I happened to see them because my father used to take me as a child to the contests where these poet ashokhs, coming from various countries, such as Persia, Turkey, the Caucasus and even parts of Turkestan, competed before a great throng of people in improvising and singing.
This usually proceeded in the following way:
One of the participants in the contest, chosen by lot, would begin, in singing an improvised melody, to put to his partner some question on religious or philosophical theme, the meaning and origin of some well-known legend, tradition or belief, and the other would reply, also in song, and in his own improvised subjective melody; and these improvised subjective melodies, moreover, had always to correspond in their tonality to the previously produced consonances as well as to what is called by real musical science the ‘ansapalnianly flowing echo’.
All this was sung in verse, chiefly in Turko-Tartar, which was then the accepted common language of the peoples of these localities, who spoke different dialects.
These contests would last weeks and sometimes even months, and would conclude with the award of prizes and presents provided by the audience and usually consisting of cattle, rugs and so on—to those singers to who, according to the general verdict, had most distinguished themselves.
I witnessed three such contests, the first of which took place in Turkey the town of Van, the second in Azerbaijan in the town of Karabakh, and the third in the small town of Subatan in the region of Kars.
In Alexandropol and Kars, the towns where my family lived during my childhood, my father was often invited to evening gatherings to which many people who knew him came in order to hear his stories and songs.
At these gatherings he would recite one of the many legends or poems he knew, according to the choice of those present, or he would render in song the dialogues between the different characters.