An Azerbaijani adventure

Oliver Condy reports from the Gabala International Music Festival

Huge excitement here in Gabala - the President of Azerbaijan is rumoured to be making an appearance later at the official opening of the Third Gabala International Music Festival. Usually, Gabala (or Qabala) only makes the news when the Russians and Americans start arguing over the huge missile early-warning radar that I can see sitting on the horizon from my hotel balcony.

It's a curious thing, this opening concert, due to be held outside at the Qafqaz Resort Hotel, a few kilometres from Gabala's centre. The festival, headed up by cellist and conductor Dmitri Yablonsky, has been going on for a week now, with exceptionally fine concerts given mostly by local Azerbaijani heroes with a few foreign celebrity musicians for good measure (violist Yuri Bashmet flies in tonight, with pianist Denis Matsuev arriving on 3 August to play Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto). But then, I imagine that opening any celebration before the head of state arrives might be considered poor form. Especially if the head of state is Ilham Aliyev, the son of Azerbaijan's great hero, Heydar Aliyev, the former KGB strongman who put an end to Azerbaijan's civil war in 1999 and who helped give the country an independent voice. Statues and posters of Heydar can still be seen at almost every street corner, such is the gratitude that the country still feels towards its former leader.

Each and every concert is free: from the chamber music recitals held in the Qafqaz's ballroom, to the larger outdoor events the other side of the hotel complex. Audiences are large, although not all are used to the hushed concert atmosphere we expect back in Europe. Mobile phones and chattering are the norm, although (and I know it sounds odd) one gets used to the hubbub, and barely raises an eyebrow at another ringtone cutting through a sonata movement. Funny how tolerance levels can change so quickly. But, without sounding patronising, they're learning - and their appreciation is certainly not lacking. Last night's aria recital was noticeably quieter than the previous evening's concert of Brahms and Rachmaninov. It's a new phenomenon, the Gabala Festival, and it'll take time to become a natural part of the community's calendar.

Gabala itself is a small town nestled within the lush, tree-covered hills at the foot of the Caucasus mountains, a three-and-a-half hours' drive from the Azerbaijani capital, Baku. It's a place where poverty and oil wealth sit contently side-by-side - cars are either Mercedes or Ladas, the Ladas mostly from the Communist era. Lorries packed to the brim with watermelons can be seen at the side of the road, alongside stalls where women sell jars of cucumbers and brightly coloured red, green and yellow tomatoes.

But Gabala is not just a simple market town. It has a proud history as the most ancient city in Azerbaijan, the capital of what used to be an Albanian territory 2,000 years ago. Ruins of Christian churches can be found just outside Gabala, including the Udin Temple, restored for the Udins, the descendants of the ruling Albanians of which there are apparently only 10,000 alive today. And let's not forget the Beltmann Piano factory, which supplies the Beltmann pianos for the festival. I'm being taken on a guided tour tomorrow afternoon. Wish I'd packed some sheet music.

It's a particular trait of this festival that musical styles from both Western and Eastern cultures are showcased. The term 'East meets West' has been so overused today, that I've banned anyone on the magazine using it. But here it has genuine resonance. Not far from Gabala (an hour or so by Lada), lies the beautiful village of Seki (or Shaki), an important resting place along the ancient Silk Route that was, until a few hundred years ago, a massive network of criss-crossing trading roads connecting Europe, Asia and North Africa. Among Seki's attractions are two caravanserais (the town used to have five) - places where traders could stop off en route to the West, sleep, recuperate and sell their goods. One is still used as a hotel today, and houses a fantastic tea-room.

And so a festival that celebrates both Brahms and traditional Azerbaijani 'Mugham' singing is accurately reflecting the national character. Azerbaijan is neither European, nor Asian, neither fully advanced nor underdeveloped. It is a country of almost unfathomable variety, with resources that range from gold and saffron to oil and the Caspian sturgeon fish. And it plays host to 9 out of the world's 11 climatic systems. If that isn't a licence to mix up the music, I'm damned if I know what is...

Oliver Condy is editor of BBC Music Magazine