cap and bells in settings of lighter nature. They composed songs commemorating sanguinary events, national and glorious deeds and feats of distinction in battle, composed biographies of celebrated men and sang ancient songs, including gems from the Nart Epos. They also took part in military campaigns, singing war chants that instilled courage and fortitude in the warriors. These minstrels found in this occupation not only subsistence but also wealth. Every prince retained a few of these singers in his court, bestowing opulent gifts upon them. Apart from their high status as entertainers, they composed songs in praise of their patron. A potentate had high stakes riding on keeping his bards happy to escape their virulent tongues, which could perpetuate airs of malediction for ages—a sound case of the tongue being sharper than the sword. (An old saying goes, ‘Weredwis — pschi pse’wx’ [«Уэрэдус — пщы псэIух»], ‘The songwriter is the terror of the prince.’) Of his oratorial powers, a great bard once boasted: ‘With but one word, I could turn a coward into the brave protector of the homeland; I could cause eagle’s wings to grow on the brave and compel the thief to abandon his wicked ways. In my presence, the wicked dare not stand, for I am the mortal enemy of dishonesty and meanness…’ («Сэ къэрабгъэр зы псалъэкIэ хахуэ, Хэкум и хъумакIуэ сощIыф, лIыхъужьым бгъэм и дамэ къытызогъакIэ, дыгъум и хьэлыр зыхызогъэн. Си пащхьэ къиувэфынукъым цIыху бзаджэр, сэ цIыхугъэншагъэм, икIагъэм срабийщ...») In general, oratory (particularly the delivery of toasts) had a great effect on the Circassians, who would become literally spellbound and mesmerized by the invocation of the magic words. When a folk poet composed a song and it was approved for release, singers from neighbouring regions were summoned to listen to the song for as many times as it took for all the audience to learn it by heart.
The members of this class composed songs commemorating sanguinary events, national and glorious deeds and feats of distinction in battle, composed biographies of celebrated men and sang ancient songs. They also took part in military campaigns, singing war chants that instilled courage and fortitude in the warriors. In describing the battle to take the Khazar City of Sarkala ( Sarkel) on the Don, a poet recounted:
The singer kept chanting atop his white steed,
And the horn blowers filled the air with blood-curdling screeches.
Our heroes, animated, performed feats of glory,
And the flames of war engulfed the lands beyond the Azov.
They were in many respects not very unlike the bards and minstrels of the Franks and Celts. In this manner, these singers preserved the exploits of the ancestors, by transmitting them to their progeny. They also kept in memory much of the national lore, history, and literature.
When a folk poet composed a song and it was approved for release, singers from neighbouring regions were summoned to listen to the song for as many times as it took for all the audience to learn it by heart. Then these went back to their villages and sang it, thus spreading it by word of mouth (A. Keshokov, 1981, p15). In the nearer past, these musicians included violin-players, poets and singers. According to Askerbi Shorten ( Shortanov; b. 1916), these ‘players’ were the voices of the masses, singing for freedom and the downfall of tyranny—a repetitive Soviet theme that was taken to the realm of the ridiculous and beyond.
The ‘ancient bards’ survived well into the 20th century, roaming the land and delivering their wares to enchanted listeners. Among them were Lashe Aghnoqwe (1851-1918) from the village of Doqwschiqwey in Kabarda ; As-hed Schojen, a Kabardian player of the harp (pshinediqwaqwe); Sehiyd Mizhey (1850-1949); Muse Mizhey (1894-?); As-hed Hex’wpasch’e from the village of Qex’wn in Kabarda; Mirzebech Werdoqwe (1884-?) from the village of Hebez in present-day Karachai-Cherkessia, a famous singer of Nart songs in his time; and Yelmirze Schawezch (1882-1979) from Anzorey in Kabarda, who played ancient Nart anthems on his shich’epshine.
In the diaspora, the minstrels' traditions were continued for decades after the Great Exodus in the middle of the 19th century. For example, in Jerash, a village that the Circassians re-established following their arrival in Jordan in 1878, bards kept appearing in the first half of the 20th century. Fortunately, it was possible to record some of the literary ware of the 20th-century minstrel X'wazch Mastafa (Хъуажь Мэстафэ), who was born in the second decade of the 20th century in Jerash. These audio recordings (some of which are available on this website) should cast some light on the art and craft of the Circassian bards.