Alim_Qasimov.jpgThe discovery of a genius
By Jean During

The first time I met Alim Qasimov was at the 1987 Samarkand festival. At that time the festival gathered together the best traditional musicians throughout USSR and the surrounding countries. Qasimov was just thirty years old, which is a very young age for a singer of classical Mugham, whether Arab, Turkish, Tajik, Iranian or other. Even with many rivals competing in the program, his performance (mugham Chahargah) eclipsed almost all the others, being chosen along with two other singers for the LP record which commemorates the festival. He distinguished himself above all the others through his remarkable energy, enthusiasm, and creativity. Though his voice quality was also a part of his charisma, it did not surpass the vocal capacity of the best Azerbaijani singers, reputed for their clear timbre, virtuosity in ornamentation and their diapason. More important than his vocal range (extending over two octaves, reaching high F), was his signature style, gaining recognition at the age of only 25 at the prestigious "Jabbar Qaryaghdi-oghlu Vocal Contest." The next day I had an opportunity to spend some time with him, discovering another remarkable aspect of his personality: his insatiable curiosity for the modal musics of the maqâm family. As soon as he saw my Persian lute setâr, he immediately asked me to play the Humayun mode. I told him that the intervals  slightly differed between the Persian and the Azerbaijani versions. In fact, by that time, the Mugham (that is the art of the mughams) had been stripped of much of its modal subtleties, due in part to 60 years of Russian influence and authoritarian decisions. So the majority of the mughams could then be executed on either the accordion or the electric guitar. Hence, the so called "3/4" and "5/4" tones had no longer even a theoretical existence. However, he asked me to play the Persian intonations of this particularly tricky gamut. No sooner had I sketched a motive than he began to sing an introduction with the utmost precision. His ability to reproduce the subtleties of the Persian Humayun (and afterwards the Afshari âvâz which does not belong to his repertoire) impressed me as much as anything I heard from him later on, though obviously on another level. What he was doing so naturally, the best singers of India, Europe, Afghanistan or Uzbekistan could not have done even after weeks of training. In later years, each time I saw him in a friendly gathering, he asked me to play some mode featuring this kind of "neutral" interval and then he would start to improvise as if it belonged to his personal repertoire. One time he mentioned a mugham which was somewhat neglected or lost, and, asking me to play the well-preserved Persian version, he recorded with the intention of expanding his repertoire. His interest for the neighboring Persian, Turkish and Arab maqâms raised some criticism among purists who considered themselves connoisseurs, although they ignored that their taste had been conditioned during the Soviet era under Western and Caucasian minstrel's intonations. In fact, Qasimov, supported by his stunning accompanists, the brothers Malik and Elshan Mansurov was contributing to the restoration of the ancient Azerbaijani science of the mughams. 

Before attaining this level of performance, he was the cherished disciple of the greatest transmitters of the tradition and repertoire. It was the venerable Bahram Mansurov who welcomed this young genius from modest provincial origins into the circle of the initiated musicians. He was only 25, when Mansurov chose him to sing, under his guidance, the finest pieces of the ancient repertoire, such as the twelve canonical Zarbi mugham (rhythmic songs) that he recorded for the National Radio.

For a good ten years, Qasimov continued on a narrow mastership track and gained international fame with the Mansurov brothers. Due to his success, other great singers and artists contributed to the discovery of the Mugham art in Europe and other continents. He gave his first concerts in France and Switzerland in 1989, the recording of which was immediately released (Paris, Inedit, Maison des Cultures du Monde W 260012 / 15). The same year two CDs were released by J. During, one with several tracks featuring the pieces mentioned above (Musée de l'Homme, Paris. LDX 274), the other one in which he sang old popular urban songs (Ethnographic Museum of Geneva, AIMP XIX). The era, that of perestroïka, smoothened the relationship of the Azerbaijanis and the other nations. However, this proud people with their remarkable culture did not have the patience to wait, as others did, for the fall of the Soviet empire. They contributed to the collapse in 1991 after an upheaval which was brutally crushed by Moscow. Thus, Azerbaijan was the first Soviet republic to gain its independence, and in fact, the only republic who demanded it. From that day on, Qasimov became a kind of cultural ambassador of his country. Nothing could better attract the attention on this new State than its gorgeous musical tradition represented by Qasimov at the highest level. Other excellent singers followed in his footsteps, especially in Europe. The two CDs released by Radio France in 1993 and 1996 represent the climax of his classical years: he was honored at the highest national level with the distinction of "People's Artist of Azerbaijan" in 1993. In 1999, the International IMC-UNESCO Music Prize, ranked him at the level of worldwide famous musicians such as Dimitri Shostakovich, Ravi Shankar, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and Shajarian. The first CD he released out of France (and French-speaking Switzerland) was in Germany (Network, 1997).  These years marked the beginning of his search for a self-expression that exceeds the traditional frameworks of the Mugham art. One of his sources of inspiration was the qavvali Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, for whom he dedicated one of his performances. At that time, the international public considered Nusrat and Qasimov to be the greatest singers in the world. Yet much earlier,(before his rise to fame) in 1991, I was already writing about him: "it is always rather brash to proclaim who is the best but there is no doubt in some people's minds that Alim Qasimov is the greater present day singer in any field. While this is debatable and depends on each musical cultures’ particular aesthetic criteria, it is perhaps arguably the case when one considers criteria like the science of modal composition and improvisation, the vocal virtuosity, the skill in ornamentation, the choice of the texts, the clarity of their enunciation and their melodic marrying, the variety, spontaneity and impact of the expressive sound-coloring palette, and especially the art of communicating with the public, of moving hit, bewitching it over and over again with most various effects without ever falling into affectation, mannerism or showmanship. With Alim, and his two accompanists, the Greek concept of musical ethos becomes clear, or the ancient Arab concept of ta'thir, an "effect" arousing strong fundamental emotions, in particular that of tarab, aesthetic rapture, concepts which were attempts at accounting for the marvels that music could produce."

The reason for this claim is that several times I witnessed his ability to stir his audience, even the least educated listeners. He was applying a principle known by the Oriental masters, which begins with pleasant and easy melodies, and moves progressively towards more meditative, pathetic and increasingly sophisticated mughams. Once the audience is completely captivated and carried away by a whirlpool of sound, Alim embarks on the most exciting part of his repertoire. The public can no longer contain themselves, they begin to clap their hands to the rhythm, and some even begin climbing up on stage to dance. In the beginning, when I was present, since Alim was not yet accustomed with Western audiences, he would ask me how to commence the concert. Obviously, his repertoire was so extensive and so well mastered that he did not need to prepare a program in advance. He would arrive on stage, get a feel for the ambiance, and would then decide with the Mansurov brothers which mugham and songs to perform. After a first sequence of 8 to 12 minutes, he would choose another set of pieces and would inform his accompanists. In this way, he could keep in constant touch with the public, which is an essential part of his "oratory" art. Ultimately, he achieved that prowess which is often passed on by legends of the Muslim world: that is, to induce, within a single performance, the most diverse emotional states, from joy to tears, from meditation to dance.

By 1997, Qasimov, who was always looking for new paths, through Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, the famous Indian qavvali,  discovered a certain theatrical style, a type of expression particularly appropriate to his personality. According to the practice of Eastern art music, attitude and gesture remains fairly sober, while adapting to the movement of rhythm and melodies. Nusrat, as a religious and Sufi singer, fully devoted himself both emotionally and physically, so as to emphasize the strength of his aesthetic and spiritual message, and to lead the public of dervishes and believers to involve their bodies likewise in their listening ritual by dance or by movements. Qasimov was always fascinated by the mystic inspiration which permeated the poems he selected. He realized that he had no reason to hide this inner ebullition which gave life to his singing, previously expressed in a conventional physical posture. From now on, he involves his whole body in singing, letting go of any inhibition. This new attitude has helped increase his popularity: his concerts are not only to be heard but also to be watched, as Stravinsky advised: "music must be listened to with the eyes opened". His concerts have also become a show, like those of the great qavvalis.

By following this new Sufi track, his music eventually took a new form of expression, becoming more dramatic, more intense, more narrative. At this stage, he has taken another innovative step by singing in a simultaneous or alternating duo with his daughter Fargana, whom he had trained since childhood. The CD he released for Network has marked a milestone. This new kind of performance could be understood by the fact that the producer had to keep in mind the four CDs which already existed, and avoid making the same recording again, a problem which frequently arises with artists of this caliber. Qasimov thus chose a lighter repertoire and sung together with his daughter which voice and style melded well with his own. The general public approved but the Mugham fans preferred the old recordings. It was as if there was an excess of theatralization and permanent tension, as if Qasimov were acting one of the roles in Hajibeyov's opera-mughams, which in fact he had one time done quite frequently. Actually, the concept of  the vocal duo most likely originated in famous operas such as Arshi Mal-alan or Leyli and Majnun.
Unlike other Mugham masters, Alim Qasimov, along with his daughter Fargana, who follows faithfully in her father's footsteps, is not afraid to gently experiment with the course of a traditional mugham melody, incorporating elements from the Islamic call to prayer, one of the origins of mughams' melodic syntax, and from other local spiritual / musical traditions as well. Also, he is willing to incorporate musical phrases from various other mug hams not normally heard in the strict traditionalist renditions of mugham, in order to further intensify the listening experience. This synthesis, rooted in Azerbaijani mugham, is particularly effective in reaching the otherwise almost clueless Western audience, who is more in need of this uplifting experience than ever.

Qasimov's daughter Fargana Qasimova grew up with the sounds of the Mugham and the classical poetry chanted at home by her father. Showing much talent and interest for mugham, she could have been trained only by her father, whom she already followed on tour since 1995 (see their 1997 first joint recording). Alim knows how much time a good singer needs to become a true mughamist, so in order to complete her training, he sent her to the National Conservatory from 1996 to 2000. Then gradually he gave her more space to express herself during their shared performance. It is likely that in the future she will rejoin the feminine stars of the Azerbaijani Mugham, like Yavar Khanum Kalantarli, or Zeynab Khanlarova. But in any case, she would have had the unique privilege to be the partner and the source of inspiration of Qasimov, the greatest singer of his generation.