by Dilshad Aliyarli
When renowned Azerbaijani pianist Chingiz Sadykhov, now domiciled in the USA, celebrated his 80th birthday last year, he was not short of well-wishers, some of them quite illustrious. Representatives of the Azerbaijani Diaspora, as well as other music lovers throughout the United States, congratulated the musician and Speaker of the House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi joined them. "No doubt you are a great source of pride to the people of Azerbaijan, but also much beloved by music lovers worldwide. We are proud in San Francisco to be your home city, as we pride ourselves on being a center for culture and the arts" says her letter. A Certificate of Special Congressional Recognition was also presented to the maestro.
Chingiz Sadykhov graduated from the Bulbul Musical School in Baku and the Azerbaijani State Conservatoire. He continued his studies for a Ph.D. degree at the Tchaikovsky Conservatoire in Moscow, under Professor Goldenveyser. He then returned to Baku where he lived until 1994 before emigrating, to the USA. He has spent much of his career accompanying Azerbaijan´s most prominent singers, including Bulbul, who founded Azerbaijan´s professional vocal school, Rashid Behbudov, the most internationally known singer of the Soviet period, and Muslim Magomayev, one of the best-known Soviet-era pop stars. Asked how many songs he has in his repertoire, Chingiz muellim (muellim - an honorific meaning professor or doctor) admits that he wouldn´t know where to start counting.
When planning a visit last year to San Francisco, I was determined to meet Chingiz Sadykhov. I had seen him on various previous occasions, but never talked to him. I called him from my hotel room and requested an interview. When he asked me what the occasion was, I didn´t know quite what to say. I just wanted to meet him informally, without official people or speeches. But he kindly agreed to see this uninvited quest from the East coast, saying: "Then let´s meet. At our place."
As I rode in the taxi, I went over my notes, trying to formulate questions. But when Chingiz muellim opened the door and invited me into his apartment, my questions and notes disappeared. The table was set just as in Baku, with chocolate, fruits and homemade jam. That is something you miss in America – a fully equipped tea table for your quests. I soon felt quite at ease and we started to talk like friends of many years.
D.A. Chingiz muellim how are you, are you happy living in San Francisco?
Ch.S. I am very well, and very happy. My daughters and grandchildren are close by. I have four grandchildren. My two daughters are musicians. We get together every week. They live very close by, in San Jose. We decided when you get older it is important to be near your family. The youngsters have their business, Ceyran and I have our own activities, so we don´t bother each other. I moved here 15 years ago and I am still here.
D.A. Yes, Chingiz muellim, why here? What attracted you to this place?
Ch.S. It’s a long story. We had American friends. We met in Moscow, became friends and they invited us to San Francisco. We stayed here for three weeks, walking in the city a lot. When we came here from Baku we stayed at their place again. I was waiting for a Green Card. The U.S. admitted me with special immigration status, based on my academic and musical achievements. That´s why I was able to invite my older daughter here with her family. My younger daughter also moved here with her family. So the whole family wound up here.
D.A. Chingiz muellim, how about you? Can you submerge yourself in music?
Ch.S. Absolutely. I have concerts here; people invite me to give concerts. I have given concerts in more than 40 cities in America. I was invited to Canada. Mostly it is the Azerbaijani Diaspora that invites me. But Americans also like to listen to our music, and I have played for American audiences. You know that I don´t play the piano like the kamancha, or tar. I keep the melody, but change the accompanying part, bringing it closer to modern melodies. And when Americans or other people listen to it, they recognize the tune and like it. They don´t think of Azerbaijani music as ethnic music; they accept it as a form of modern music. Once I saw an American woman crying during my performance. I asked her what had happened. She answered: "I love music and have listened to many different genres. But I have never heard anything like your music, which touches people’s hearts." I think that Azerbaijani music by its very nature comes from the heart.
D.A. Chingiz muellim, do you keep up your Azerbaijani contacts?
Ch.S. I have visited Baku six times during the 15 years I have lived in San Francisco. I have performed three concert programmes at the Baku Philharmonia. They were huge concerts. People don’t forget me in Baku, they still remember me. They love me there. The President awarded me a presidential pension. Then, when he learned that I didn´t have a house in Baku, he gave me one.
I started to look at the pictures on the wall. One of them showed Chingiz Sadykhov in concert with Muslim Magomayev. "Probably in Russia", I thought. Chingiz muellim noticed my interest and started to explain. "I performed everywhere with Muslim. This is a picture from a concert in Russia. We just looked at each other on stage and then I started to play and he started to sing. We worked together for such a long time, that one glance was enough to cue each other. That was a great time!"
D.A. You have spent your life among the most prominent Azerbaijani musicians. When you go back and think about those years and people, what do you recall? What do you feel?
Ch.S. I remember everything and everybody. There isn’t a single singer who didn´t work with me, from Bulbul to very young singers. But there is one thing I always remember. At that time I was an artistic director for Azgoskonsert. Once the Minister of Culture called and said: "Heydar Aliyevich will have guests tonight. We should organize a good concert programme. I said ok. We also called Akif Islamzade. I really liked how he sang. He was singing with the folk music orchestra then. Suddenly he asked me if I could accompany him during the concert. I said ‘No, because you sing mugham and I do not play mugham.’ He told me that he was going to sing two folk songs: Sari Gelin and Aman Ovcu. "Just these two songs" he added. I tried to ask why, but he said he would tell me later. So I accompanied him on the piano. Heydar Aliyevich liked it very much; he invited Akif over and shook his hand. The concert was over and we took the bus home. Then I asked Akif "Could you tell me what was the secret behind your request? Why did you want me to accompany you? “He answered "You know Chingiz muellim, every singer in Azerbaijan has worked with you and then gone on to the big stage. So I also decided to seize this chance and become a famous singer."
Telling me this story Chingiz muellim laughed a lot and then continued.
D.A. Chingiz muellim, that means you welcome improvisation.
Ch.S. Not just welcome, my music life is all about improvisation. If I record something for radio or TV, I only do one take. Otherwise I would change it, because I would play something different on the second take.
D.A. What do you think about improvisation in our ethnic music traditions like mugham? Many people don’t get it, they reject it. What is your opinion?
Ch.S. I do not play mugham. I am familiar theoretically with mugham, because I was trained as a professional musician. I first graduated from the Conservatoire in Baku, and then I was in Moscow and took instruction from the great Goldenveyser. So, as a professional musician I know mugham and its components. But I can´t play mugham at a professional level. When I do play it, I usually add some improvisation.
D.A. Chingiz muellim, what is the most important thing in your life?
Ch.S. My family and my music. You know what? There are many important things in life. Friendship and being honest are important, kindness, all of them are important. You should be a good friend in your relations, you shouldn´t lie, but most important are those closest to you and also, for me, my piano.
At this point I was looking at the black piano against the wall. Chingiz muellim was following me and answered my unspoken question: "Do you play every day?” If his neighbours can hear him, they are lucky indeed.
Ch.S. Frankly speaking, I don’t play the piano you are looking at for months at a stretch. But if I am in a very bad mood, I sit down, play and feel better. I have been playing ever since I entered the school that the composer Uzeir Hajibeyov opened for gifted children. It later became the Bulbul music school, but at the time it was just a school for gifted children. So, first, I graduated from that school, then the Baku Conservatoire and after that I studied in Moscow. During those 18 years of schooling, I played piano 8 hours every day. Every single day. I remember when I was 13-14 years old, coming back from school and I saw children in the street playing soccer. I watched them for 5 minutes and then went home. At home I would have my lunch and then sit and play for 4 hours in the afternoon and 4 hours in the evening. I didn´t have a real childhood. I didn´t play soccer. I didn’t hang out with other children. But this intensive practice gave me a strong foundation, so that I do not need to practise much anymore.
Ch.S. There is no ideal place. Nowhere. There are good things everywhere and bad things everywhere. Conditions for elderly people in America are very good. There are things I like here, there are things I don´t. For example, I don´t understand how people cannot find time to see each other here. My grandchildren are very happy. They grew up here. One of my grandchildren got married recently. We had a fantastic wedding party. A real Azerbaijani wedding, with the music and all the usual trimmings. I am 80 years old, but for America I am still young and could even marry.
So our meeting, planned for one hour, took more than two. I didn´t notice the time passing. Chingiz muellim is a unique companion; one who can create a very warm and sincere atmosphere. Finally, he gave me two discs recorded in the United States. One with Azerbaijani music, and the other with improvisations on Western melodies. I returned to Washington from San Francisco and these two discs were my companions during my morning and evening commute. I listened to them many times, every time thinking about him, because he made me cry and feel deeply nostalgic, or he made me so happy that I was dancing in my thoughts; he made me laugh and made me thoughtful. And, suddenly, I thought about the American lady who had approached him during one of his concerts. I understood her feelings, how the music had touched her heart. I understood that Chingiz Sadykhov is not just a great musician; he is a great maestro who opens his heart to us so that we can feel ours.
To hear Chingiz Sadykhov playing ‘Sari Gelin’, go here http://is.gd/dYbki.
About the author: Dilshad Aliyarli is an Azerbaijani journalist living in America; she was the anchor woman of the first television show transmitted from the USA in the Azerbaijani language