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Alim and Fargana Qasimov: Spiritual Music of Azerbaijan

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From the liner notes of Music of Central Asia, Vol. 6
Alim and Fargana Qasimov: Spiritual Music of Azerbaijan
Smithsonian Folkways Recordings

Alim Qasimov (b. 1957) and his daughter, Fargana(b. 1979) exemplify the explosive artistic energy that results when a powerful musical model ignites the spark of young talent. “To be a musician, there has to be a fire burning in you,” explained the elder Qasimov. “It’s either there or it isn’t. I’m convinced that if young people have this spark – call it inspiration, call it spiritual fire – they can perform any kind of music. It could be pop, folk, or classical, but whatever it is, they’ll stand out.”

Alim Qasimov’sauthority on matters of artistic creativity derives from his position as one of Azerbaijan’s most beloved musicians. A walk with Qasimov down any street in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital city, confirms his renown. Greeting well-wishers, shaking hands, and making small talk, he is ever polite and humble. It is when Qasimov is singing that the inner fire burns brightest.

Fargana Qasimova’s talent gravitated naturally toward the music she heard from her father: Azerbaijani classical music, known as mugham, and the repertory of popular bardic songs sung by ashugs -- singer-songwriters who accompany themselves on the saz, a strummed long-necked lute. “There was never any question about my being given to a teacher,” Farganarecalled. “Music was always just a part of everyday life – I sang with my father for fun, and it was only when I was around seventeen years old that I seriously understood that I’d be a musician.”
The joyful spirit of Alim and Fargana Qasimov’s homespun music-making has left its mark on the very form of that music – in particular, on the exquisitely disciplined balance between memorization and extemporization that is an essential part of the art of mugham. Like other kindred traditions of urban court or classical music that span the core Muslim world from Casablanca, Morocco to Kashgar, in western China, mughamis rooted in a system of melodic modes and motifs that provide a framework for both improvised performances and fixed compositions. Following a conventional order, skilled performers sequence pieces in different melodic modes into a suite that may last anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours. Throughout a mugham suite, pieces that blend memorized and extemporized elements alternate with short dance-like compositions (reng).

Mugham may be performed in a purely instrumental form, most commonly on the tar (long-necked lute) or kamancha(spike fiddle), but the performance medium most favored among Azerbaijanis is the voice. Vocalists typically perform the lead role in a trio that also includes tar and kamancha as well as a frame drum (daf) played by the vocalist. This trio style of performance provided the starting point for Alim Qasimov’s innovative treatment of mugham.

“We never put before ourselves the aim of singing mugham in the form of a duet or carrying out any kind of reform,” said Alim Qasimov of the sinuous vocal arrangements he performs with Fargana. “Rather, what we do appearedspontaneously in the process of rehearsing. We liked it, and we started to practice it. Nowadays, mugham is always performed by a single vocalist, but there used to be a way of performing where one singer would begin a phrase and another singer would finish it, and they’d alternate like that through a whole piece. We do the same thing: I begin a line, and Farganacontinues it, and the effect is as if one person is singing. In places our voices overlap, so there’s a kind of polyphony. I can’t explain why it turned out that way – perhaps because Farganais my daughter and we live in the same house. But I think it’s that spiritually we’re very close. We understand each other in an inner sense, and this is how our understanding is expressed. It all comes from singing together, and it’s spontaneous. We can do it one way in a rehearsal and then in a concert, it will turn out completely differently.

“When I started performing with Fargana, there was no small amount of criticism,” Alim Qasimovadded, “but now there’s less and less. People have started to accept our ‘experiment’ because they feel that it’s sincere, and that it’s our spiritual discovery. In fact, it’s not an experiment. The way I sing and the way I improvise represents my soul at that moment.” Qasimov, speaking in Azerbaijani, clarified: “It represents my hal: the state of my soul.”

The term hal, an Arabic word that is also commonly used in Persian and in Turkic languages, has strong associations with Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam. For Sufis, hal is a state of spiritual awakening that creates an opennessto the mystical presence of the Divine. Qasimov, translating halinto the language of art, defines it as “inspiration.” “It’s not something you can pull out of your pocket,” he emphasized. “I can’t command myself to get inspired at a particular moment and perform something. Moreover, you have to transform the musicians you’re playing with so that they can share that inspiration, and then give it to the audience. When I meet with the musicians in my ensemble, it’s almost like a gathering of dervishes. There’s an atmosphere that starts to nourish us that comes from beyond our own will, and that’s the source of the unpredictability in our music. It’s almost a feeling of ecstasy that leads to some kind of meditation. There isn’t any point in performing mugham without hal.”

The musicians in Alim Qasimov’s ensemble include not only performers on the tar and kamancha, as in a conventional mugham trio, but also on the oboe-like balaban, on a variety of hand drums, and at times, on the ‘ud. The expanded ensemble is also an example of Qasimov’s search for the fullest expression of mugham’srange of moods and emotions. “If it were up to me, I’d invite not four or five musicians, but an entire chamber ensemble, and I’d create wonderful compositions for them that would be performed in the world’s most prestigious concert halls,” Qasimovsaid. “ I observed that in Turkey and Iran, they have ensembles with violins, cellos, flutes – real orchestras that aren’t restricted to just the loalinstruments. I can only imagine what you could do with our mughamif you had those instruments. But since I don’t work with musical notation, it’s hard for me to do arranging, and performing with a large ensemble has remained only a dream.”

“Mugham is an elite art,” Alim Qasimovconcluded. “It’s for a select group – for people who have some kind of inner spirituality, who have their own inner world. These days ‘elite’ refers to something more commercial than spiritual – for example, to the kind of people who can buy a new car every year. But that’s not what I have in mind. An elite person is one who knows how to experience, how to endure, how to feel, how to listen to mughamand begin to cry. This ability doesn’t depend on educationor upbringing, nor on one’s roots. It’s something else. It’s an elite of feeling, an elite of inspiration. These kinds of listeners aren’t always available. I can’t speak about the distant past, but it’s clear that mughamhasn’t developed in a straight line. There were lapses and dips and ascents, and surely it will always be like that. I can’t say whether we’re in a dip or an ascent – it’s not for me to judge, but I think there will always be an attraction to this music until the end of humanity.”