THE WORLD FAMOUS MUGHAM PERFORMER WITH A CRYSTAL CLEAR VOICE, UNESCO PRIZE WINNER, AND PEOPLE’S ARTIST OF AZERBAIJAN, ALIM GASIMOV, WENT FROM REJECTION OF HIS MUSICAL EXPERIMENTS TO THE UNIVERSAL HOMAGE. IN AN INTERVIEW FOR THE AZERI OBSERVER HE TALKS ABOUT HIS PROFESSIONAL PATH, UNIQUE PERFORMANCE STYLE, DUETS WITH FOREIGN STARS AND EXPLAINS WHAT SIMILARITIES MUGHAM HAS WITH MEDITATION.
BY ZAKHRA BADALBAYLI
AZERI OBSERVER CONTRIBUTOR
Question: Could you tell us about your childhood?
Answer: I spent my childhood in different villages and settlements near the city of Shamakhi. Looking for suitable jobs, my parents moved frequently, settling in places where they could earn money. Living in poverty, we had a difficult life and I was often sick. Meanwhile, I remember how I climbed a large mulberry tree, dreaming and singing on its branches.
Q.: It shows that your passion for music emerged in early childhood. Who do you adopt it from?
A.: In our home, the day started at 5.00-6.00 a.m. My parents, while getting ready for work, turned on the radio, charging the air with energetic music. So, every day I was woken by the radio, which filled me with ashiq music, always putting me in a good mood (Ed. note: Ashiq is a singer-poet who accompanies his songs with a musical instrument). When I was a child, I even made a two-string saz with my own hands (Ed. note: Saz is a stringed musical instrument, popular in Azerbaijan). My father loves music and has a very good voice, and my late mother was quite a musical and buoyant person. Apparently, I inherited it in the genes.
Q.: Does it mean that you wanted to become a khanende (Ed. note: singer of mugham, an Azerbaijani folk music genre) since childhood?
A.: When I was a child, I never really gave much thought about any future profession, though many people said that I would become a singer. However, I believed that not every person with a good voice should necessarily become a professional performer. I can say that I came into this profession out of despair. I tried to start my professional path before military service, but succeeded only after it.
Q.: Did you move to Baku looking for an opportunity to become a professional performer?
A.: Fate is a strange thing. I was very young when I got married. Most likely it happened because of the lack of any big life plans (laughs). I started a family with no money or work. Apparently, that was my path predetermined by God. Looking back at the way my parents, and then myself, started our own families, I understand that we followed the paths determined by Heaven. I realized that it would be difficult for me to integrate into the musical environment of the city and enter a good music school. However, my relatives knew Siyavush Aslan (late Azerbaijani prominent cinema and theatrical actor), and asked him to set up my admittance exam at the Music School, named after Asaf Zeynally (Ed. note: now the Music College). He called the school director, composer, Vasif Adigozalov, who allowed me to audition, where I achieved an ‘A’. It made me incredibly happy and elated.
Q.: Despite your classical education, your work does not have any boundaries, creating your own innovative direction.
A: If I had not gotten into this kind of environment and “stewed” in this society, I would not have been able to develop. I would have continued singing meykhana (Ed. note: a distinctive Azerbaijani literary and folk rap song) in the streets, as I had done in childhood. The music school taught me the skills, the art of performance, the rules of mugham, which I learned in detail. They sent me to different contests where I always scored highly. Performing at various events and celebrations, I had an opportunity to communicate and create music, together with the greatest professional musicians of the time. Not every creative person has such good luck!
Q.: Undoubtedly, it was a very important basis for the start of your professional journey, but then your career continued to be a success…
A.: Once at a concert backstage, Vasif Adigozalov, told Siyavush Aslan in jest, “Do you see how I promote your relative in concerts and contests?” and his immediate reply was: “If he wasn’t talented, you wouldn’t be able to promote him anywhere!” I understood my full responsibility for the gift I received from the Lord.
Q.: Your performance style is so unique. One can even say that you have a revolutionary approach. How did you manage to go so far beyond the general norms of performance?
A.: The development of mugam as well as my personal life, all led to these changes. It was in some extent, the demands of our time. Now mugham seems younger. Many young performers, young musicians – tar and kamancha players – appeared, bringing a new breath and destroying the stereotypes that both performers and musicians must be elderly people (Ed. note: Tar and kamancha are string musical instruments, popular in Azerbaijan). That is the reason why young people began to listen to mugham. A part of the audience who preferred pop and jazz started listening to me too, since I began to perform songs; Russian people even stopped me in the street, thanking me for my work. People would kiss my hands after concerts abroad, precisely because there are no boundaries in the music. I didn’t plan to make a revolution in this genre, it happened by itself through the development of my creativity in a natural way.
Q.: How do you prepare for concerts? Do you plan your program in advance, or choose pieces spontaneously?
A.: A concert performance is very important. Of course, we decide on the frame and sequence of the pieces and rehearse a certain program with musicians in advance. You should be 120 percent ready to give at least 80 percent at a concert (laughs). It is possible to improvise with one piece, but not with the whole program. Concerts last over an hour, and the audience should not get tired. Drawing up a concert program, taking the psychology of the audience into consideration, is a great deal of work.
Q.: Many spectators, including myself, note that your performance helps them move into another reality, much like meditation. How does this happen?
A.: I have received such feedback from my listeners. Moreover, I will tell you that after about a 15-20-minute performance, I am carried away into another dimension also. Most likely it is similar to the feelings dervishes have while doing their rituals, called to transfer them to another reality closer to the Almighty (Ed. note: Dervishes are members of a Sufi fraternity in Islam. The whirling dance, which is a part of the dervishes’ religious ceremony is quite well known in the West). In some countries, people even tell me that they don’t want to call me a singer, and call me a dervish instead. This is how they see and perceive me. I don’t call myself a dervish, but I feel that mugham does something inexplicable not only to the audience, but also to myself, filling me with blissfulness.
Q.: You often perform in duets with other world stars. Which partner do you remember the most and who of them was the closest one to your work?
A.: I believe that the duet with my daughter, Fargana is the most organic. It’s not even a duet, I would rather call such a performance “a team of two horses.” We understand each other perfectly, with half a sound, like tar and kamancha musical instruments. It was not an easy process, but we came to a complete mutual understanding. Even if we perform a new ghazal (Ed. note: a form of poem or ode in the East), it seems from the outside as if we have been rehearsing day and night. We catch each other on the fly. I would also like to mention our project with the famous American cellist of Chinese origin, Yo-YoMa. We crossed all the states of the US together, performing in respectable halls and stages, where Azerbaijani music had never been presented before. Moreover, I had many interesting performances with the American Kronos Quartet in many countries. In total, there were many duets. However, these are especially important for us, because they allowed Azerbaijani music to open up new borders and be heard by the audiences who had listened only to classical music, symphonies and operas for most of their lives. It became possible thanks to the Silk Road project among others. One of the most outstanding projects was a Leyli and Majnun play, which we performed together with the American Mark Morris Dance Group – we sang and they danced. With this play we also toured around all the US. I consider it a great achievement, since people in the West – even those who heard our music for the first time – were amazed and delighted.
Q.: People call you a living legend. How do you see the future of mugham? How will it develop in Azerbaijan?
A.: Not everyone treats mugham the way we do and feels the music with such heart. People often assess performers only by their appearance. I really hope that the way performers become famous and invited to television and radio will change a little, and more attention will be paid to their talent and skill. In general, the way of a Master is long and difficult. It takes years to fathom the philosophy of mugam and perform it, reaching down to the depths of your soul. I hope that the system will improve in the near future, and all the gaps will be filled. I am sure that with the support and direct input of Mehriban Aliyeva (Ed. note: the First Vice President of Azerbaijan), Azerbaijan’s mugham art will enjoy even greater prosperity.