Music: a Tool for Intercultural Dialogue – Interview with Azerbaijani Musician Sabina Rakcheyeva


Sabina Rakcheyeva is not only an accomplished violinist with an impressive performing and educational background, she is also bringing her experience as a musician to studying and advocating for cultural diplomacy as a Member of the European Cultural Parliament and a cultural advisor at the European Azerbaijan Society. Sabina, who graduated from the prestigious Juilliard School in New York, is a recipient of several awards and has performed with renowned musicians in many countries. She is now completing her Ph.D. in cultural diplomacy at the School of Oriental and African Studies of the University of London. Her website is where you can read more about her work both as a musician and a cultural diplomacy advocate.

With Caucasus Edition she talks about her work and her views on how music can play a role in conflict resolution and peace building.


Can you tell us a little bit about your work as a musician and your studies in cultural diplomacy? How did these two things come together for you?

 I have been playing violin since I was seven, so pretty much all my life. Although I decided to become a professional musician at the age of 13, which meant long hours practicing and a somewhat specialized education, I have always felt an urge and interest in the world beyond music. My very intense and active career as a musician as well as the opportunities that opened up after the collapse of the Soviet Union, brought me to the famous Juilliard School in New York as well as to numerous music engagements in over forty countries around the world. When representing my country at various high profile political and social events, I started to realize that being an artist positions you quite differently within society and if used correctly, enables you to influence the course of events. That prompted me to regard music differently than simply an act of artistic performance. I believe that the experience, as well as my natural curiosity of how and whether it may work, resulted in my interest in the field of cultural diplomacy, and I am about to complete my Ph.D. I explore cultural diplomacy through music as a “soft power” and intercultural dialogue within our current globalization era. I look at how musical collaboration as a tool of public engagement can contribute to understanding, and present proposals for improving the effectiveness of current practices.

Your music involves a lot of improvisation and combining various musical and cultural traditions. How does this connect to your research?

 Although my background is classical music, I have a strong interest in music improvisation and have been performing improvised music extensively over the last few years. In my research, I investigate aspects of improvisation in recent musical practice, juxtaposing this onto my own performance experience. I elaborate, in particular, on how improvisation encapsulates processes of imagination, creation, and collaboration, and to do so I work with specific musicians from different cultural backgrounds. The challenge of disclosing the nature of improvisation in academic terms is not simply a matter of communication but also involves reflections on personal emotional understanding and experience. For this project, I established ensembles to develop and explore ideas that were influenced by Azerbaijani and Arabic music as well as by jazz and Western classical traditions. The primary intention was to seek ways to translate cultural traditions in performance as a form of cultural diplomacy, and the result was my album UnVeiled which, now released, forms part of my performance-based project.


What is your experience in cultural diplomacy projects between Armenia and Azerbaijan? Do you think art, music and musicians can play a role in contributing to improvement of relations between the two countries?

 Applying music in conflict resolution has been done several times over the last few decades (orchestra exchanges between the US and the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Divan East–West project founded by Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim, a recent visit of the New York Philharmonic to North Korea, just to name a few).

Although I have never directly participated in the collaborative music project between Azerbaijan and Armenia, I have taken part in the world youth orchestras or chamber music festivals where there were musicians from Armenia, among others. What gave me a positive outlook to the role of music in conflict resolution was that during those sessions, we were united by the common idea – not a political agenda, but rather a cultural, musical idiom, and therefore, the general atmosphere was professional, respectful and friendly. It is a known fact that music and culture have the ability to break down barriers, and we musicians, in a way, are responsible for creating those bridges, which eventually may assist conflict resolution and peace building processes. I strongly believe that initiating and supporting cultural and musical projects between conflicting sides (like Azerbaijan and Armenia) will eventually be of benefit to both countries and especially to a young generation born after the conflict begun. Some have been exposed to a very vague and one-sided perception of its history.

I trust that music has an ability to communicate, regardless of the type of music performance and the performers. Thus, it can certainly literally ‘play’ an active and important role in peace building activities between countries like Azerbaijan and Armenia. A very good example – when political and economic relations are frozen, it seems that only the arts and culture are in a position to interact. Moreover, as culture is non-confrontational, often it is the only way to bring two opposite sides together – while listening to a performance. Cultural diplomacy, in fact, offers us the ability to listen to the other side rather than talk, which becomes a key to successful conflict resolution measures.


What kind of projects involving music and musicians would you like to see happening between Azerbaijan and Armenia?

 Unlike the political discourse, over the last few years there have been some successful attempts to bring artists and intellectuals together from both sides. The more that projects like music collaborations, festivals, non-political discussions and art exhibitions take place, the greater the understanding and tolerance will be between the nations. Those successful collaborative projects prove once again the importance of implementing a soft power as opposed to applying the hard power. History has proven that isolation and lack of dialogue neither resolves conflict nor brings peace, confirming the words of the great Mahatma Gandhi who said that “no culture can live if it attempts to be exclusive.”

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