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The Justice (March 2 , 2010)

Azerbaijani spiritual singers visit campus

by Sarah Bayer

The tiny nation of Azerbaijan doesn't often figure into class discussions or current events, and most Brandeis students probably couldn't find it on a map. But thanks to a residency this week by world-renowned musicians Alim and Fargana Qasimov, the rich traditions of this far-off country will be brought into focus this week as students from many different disciplines come together for a unique cultural encounter.

The Qasimovs are talented singers whose lyrics carry spiritual elements often influenced by the mystical poetry of Sufi Islam. Through the residency, audience members will encounter a number of instruments that may be new to them, such as an ancestor of the violin known as the kamancha that's common in Iran, central Asia and the Caucasus region, and a Turkish double-sided frame drum called the nagura. The father-daughter pair plays a type of Islamic chamber music known as mugam as well as troubadour songs native to Azerbaijan, embodying the confluence of traditions that results from the country's location on the boundary between Eastern Europe and Western Asia.

According to Prof. Theodore Levin of Dartmouth College, curator of the residency, the Qasimovs' collaboration is unlike any other. "He was a mentor for her and she's sung with him ever since she was small," Levin says. "Women have performed mugam ever since the Soviet era when under Soviet cultural policies women were given a much more visible role in performance arts, but they mostly performed as solo singers. This father-daughter duo is unique and it's quite spectacular."

Levin characterizes the partnership as "sort of like someone speaking and someone else finishing their sentences. … He sings a half a line and she completes it. That's only possible in a relationship where you can really work together a lot and where you're spiritually close."

Levin, who describes himself as "a friend, a fan and a supporter" of Alim Qasimov, first brought the singer to the United States in 1988 to perform at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, D.C. Since then, the Qasimovs have been in high demand to perform internationally, he says. After their residency is over they will continue to New York City to perform at Carnegie Hall in a concert with the Kronos Quartet, an acclaimed contemporary music ensemble.

evin curated the residency through his job as a senior project consultant with the Aga Khan Music Initiative in Central Asia, an agency of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture that co-sponsored the MusicUnitesUS residency along with the Music department, headed by Prof. Judith Eissenberg (MUS).

"One of the things I love doing as director of [MusicUnitesUS] is imagining how the music that comes from diverse traditions around the world will inspire and be inspired by conversations on our campus," wrote Eissenberg in an e-mail to the Justice. She expressed particular excitement about the wide variety of disciplines that will participate in the residency events, including the Anthropology, Women's and Gender Studies, English and American Literature, Fine Arts and Theater Arts departments.

Levin, too, feels that the Qasimovs' music is relevant to a variety of academic pursuits. Referring specifically to students in the Fine Arts department, he said, "This music is all about the intricacy of drawing lines, whether it's through sound or with a paintbrush."

"I have heard these artists' music before, and I know that I will be taken for a musical and spiritual journey that I will remember for a long, long time," said Eissenberg.

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