Alim and Fergana Qasimov: The Master and his Pearl
Interview by Serene Assir
Alim Qasimov, toted as Azerbaijan's greatest voice, is a globally renowned master of Azerbaijan's traditional mugham genre. He has travelled extensively, bringing mugham to thousands of listeners in South America, Iran, Europe and the United States. In recognition of his contribution to culture, he was recipient in 1999 of the UNESCO Music Prize, an honour which he shares with giants such as Dimitri Shostakovich, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Ravi Shankar.
Visiting Cairo for the first time, Qasimov performed last week alongside his 29-year-old daughter Fergana to a variegated audience, on invitation by the Cultural Resource (Al-Maurid Al-Thaqafi) NGO to inaugurate this year's Cairo-Beirut Spring Festival. Though very few of those present likely understood the literal meaning of the poetry Qasimov sang, the profound spirituality of the improvised composition, and the raw honesty of the voices, was lost on no one. Indeed Qasimov and Fergana's presence on a Cairo stage was strangely fitting, perhaps because it ignited a hidden memory of travel and artistic exchange within the Islamic world.
Shunning the electronic, the artist puts the spiritual impact of his music down to it being an expression of that which is deeper than borders and language. "Just as God has given us food to keep our bodies alive, we were also blessed with food for our souls," Qasimov told Al-Ahram Weekly. "This is what mugham is to me, and I can only hope to have fulfilled its potential for the listeners.
Mugham, a word the root of which is the Arabic maqam, literally means mode, or scale. Mugham music is based on improvising composition from poetry, usually religious poetry. This genre is ancient, and is spread across many regions of the world, albeit in varying forms. Truest to form are traditions still followed by Sufis from across the Arab world, through Iran and Central Asia, to India. However, other genres too, such as flamenco, are built heavily from the tradition of creation from mode.
In the purest form, what musicians who perform in the tradition share is that they use their art to celebrate God, and while basics for each piece are learned and rehearsed, composition gives itself over to improvisation during performance. As such, the Azerbaijani form is not different from the Sufi inshad, or chanting, which Egyptian devotees perform during zikr(remembrance of God). Thus the true master in mughamart, according to Qasimov, never owns the composition as such. This is because it emerges organically, through communication between the artist and the audience. It belongs to the moment, and it is an unrepeatable moment of striving to celebrate God.
And while inshad is common to Sufis across the world, the uniqueness of Qasimov's work appears to lie in his method and his origin. For one, he combines the elegance of classical rendition of music with intense passion, maintaining a tension between respect for the rules of a given mugham and absolute freedom throughout his performance. Though restraint is present in his performance, he is instinctive. Powerful outbursts are interspersed within calmer moments, as are breakages into meekness within moments of strength. Within seeming inconsistencies is a loyalty to truth of feeling, which is never ordered or predictable.
Second, his voice in and of itself sounds materially different. It transports listeners to an environment which is geographically distant from Egypt. It is at once rippled and crystal clear, and emerges from the natural surroundings in which he was born and raised. "I grew up in Nobur, a village near the city of Shamakha," Qasimov told the Weekly. Shamakha lies on the ancient Silk Route, in the east of Azerbaijan. It is mountainous and is located in a spot of intense seismic activity. "I believe that the person who grows up in a village is inspired by the sounds of nature." Perhaps because of this, though Qasimov has no doubt heard and learned from the singing of scores of other voices across the world as he has travelled, his roots as expressed through his own voice remain extremely firm. "Those who have grown up in cities are exposed to a uniformity of electronic sounds, from television and the streets," he went on.
No amount of description in words can ever fully convey the three-dimensionality of any voice. The wealth of the experience of listening to Qasimov sing was inspirational on multiple levels, and no doubt for each listener the experience was different. For one Egyptian man in the audience, seated just a few rows from the stage, the ecstasy was so great that he could not contain his praise, covering his face with his hands or crying out "Allah!" at various points. To others further back, the escalations in rhythm prompted applause in synchronisation with the daf (hand-held leather drum) that Qasimov and Fergana played while they sang. To me, the voices were a means of travel, at the speed of sound, across mountains and water. As I told Qasimov this on meeting him the day after the performance, he smiled, yet in his modesty he chose to reveal nothing. "It is a sign of a good listener, not just of a good performer, to be able to receive that which we try to give," he said.
And if character acts as any indication of what lies within an artist's soul, then Qasimov's is certainly intriguing. Pensive, he thinks questions through carefully before answering. He is also extremely modest and careful not to give himself credit, true to his belief that talent is a gift from God. But he is also playful and energetic at various points in the interview, breaking out into laughter over misunderstandings or suspended moments of lightness. His eyes are deeply expressive, and he appears to be aware of this as he turns his head slightly, to express degrees of change in feeling. Outside of performance, he is honest yet barely transparent. Born in 1957, he maintains enough childishness in his demeanour to keep himself playful, but has sufficient wisdom to be somewhat restrained.
But with Fergana, his soul companion in devotion to mugham and God, his restraint disappears completely. During both the performance and for the interview with the Weekly, as though by accident of fate, she is the second to make an appearance, after her father. Qasimov's expression and demeanour appear changed before her. He is visibly proud, as any father would be, of her talent. But there is more. He respects and admires her. His eyes light up when she appears, and he carries his light frame with new strength. During our interview, he becomes warmer when she is nearby, and it is as though she ignites new warmth in his heart that he chooses sometimes to keep secluded from the outside world. His playfulness grows when she joins us, as does his expressiveness. At one point, he remembers a piece of poetry, and he turns to her to sing it. It is as though she is his inspiration to keep working, that with her around him, he cannot lose focus from mugham.
Hearing Fergana perform, she is the eldest of three, it is not surprising that he should have such love for her. Her voice is disarmingly powerful, yet warm all at once. She gives the listener only kindness. There are no inflections of pain or anguish, except the anguish of distance from God. There is, as such, no violence in her performance at all, though there is great strength. Technically she is in perfect command of her voice, but according to her, "I have a lot yet to learn and I am at the very beginning of the road. I am lucky to have a father like mine; he is so great in mugham. I hope to continue learning from performing with him," she told the Weekly.
During performance, the unity of the two voices is chilling. In Eastern classical music, it is melody that is the focus as opposed to harmony which is the goal in its Western counterpart. Technically, it is far more difficult to improvise in unity, or even merely to perform in unity when the aim is for the two voices to go to the same places, together. And yet Qasimov and Fergana perfect this. Their performance, which grows technically more and more difficult as the evening progresses and they draw listeners to increasingly hidden corners of the soul, appears to be given in a single voice, with two faces.
To Qasimov, the beauty of the performance of the two together grows from more than the family bond between them. "Fergana was born the year I started to attend the National Music Conservatory of Azerbaijan," he said. "When she was a baby, I would practice around her. She used to cry a lot as an infant, and I used to play music on the instruments I was learning at the time to calm her. I was amazed because it worked." In this sense, Qasimov believes that "although I am her father, we have taken the journey in mugham together. Though I had begun earlier, it was with her birth that my own work became serious, or professional. Before then, I was just a playful young man in love with mugham." He has two other children, a son and a daughter, "and although they have inherited the talent, they do not practise it."
Fergana speaks differently of the relationship they have as companions in mugham. It is difficult to imagine how, hearing her perform, but she feels she has a long way to go before she comes anywhere near the level of mastery that her father has. "I could not be happier, though, than I am in the work I do. Though some young people in Azerbaijan do not understand mugham, many people in my country love it deeply and share with us our passion. For the future, I hope to continue learning and to continue working side by side with my father," Fergana said.
The modesty that both Qasimov and Fergana have is not without its counterpoint in strength of character. They both have a strong stage presence, though it is never forceful. To Qasimov, "knowing yourself is essential in order to be a good artist. This is our primary responsibility in life: to know ourselves and to be honest enough to fulfil what we have within us."
To have grown to become recognised as a master of mugham across the world, and to have received one of the most prestigious awards there are for musicians of this calibre, does not detract from Qasimov's focus on art. "Rather than be happy for awards that I receive because of the nature of the award itself, I am happy I have reached the stage of my development as an artist where others can recognise what I can give," he said. Fergana, meanwhile, is quietly confident of her own goals, and is not ashamed to say her highest aspiration in life is to "be a good human before God".