Alim Qasimov: The Living Legend You’ve Never Heard Of


Times Online
September 19, 2008

Our correspondent travels to Azerbaijan to meet and hear Alim Qasimov,
soon to be performing with the Kronos Quartet in London, and revered as
‘one of the five best singers of all time’ Alim Qasimov and his fellow
mugham singer, his daughter Fergana David Hutcheon The slight man
with silver hair looks up at the arched roof of the museum and begins
to sing. His voice soars and, as his daughter joins in, the mood is
transformed: they are no longer simply singing but communicating with
another world.

The effect is devastating, the half dozen people watching seized by the
power of the ancient poetry, but none of us is surprised. "I wouldn’t
say Alim Qasimov is the greatest singer alive," David Harrington,
of the Kronos Quartet, had said a few days earlier, "but he is up
there in the top five of all time."

I had arrived in Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan, to talk to Qasimov
about his forthcoming date with the Kronos Quartet, the opening
event of the Barbican’s annual Ramadan Nights season of music from
the Islamic world. We were at the museum because I had arranged to
meet in a restaurant, stupidly forgetting that he would be fasting
and the restaurant would be deserted. He suggested we instead visit
the museum, once a palace, built on the Silk Road in the 15th century.

As we careened through the crowded streets, the car radio spewing
Russian pop and hip-hop that sampled Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir, Natavan,
my translator, complained about the traffic: "Ten years ago nobody
had a car, now there is not enough road for them all." It’s a sign
of the wealth generated by the oil industry in the Caspian Sea since
the fall of communism. At night the horizon is lit up by the rigs.

Nobody goes to Baku for music, and so Qasimov spends much of his life
taking his music, mugham, to the wider world. A complex art form,
hundreds of years old and with its roots intertwined with those of
Ancient Persian music and the Ottoman Empire, mugham is both love
poetry and a hymn of devotion. While the musicians improvise, the
singer digs ever deeper into his soul as the body and spirit journey
towards a personal rhapsody.

If Qasimov remains almost unknown in the West, the fact that in 1999
he won the Unesco Music Prize for his musical contribution to peace –
putting him in the exalted company of Ravi Shankar, Daniel Barenboim
and Yehudi Menuhin – explains his status in the world at large.

It’s a far cry from his peasant days in the village of Shamkha, where
his parents worked on a Soviet commune and the young man would sing
at religious ceremonies. His family encouraged him to study mugham
at school. "It was so difficult to learn these complex songs I often
thought about giving up," he says. "Thankfully, my mother and father
insisted I continue."

He first came to wider notice in 1995, when he sang on Jeff Buckley’s
Live a l’Olympia album. "He asked me to," says Qasimov, 51. "He had
listened to my tapes and had something Arabic in his voice. So he
would sing rock and I would reply with our music. He was very gifted
and had a real feeling for Eastern people."

"Eastern people" seems an incongruous phrase in Baku. Although
Azerbaijan is more than 90 per cent Muslim, the city thinks itself
European. To the south and west lie Iran and, splitting the country
in two, Armenia; to the north are Georgia and Russia. In the centre
is the disputed Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, Azerbaijan’s
own South Ossetia.

With war on three borders a distinct possibility, Qasimov, who
relies on patronage to survive, is diplomatic: "I do not want to
give my opinion on politics, but I believe no people would want to
die and no people would want to kill. My world is music that is more
involved with higher spirits, and the other world is all about guns
and stuff. We live in two different worlds."

As does Baku. Sitting in Fountain Square, you will struggle to
see many women with their heads covered. Fergana Qasimova, Alim’s
daughter, who travels with him whenever he performs abroad, is one
of the few who wears a hijab. "There are many of us who sing mugham,
but only two professionals who cover our heads," she says. "My voice
is a gift from God, so it is respectful."

The Kronos Quartet, whose calling card is "Experimental, classical,
other", have been waiting 15 years to work with Qasimov. They finally
met in California in June. "It was difficult," is Qasimov’s synopsis
of the week spent working up a repertoire. "I am an improvisor,
but Kronos need a structure, there is no stretching out. When they
started to break their rules they discovered a freedom."

Having worked with the composer Franghei Ali-Zadeh, Harrington was
already aware of the challenges of Azeri music. "Alim taps in to
a certain sense of the world like nobody else can. He expands our

That evening, on our way to celebrate the end of the day’s fast
with Qasimov, Natavan, a hip twentysomething, explained mugham’s
dilemma. "The young people here dress like Americans and we are waiting
for somebody cool to come along and tell us that mugham is great. Mr
Alim does this, he synthesises things and the music cleanses itself."

When we arrive for the postprayer feast, it turns out to be more like
a teetotal Burns Night, with 40 middle-aged men eating and talking
philosophy. Then the music begins, and they take turns to sing mugham.

Smoking his pipe, Qasimov refuses to budge, pretending we believe he
won’t take part eventually. The carousing builds until everybody joins
in. Then the moment comes and Qasimov puts down his pipe. Ululating,
he holds notes for what seem like minutes, communing with his maker
and spiralling into ecstasy. The second he stops the entire table
stands, not to applaud but, sated, to leave. Nothing can top this
moment. In mugham, it seems, it ain’t over until the slight man with
silver hair sings.

Alim Qasimov Ensemble and the Kronos Quartet play at the Barbican
(020-7638 8891) on Sept 26 2008

You may also like