Dedicated to the singer’s 50th birthday

Pages 68-76

by Natavan Faig gizi

Alim Qasimov, a performer of traditional Azerbaijani music and member of the International Assembly of Rare Voices, is by right considered one of the greatest performers of Azerbaijani Mugham. The epithets most frequently used to describe him are "incredible", "fantastic" and "inspired". He gives concerts in the world’s most prestigious concert halls. Major newspapers such as Le Monde and The Times have written about a magical voice which has won over audiences in Central Asia, the USA, Europe, and Japan. He has succeeded in bringing Mugham to the modern world of culture: the overwhelming power of his art makes him a "native" wherever he performs. He has taken Mugham from the oriental exotic into the realms of world culture. In 1999, he won the prestigious UNESCO Music Prize, the music world’s Nobel prize, joining the ranks of Shostakovich and Penderecki, Bernstein and Messaien, Richter and Makeba, Menuhin and Shankar, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Cesaria Evora.

His recordings have topped polls, while February 2000 was announced the month of Alim Qasimov in France.

He is more than a singer. His music is art plus something else; you have to figure it out for yourself. The ideas that evolve while you listen to him perform cannot always be expressed in a clear verbal form. For example, to me he seems to create a connection with the past, like a medium. All of a sudden you can "see and hear" your ancestors, you begin to understand them. Maybe it is this particular quality that so magically attracts foreigners to his singing.

No less miraculous is his ability to penetrate the musical fabric of other nations - Chinese pentatonics and African American Dixieland, Spanish Flamenco and jazz-rock.

He has a rare gift - the ability to unite people, irrespective of their location or social status. Has this not always been the true purpose of art?

Alim sings, bringing people of different regions, and even races, together as inhabitants of one planet.

He adapts Mugham for the whole world. How does it happen? Perhaps because Mugham is improvisation,
Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana, with tar and kamancha accompanistsAlim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana, with tar and kamancha accompanists
hence imagination and, as the saying goes "Imagination is just our memory." And memory is the beginning and we all have one common beginning. Another attempt to explain the inexplicable. The basic misapplication is that of logic, which has never been able to perceive what is beyond the human mind.

A concert by Alim Qasimov is an invitation to take a trip to one’s roots, or to escape to the subconscious.

What is Mugham?

Is it a Universe of eternal mystery?
Is it a tragic prediction of future loss?
Perhaps it is the reckless belief in
Miracle, certain that it will come?
A quotation from eternity…

From a conversation with Alim Qasimov: "All folk (I mean folk music) has a shared musical background, and it is important to hear it. And we people of the Earth have this common background because it is our root. Once heard, it is not difficult for me to enter what you call a genre, by improvising from the root, which is this background itself. We start to communicate with each other. They understand me and I understand them. And it is no longer important if they are Chinese, Norwegian or French. The most important thing is to find that background."

His creative work has been a convincing contradiction of numerous beliefs, including Kipling’s thesis about the impossibility of interaction between East and West. The present time, the era of globalization, is reconsidering the phenomenon of the Silk Road. In the old days the road connected Asia with Europe, but nowadays discord divides these continents with their different concepts of life. So surely there is an urgent need for a counter process to bring about their rapprochement. In this context I find the art of Alim Qasimov to be a crossroads, symbolizing the mutual approach of polarized civilizations. This is not surprising at all, for culture has always been a powerful catalyst for conciliation and the raising of people’s thoughts and aspirations.

His performance of Dervish, by the Azerbaijani composer Firanghiz Alizadeh, has been hailed as the "pearl" of Yo-Yo Ma’s gigantic Silk Road project. Alim caused a real sensation in the world’s media and was part of the project’s grand tour of Europe, the USA and Asia. Mugham Only a few, special people are able to reach its highest essence. This music has a cathartic potency, which pre-supposes spiritual implications and moral principles in mankind. Judging from Alim and the number of people he manages to bring into his orbit all over the world, you come to an optimistic conclusion – all is not so bad on the Earth.

Nowadays Contemplation has left our life - a
Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana performing in ParisAlim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana performing in Paris
very important element of happiness, without which normal balance in the human organism is impossible. And Mugham, even at first sight - is contemplation - contemplation of sound and its image. Thus Mugham is health-giving, Mughamotherapy.

The point is not that he expresses himself. He truly conveys the pleasure he is having and brings this pleasure to the audience out of his desire to share the joy of creativity. This is how you are exposed to the magic. Mugham is an immediate music, created before our eyes. Gesture, music, shape shifting - through them you can see the personality of the musician. Mugham has something of the theatre and is always a dialogue, which means that you need to know how to listen to it.

While listening to Alim, I understood that Mugham has become his destiny. Qasimov has taken his traditional instruments - Mugham modes and their relationships - and through them created an ideal Mugham texture. The singer reveals an image of the world order to the listener as it appears from within the harmony of sound. The listener in the audience has no choice. The Temple of Sound compels you to follow the apparent and grasp the sense hidden within. As in the Middle Ages, the listener, while interpreting a Mugham phrase, does not need to be an expert on Sufi science. Everyone needs a belief in the divine, because the performer creates an image of the eternal. This principle lies at the heart of Mugham art. Alim’s Mugham forces its way to us, breaking through the solid wall of life’s problems. Every honest person can cast aside these cares and set themselves ablaze with this feeling, absorbing the energy of Mugham. The images that arise in the consciousness of the listener have something in common, copying each other and repeating, before fading away.

But the feeling that it was your melody remains.

Later on his daughter Fergana will join him -
musically talented and graphically expressive.

Sky and Earth began to speak.
Two principles of the universe begin a conversation, supplementing and intersecting their energies.
Mugham is accrued human tragedy.
And two voices lived under the vault of the universe.

That was a dialogue of spirituality - a genetic one.

He forced many to scratch their heads. He managed to do what neither politicians, nor diplomats, nor economists could. He showed how East and West should be reconciled, how it is possible to integrate into Europe without even thinking about it. Sometimes he seemed to be entering dense layers of the imperceptible where you can only burn. Mystics always shy away from labels because the process takes you beyond the boundaries of thought.

He sings with his eyes closed. Picasso said that the eyes "get in the way". He even proposed poking out the eyes of painters so that they would "sing" better.

At his concerts many people sit with their eyes closed - perhaps it helps them to absorb Mugham more easily.

As if being carried away into other worlds...
I wish I could shake everything alien from the street out of my head to probe deeper…
Or to soar?
Mugham… And the eternal struggle to reconcile Heaven and Earth was at last resolved

Truly, as our ancestors said, where there is greatness there is simplicity. Alim has proved that to remain the centre of attention during a concert you don’t have to jump around the stage or use lighting or smoke effects. And no backing singers or dancers are necessary. It is enough to have a carpet on the stage, bearing a wizard with talent. And also a bottle of mineral water from which he sips. He seems to be fuelling his powerful voice, his special power, from that bottle.

Sometimes he
Cellist Yo Yo Ma, Alim Qasimov and Fargana perform with the Silk Road ensemble in Baku’s Philharmoni, May, 2006Cellist Yo Yo Ma, Alim Qasimov and Fargana perform with the Silk Road ensemble in Baku’s Philharmoni, May, 2006
even seems to be a genie released from the bottle. We live at a time of a kaleidoscopic shift in orientations and values and Mugham, perhaps, is the sacred that we retain. It will not tolerate chaos, furious bustle; it will save us. It will bring peace to the souls of the confused in the labyrinth of their thoughts and deeds. There can be no argument. Indeed, it is quite clear that there are people through whom God acts.

Alim came to this world with a Mission.

The French say that "an artist is recognized by his surroundings". The musicians from Alim’s ensemble are adherents, who have given themselves to him. The impression that a single organism is producing the performance stays with the audience. With their solo performances they prove that they are more than skilful and delicate accompanists. These virtuoso musicians demonstrate their skills and the range of their instruments one after another, earning numerous "Bravos!" They accompany not just a singer, but a musical soul. Watching the concert it was difficult to imagine how this mystery could have been rehearsed.

Nevertheless this was Alim’s theatre - the theatre of his vision, his psychodrama - his vibrantly impulsive and open life. And you should see how he warms up before each solo performance - as if entering an ecstasy, selftuning. These rhythmic body movements precede each of his interjections, reminiscent of a shaman entering a trance.

The gaval flew higher and higher, and the rejoicing Alim, seated, was swaying slightly to the dashing melody of a song when, all of a sudden, the joy seemed to lose itself in the mountain crevice.

This is how Mugham has become a way of establishing relations both with the world and with itself.

Anatole France said that art is threatened by two monsters – talent without professionalism and professionalism without talent. Alim Qasimov is that rare case when the former and the latter successfully meet.

Melismata, pauses, gesticulation never seen before. He allows himself to deconstruct a song, its melody and rhythm. But he has earned the right to such "blasphemy".

And he has also refuted the idea that when the singer is seated on the floor, their voice, "does not work".

In his gestures his arms become an extension of his voice, receiving the sound directed towards the sky. At times his hands seem to wave away the limitations of human capacity, mining exhaustively the foundations of a genre established by no-one knows who, and he takes the audience to unseen heights.

A musician today has many more chances to become a citizen of the world than ever before. But for some reason, only a few fight their way to this. Alim Qasimov is one. The lightning switch into the process is incredible! Now we see another person, in another world, another pattern of behaviour, another aesthetic extension. How was he "leaving" for our past - on the chariot of intuition or with assistance from some invisible being, seizing him at that moment?

Alim was no longer there. There is always a feeling in his concerts that this is the peak of human potential. Or not the peak - but somewhere beyond all bounds! At his next concert, though, comes the realization that the previous one was just a stage, another landmark in his work and that the peak has been surpassed at this one.

Looking at Alim singing with such energy, I was not alone in understanding that his "beyond limits" are unrestrained. To perform such a concert one needs colossal psychological and physical preparation - how is it possible otherwise to realize such power of expression?

His singing has puzzled the professionals. They have discussed the contours of his throat and
Alim Qasimov in the role of Mejnun in Uzeyir Hajibayov´s Alim Qasimov in the role of Mejnun in Uzeyir Hajibayov´s "Leyli and Mejnun"
vocal cords. They have even examined his throat after concerts in an attempt to understand the secret of the wonderfully powerful and colourful zengule vocals. Even Galina Vishnevskaya with her opera singer’s expertise has admitted that she "does not understand how he does it" and that "the human throat does not allow for something like that".

At one of Alim’s concerts there is no traditional change from one number to the next - there are, rather, firework fragments, when one emotional explosion follows another. It seems that all the borders of self expression are abolished. Nothing inhibits the flight of intuition. A flight to the land of total liberty! A gust of energy sears the audience, sweeps away all barriers - linguistic, ideological, psychological.

He is absolutely free in his art. There are no limits, or rather, of course they exist, but they are not visible to the naked eye. Musicologists cannot figure out Alim’s mystery. Time goes by; the mystery of Alim Qasimov is not solved.

They say a man of genius is someone who can hear the rhythm between order and chaos. Alim stepped out of order into chaos to establish another order, to establish his order.

Perhaps this is not magazine prose, but it is impossible to format what cannot be formatted, especially when this concerns the art of Alim Qasimov.

"I heard the voice of the earth" - Alim Qasimov on his music"

"In fact I had no choice but music. I did not have any other talent and I could not do anything. So the hard reality at that moment was either music or nothing."

"Everybody who believes in God needs Mugham. And that is why perhaps Europeans value Mugham more than, for example, Arabs who hear the azan from dawn to dusk. And besides, I think Mugham is understood by people who have heart, irrespective of their race or nationality. This music is common to all mankind, without any regard for countries and borders."

"I am for the freedom of Mugham. Mugham cannot be pressed and preserved in a can for future generations; it will moulder in the can and die. It is such a pleasure to break the rules! Therefore I break them as much as I can."

"I think that full freedom is hardly a reality. The physical existence of each individual implies restrictions. I have been trying to get rid of them all my life. It is probably not possible. Life is life and sometimes one has to submit to it. In art, however, submission is unforgivable. It is very important to find your own niche and hide there your most sacred principles, so that no-one can interfere and tell you what to do. Here not to be free is not an option. You will simply not exist."

"So Mugham is the way to achieve out-of-the-world serenity; at least I don’t know any other way like it!"

"Mugham is the highest music. Inconceivable holiness is hidden within. It is no coincidence that the great thinkers of the East have proved that Mugham is more than art, they saw the key to an understanding of human personality, to seizing the mysteries of another world in this music." "Who said that I am sitting motionless? With my gesticulation I move more than if I were standing. Sometimes I even lose weight during a concert."

"Mugham means questions. Questions without answers. It is a magnificent layer that emerges from high antiquity and absorbs colossal spirituality in itself. I usually say that music is Truth while Mugham is its asylum, its temple."

"At first, when I went abroad on tours, I would be really surprised: why are they applauding all the time? They understand neither the language of Mugham nor the genre at all. I used to think that I wearied them with my long recitals but when I stopped
performing there was always a storm of applause and the audience would ask me to return to the stage again and again. It turns out that Mugham does not need any translator, it is able to conquer any heart."

"The history of music says that there have always been real performers and those whom we now call ’show business celebrities’. Let show business develop in its own way, but it will always only accompany genuine art. And Mugham will never leave the stage."

"When I sing I feel as though I leave our physical world, I feel I enter another one, the world of spirituality. I feel very good and comfortable there. I would like to stay there. There are some moments in the concerts when it seems to me that I will not return any more - recently it has been happening more and more often. It is inexpressible! But, fortunately, as soon as I finish performing I find myself back in our world at once."

"And Mugham teaches not only the performer, but also the listener, to be wiser. And to be wise is to be able to forgive and to compromise. At exactly this point we can talk about purity - religious, spiritual and moral - and about rebirth. And then the clich?, ’humanism’ finds its original meaning."

"Khanende [singer] is a peculiar profession; it demands purity of thought and high morals above all else. And the voice is not the defining factor."

"Mugham will not follow evil, it will stop it."

"It is important to work hard and every time you go on stage you should think that you are doing it for the last time."

"In everything that I have achieved, there is very little of my own contribution. Starting from the very beginning I never thought that I would sing and never had such an ambition. I simply tried one profession after another and singing was somewhere in the line. I understood that everything is in God’s hands. He wanted me to manage and now here I am surrounded by recognition and glory. If he had not wanted that, maybe I would be subject to everybody’s condemnation now." "Lately it has become more and more difficult to sing and the stage seems like a scaffold."


"There is no doubt that world music has found a new superstar in the person of Alim Qasimov"

The Times

"I am happy that I am a contemporary of Alim Qasimov… Alim introduced me to real Mugham, while Fergana explained it to me..."

Yo-Yo Ma, cellist
Head of the Silk Road Project in which Alim Qasimov is a soloist

"The first time I heard Alim Qasimov was in Baku in a concert hall seating 3,000 people. In the modulation of his voice I imagined all the colours of that refined scale of sounds that is typical of the whole area from Kazakhstan to Istanbul. The music of Mugham is the melody of the skies of Eurasia, where the echo of all its strings is always heard, even those already broken."

Professor Doctor Umit Merich, Turkey

"The voice of Qasimov is heard. He soars, at first slowly, then growing stronger and stronger - with every successive sound of his divine performance wearying in loneliness. It is impossible to believe that it is his voice."

Daily News

"The programme Classical Music of Azerbaijan, centred on Alim Qasimov, was especially notable. His ecstatic performance was captivating, confirming the international reputation of this performer."

The Santa Barbara Independent

"High above, the wonderful voice of Qasimov was heard. It was high and violent; the virtuosity of technique and refinement immediately evident. But as the music ascended and crashed, in the way of waves, in the same way the performer condensed a deep and moving emotional response which surpassed all boundaries of language; although all the lyrics were in Azerbaijani."

The Times, London

"Alim has a special awareness of the world and each of its inhabitants. This very awareness maintains his contact with the world. By means of sound… Alim´s Mugham is ´ecologically clean´. Thus his singing is healing…"

Alirza Zarif, Canadian choreographer

"I thought his name was Alem, that´s how his name is written on our posters. And I think it is right because Alem means universe or unique. Both are true of him."

Spectator from Ankara

"I do not know what it is - a message to the future or a bridge to my previous life… A high voice is closer to God; it flies freely in space. And the bass, it walks on the earth… Not for nothing does he sing with his eyes closed and his head turned to the sky. And maybe he is praying to God for all of us…"

Spectator from Cologne

"Alim can speak with God"

Mikhail Shvidkoy, Head of the Russian Federal Agency for Culture and Cinematography