Azerbaijani artist-in-residence performs
The sounds of Azeri Mugham transported Slosberg Music Center to Azerbaijan on Saturday night. Fargana Qasimova and her ensemble performed a series of songs as the culmination of her residency at Brandeis through the MusicUnitesUs series. Mugham is a type of art song and instrumental music that combines classical poetry with improvisation. In Qasimova and her ensemble’s performance, the balance between rhythm and melody, rehearsed vocals and improvisation lent to a mesmerizing show.
Preceding the performance, celebrated musicologist Aida Huseynova, who accompanied Qasimova to Brandeis, gave a lecture in which she spoke about Mugham and of Qasimova’s specific achievements. Qasimova is the daughter of famous Mugham artist Alim Qasimov, who was not only her father but also her teacher. Qasimova therefore embodies an important aspect of Mugham, which is passing on the tradition from generation to generation.
However, when Qasimova performed Mugham alongside her father, they were demonstrating a fairly new concept.
Historically, gender has been a divisive aspect of Mugham. During a performance, men and women might appear on the same stage but would sing totally separate of one another. Huseynova said of Qasimova and Qasimov’s dynamic, “They communicate with each other, they talk to each other, they perform the same Mugham and it sounds like a conversation between the two. It’s a different concept of the duo of male and female performers.”
Qasimova learned the fundamentals of Mugham under her father but created her own unique style that she now performs separate of him. According to Huseynova, this is the intended way of passing along Mugham. According to the program, Qasimova’s Mugham combines Azerbaijani classical music with contemporary music, specifically popular Bardic songs.
This style of Mugham lends to Qasimova’s requiring a slightly larger ensemble than a conventional Mugham trio, with four instrumentalists instead of three. The ensemble that performed consisted of Qasimova on vocals and Daf, a hand-held frame drum, Rauf Islamov playing a Kamancha, a spherical spike fiddle and Zaki Valiyev, who played a Tar, a double-chested plucked lute. There was also the Naghara, a cylindrical double-sided frame drum played by Javidan Nabiyev and a Balaban, a cylindrical oboe played by Rafael Asgarov. Qasimova and the ensemble sat on a giant Persian rug, with the four instrumentalists forming a square around Qasimova.
The performance demonstrated the concept of mixing classical poetry, contemporary music and improvisation. One three-part suite called Mugham Shustar centered on the idea of sadness and beauty. According to the program, the first part of it was a folk song entitled “You Are My Beauty” that expressed a deep longing. This was followed by verses from the poet Mirza Mammad Hasan, which, as is typical of Eastern Medieval poetry, related a girl’s beauty to floral elements. The third part of the suite was a song “Garabagh” which describes the beauty and rich traditions of Garabagh, a district of Azerbaijan.
The songs in the performance ranged from single songs of about five minutes in length to three part suites that lasted upwards of twenty minutes. Within each song, however, there were moments of pure vocals, individual instrumental solos and all of these elements together. Although throughout the performance all of the musicians stayed in their spots, there was still a sense of great motion that was given in part through Qasimova maneuvering her Daf and gesturing for emphasis.
A key aspect of their performance, as Huseynova said, was that “the singer communicates with the instrumentalists and the instrumentalists, communicate with each other. It’s such a complex picture, and if you follow them, they take you to the destination that they aim for.” Huseynova elaborated on how Sufi philosophy plays a big role in Mugham. In Sufi philosophy, the main goal for everyone is to find the path to the divine. Through Mugham, the musicians try and find that path and take the audience with them. The soul needs to be in the right mood, and then the music will sound different.
The performance was a powerful, intimate glimpse into Azerbaijani musical culture.