I can still remember the first time that I heard the passionate, extemporaneous, and initially jarring staccato sounds that are characteristic of Mugham music, the traditional music genre of Azerbaijan, Central Asia and surrounding regions. The force, emotion, and vocal command demanded by this art form was exceptionally powerful. As I came to learn over my two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Azerbaijan, Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana Qasimova are widely regarded as among the best Mughamist in the world. As such, when I heard that they were performing with the highly acclaimed Kronos Quartet at the Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center at the University of Maryland, I was determined to be in attendance. Fortunately I was the winner of a Karabakh Foundation raffle for two tickets to the concert and thus I was able to attend. For those who enjoy Mugham, the performance was an affirmation of the beauty and intensity that it conveys. For those unfamiliar with this music style, the Alim Qasimov Ensemble provided an unparalleled introduction.
Following a beautiful melodic opening set by the Kronos Quartet, Alim Qasimov and his ensemble began to play and didn’t stop until the end of the first act. The piece flowed like a gradual ascent revealing more about the artists as the music slowly progressed from the structure of premeditated lyrics to the deeply moving improvisational solos. As the music wove in and out of the structure loosely built around it, the improvisation took on the form of conversation between Alim and Fargana as they alternated solos, each seeming to express deep inner struggle in beautiful, albeit heart-wrenching, vocal riffs. The power of this musical style is revealed not only in the musical sophistication and passion with which it is sung, but by the physical performance of the artists. As Fargana completed her segment, Alim’s body seemed to convulse with the sudden onset of musical inspiration. Left hand resting gently by his left ear, his right arm flew into the sky and head flung backward as the music rushed out of his body and flooded the concert hall. Over the course of his lyrical appeal, his right arm, palm facing up, yearningly shook horizontally in the ubiquitous Azerbaijani motion symbolizing inquiry and questioning.
“Almighty, why did you make my life so miserable?
Why did I make such a mistake and fall in love with you?”
I sat in my seat gripped by the realization that I was witnessing something incredibly raw and personal. The duo sang not only with intensity and depth, but with an immense amount of joy. It was a privilege to watch this rare combination of mastery and love for an art form – the interplay of which permeated the entirety of their performance.
In the second act, the Alim Qasimov Ensemble was joined by the Kronos Quartet producing a full and complimentary fusion of sound and musical tradition. I left the concert hall that night feeling uplifted, emotionally drained, and awestruck. The experience of witnessing the rare talent of Alim Qasimov and his ensemble is one that I would unequivocally recommend to anyone. It is a window into the culture of Azerbaijan, an example of the universality of music, and a glimpse into the soul of a truly exceptional artist.
Post written by Jonathan Elkin, an Analyst at Fontheim International