Music is the soul of life even in remote places that are often difficult to reach.
Lifting his daf, a traditional Azerbaijani tambourine, to his ear, Mutalim Damirov begins to sing.
As his voice rises to a long ululating lament, Damirov closes his eyes, lost in the ancient poetry that has been sung this way in Azerbaijan for centuries. In the background, two musicians improvise notes on the tar, a long-necked lute, and the kamancha, a four-stringed spiked violin.
They are playing mugham, an ancient form of music unique to Azerbaijan, a mainly Muslim republic wedged between Russia and Iran on the Caspian Sea.
At the crossroads of Europe and Asia, and once a hub of the fabled Silk Road, Azerbaijan has absorbed Arab, Persian and Turkish influences to create mugham, an improvisational style of singing and playing that one of its most revered singers, Alim Qasimov, describes as "food for the soul".
"Mugham is a gift from God," Damirov said during a break from his performance in the Azerbaijani capital Baku. "When I sing mugham, I leave myself. I am not in control, the music is."
Little-known to the outside world and until recently threatened with extinction in Azerbaijan, mugham is enjoying a resurgence as its masters gain recognition abroad and authorities here step up efforts to preserve and teach its complex rules.
"A renaissance in mugham has begun," said Ibrahim Guliyev, the head of the newly built International Mugham Centre on Baku's waterfront.
Practised in Azerbaijan for 1,000 years, mugham is a modal genre of music, where singing and playing are improvised based on seven basic scales, each meant to evoke a certain emotion, and hundreds of variations.
Mugham is often fused with other forms, such as traditional folk songs or classical music, like in the 1908 opera "Layla and Majnun", by Azerbaijan's most famous composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov, which blended traditional European opera with long sections of mugham improvisation.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Azerbaijani musician Vagif Mustafazadeh even experimented with fusing mugham with improvisational jazz, winning widespread international acclaim.
But as Azerbaijan opened up to the outside world in the years before and after it gained independence with the 1991 Soviet collapse, new, modern music took hold and interest in mugham dwindled.
"In the 1980s and 1990s there was a danger that mugham would disappear. But now that danger is gone," Guliyev said.
The turning point came in 2003, when the United Nations cultural organisation UNESCO recognised mugham as part of the world's "intangible cultural heritage", granting the music a similar status to UNESCO's World Heritage sites and leading to an unprecedented preservation campaign.
Efforts culminated this year in the opening of the International Mugham Centre, constructed in the shape of a tar, and the holding of the first International Mugham Festival in March, as part of Baku's year as the Organisation of the Islamic Conference's "Capital of Islamic Culture".
Another festival is planned for 2011 and the centre is hoping to hold them every two years.
As well as hosting performances, the centre will provide stipends to teachers and students of mugham. Because of its improvisational nature, mugham cannot be transcribed in a fixed form and its complex rules and formulas must be passed down from teacher to student.
In November, a government-funded project also saw the release of the first multimedia study of mugham, featuring eight interactive CDs of music, academic studies and history of the style, as well as 33 DVDs of performances.
At the same time, interest in mugham has grown abroad, thanks in large part to Qasimov, the music's informal international ambassador.
Qasimov has performed concerts around the world, both on his own and with renowned international performers, including Yo-Yo Ma's Silk Road Ensemble and with the Kronos Quartet in London.
Speaking to AFP in the classroom where he teaches aspiring musicians at the Baku Academy of Music, Qasimov described mugham as a spiritual experience for both performers and their audience.
"Mugham is food for the soul," he said. "Mugham is the essence of life, though you can't see it or touch it. It is a feeling, like being drunk without drinking, like being taken to another world."
Damirov is among those lucky enough to have studied under Qasimov. He said he was proud to carry on the tradition of mugham and hoped some day to teach it himself.
"I am part of a tradition that has been passed on for generations," he said. "Mugham is part of who we are. It must survive for us to survive as a people."