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Alim and Fargana Qasimov: Spiritual Music of Azerbaijan

Alim and Fargana Qasimov: Spiritual Music of Azerbaijan
Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana exemplify the explosive artistic energy that results when a powerful musical model ignites the spark of young talent.

Azerbaijan: Musical Crossroads of Turkic and Iranian Civilizations


Alim Qasimov and his daughter Fargana exemplify the explosive artistic energy that results when a powerful musical model ignites the spark of young talent.
Sabastian Schutyser / AKMI

Music in Azerbaijan reflects the long history of contact between Turkic and Iranian peoples in Transcaucasia, the region lying south of the Caucasus Mountains between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. In antiquity, the territory of present-day Azerbaijan was part of a succession of Iranian empires, notably the Achaemenian and Sasanian, that was eventually infiltrated and conquered by Turkic and Mongol groups from the east: Ghaznavids, Seljuqs, Ilkhanids, and Timurids. During the 16th–18th centuries, control of Transcaucasia passed back and forth between two imperial rivals: the Ottoman Empire, with its capital in Istanbul, and the Safavid Empire, centered in Iran. At the end of the 18th century, the Qajars, an Iranian dynasty of Turkic origin, emerged as rulers of the formerly Safavid lands, but in 1828, the Qajars were forced to cede their northern provinces, including a part of Azerbaijan, to Russia. Parts of these provinces later became the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, and, following the breakup of the Soviet Union in 1991, the independent nation of Azerbaijan. Southern regions of Azerbaijan remained under Qajar control, and today the number of Iranians who speak Azeri (a Turkic language) or identify themselves as ethnically Azeri is thought to be two to three times the population of Azerbaijan itself, currently around eight million.

In traditional Azeri music, Turkic elements are felt most strongly in folk song and epic traditions rooted in the countryside, while Iranian influence has shaped urban court music and art song. Musical instruments in Azerbaijan reflect this division: the instrument par excellence of folk musicians is the saz, a fretted, long-necked lute that, in a number of variant forms, is also common in Turkey. By contrast, urban musicians tend to favor the kamancha, a four-string spike fiddle, and the tar, a long-necked lute with a membranecovered resonating chamber that is regarded as Azerbaijan’s national instrument. In the 20th century, the tar became popular in Uzbekistan, across the Caspian Sea, where it played an important role in the development of urban popular music (estrada). Spike fiddles are also prominent in many styles of traditional music in Afghanistan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, where they are known as ghijak or ghirjak.

Mugham, the indigenous classical music of Azerbaijan, belongs to a transnational tradition of urban classical or court music that flourished in the great cultural centers of North Africa, the Middle East, West Asia, and Central Asia beginning more than a millennium ago. Mugham and its cognate repertoires are all regionally specific but represent what is at root a common musical language. Azerbaijani mugham shares broad features of musical form and structure with the Central Asian art song suites known as shash maqâm (six maqâms) but is closest in performance style, instrumentation, and modal organization to the Persian classical repertory, dastgâh.

Alim and Fargana Qasimov: Spiritual Music of Azerbaijan

Alim Qasimov (b. 1957) and his daughter Fargana (b. 1979) exemplify the explosive artistic energy that results when a powerful musical model ignites the spark of young talent. “To be a musician, there has to be a fire burning in you,” explained the elder Qasimov. “It’s either there or it isn’t. I’m convinced that if young people have this spark - call it inspiration, call it spiritual fire - they can perform any kind of music. It could be pop, folk, or classical, but whatever it is, they’ll stand out.”

Alim Qasimov’s authority on matters of artistic creativity derives from his position as one of Azerbaijan’s most beloved musicians. A walk with Qasimov down any street in Baku, Azerbaijan’s capital city, confirms his renown. Greeting well-wishers, shaking hands, and making small talk, he is ever polite and humble. It is when Qasimov sings that his own inner fire burns brightest.

Fargana Qasimova’s talent gravitated naturally toward the music she heard from her father: Azerbaijani classical music, known as mugham, and the repertory of popular bardic songs sung by ashiqs - singer-songwriters who accompany themselves on the saz (a strummed long-necked lute). “There was never any question about my being given to a teacher,” Fargana recalled. “Music was always just a part of everyday life - I sang with my father for fun, and it was only when I was around seventeen years old that I seriously understood that I’d be a musician.”

The joyful spirit of Alim and Fargana Qasimov’s homespun musicmaking has left its mark on the very form of that music-in particular, on the exquisitely disciplined balance between memorization and extemporization that is an essential part of the art of mugham. Like other kindred traditions of urban court or classical music that span the core Muslim world from Casablanca, Morocco, to Kashgar in western China, mugham is rooted in a system of melodic modes and motifs that provide a framework for both improvised performances and fixed compositions. Following a conventional order, skilled performers sequence pieces in different melodic modes into a suite that may last anywhere from twenty minutes to two hours. Throughout a mugham suite, extended pieces that blend memorized and extemporized elements alternate with short, dance-like instrumental compositions (reng).

Mugham may be performed in a purely instrumental form, most commonly on the tar (long-necked lute) or kamancha (spike fiddle), but the performance medium most favored among Azerbaijanis is the voice. Vocalists typically perform the lead role in a trio that also includes tar and kamancha as well as a frame drum (daf) played by the vocalist. This trio style of performance provided the starting point for Alim Qasimov’s innovative treatment of mugham.

“We never put before ourselves the aim of singing mugham in the form of a duet or carrying out any kind of reform,” said Alim Qasimov of the sinuous vocal arrangements he performs with Fargana. “Rather, what we do appeared spontaneously in the process of rehearsing. We liked it, and we started to practice it. Nowadays, mugham is always performed by a single vocalist, but there used to be a way of performing where one singer would begin a phrase and another singer would finish it, and they’d alternate like that through a whole piece. We do the same thing: I begin a line, and Fargana continues it, and the effect is as if one person is singing. In places our voices overlap, so there’s a kind of polyphony. I can’t explain why it turned out that way-perhaps because Fargana is my daughter and we live in the same house. But I think it’s that spiritually we’re very close. We understand each other in an inner sense, and this is how our understanding is expressed. It all comes from singing together, and it’s spontaneous. We can do it one way in a rehearsal, and then in a concert, it will turn out completely differently.

“When I started performing with Fargana, there was no small amount of criticism,” Alim Qasimov added, “but now there’s less and less. People have started to accept our “experiment’ because they feel that it’s sincere, and that it’s our spiritual discovery. In fact, it’s not an experiment. The way I sing and the way I improvise represent my soul at that moment.” Qasimov, speaking in Azerbaijani, clarified: “It represents my hal: the state of my soul.”

The term hal, an Arabic word that is also commonly used in Persian and in Turkic languages, has strong associations with Sufism, the mystical dimension of Islam. For Sufis, hal is a state of spiritual awakening that creates an openness to the mystical presence of the Divine. Qasimov, translating hal into the language of art, defines it as “inspiration.” “It’s not something you can pull out of your pocket,” he emphasized. “I can’t command myself to get inspired at a particular moment and perform something. Moreover, you have to transform the musicians you’re playing with so that they can share that inspiration, and then give it to the audience. When I meet with the musicians in my ensemble, it’s almost like a gathering of dervishes. There’s an atmosphere that starts to nourish us that comes from beyond our own will, and that’s the source of the unpredictability in our music. It’s almost a feeling of ecstasy that leads to some kind of meditation. There isn’t any point in performing mugham without hal.”

The musicians in Alim Qasimov’s ensemble include not only performers on the tar and kamancha, as in a conventional mugham trio, but also on the oboe-like balaban, on a variety of hand drums, and, at times, on the oud. The expanded ensemble is also an example of Qasimov’s search for the fullest expression of mugham’s range of moods and emotions. “If it were up to me, I’d invite not four or five musicians, but an entire chamber
 ensemble, and I’d create wonderful compositions for them that would be performed in the world’s most prestigious concert halls,” Qasimov said. “I observed that in Turkey and Iran, they have ensembles with violins, cellos, flutes-real orchestras that aren’t restricted to just the local instruments. I can only imagine what you could do with our mugham if you had those instruments. But since I don’t work with musical notation, it’s hard for me to do arranging, and performing with a large ensemble has remained only a dream.”

“Mugham is an elite art,” Alim Qasimov concluded. “It’s for a select group-for people who have some kind of inner spirituality, who have their own inner world. These days ‘elite’ refers to something more commercial than spiritual-for example, to the kind of people who can buy a new car every year. But that’s not what I have in mind. An elite person is one who knows how to experience, how to endure, how to feel, how to listen to mugham and begin to cry. This ability doesn’t depend on education or upbringing, nor on one’s roots. It’s something else. It’s an elite of feeling, an elite of inspiration. These kinds of listeners aren’t always available. I can’t speak about the distant past, but it’s clear that mugham hasn’t developed in a straight line. There were lapses and dips and ascents, and surely it will always be like that. I can’t say whether we’re in a dip or an ascent-it’s not for me to judge-but I think there will always be an attraction to this music until the end of humanity.”


Part 1: Mugham Chargah Text: Seyyid Azim Shirvani (1835–1888)
Music: Traditional, arranged by Alim Qasimov

Tracks 1–7 comprise a performance of Mugham Chargah (Persian: Chahargah), one of the seven principal suite forms of Azerbaijani classical music. Each mugham suite consists of a conventional sequence of pieces (shu’be) that take listeners on a journey through varied musical and emotional terrain. The great Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885–1948) believed that chargah excites the passions and conveys pride, virility, and a martial spirit. Throughout the suite, high dramatic tension contrasts with moments of repose and détente. Each section of Mugham Chargah is described below.

The poetic texts sung by Alim and Fargana Qasimov represent six ghazals by Seyyid Azim Shirvani. Born in Shamakhi, the same region as Alim Qasimov, Shirvani was a representative of the Azerbaijani enlightenment movement of the late 19th and early 20th century. By singing Shirvani’s ghazals, the Qasimovs express loyalty to their home region, devotion to classical Azerbaijani verse, and support of Shirvani’s belief in a humanistic, progressive Islam. Although the texts are fixed, melodic elaboration of the text contains a strong improvisational element. Alim’s exuberant cries of “Mashallah!” (Well done!), heard during sections performed by Fargana and the instrumentalists, underscore the spontaneous energy created during the moment of performance.


Bardasht (from Persian “summing up”) is a generic compositional form that serves as a short overture to a mugham suite. This lively bardasht begins with a rhythmic instrumental introduction that prepares the dramatic, high-register entrance of the vocalists with the signature melodic interval of chargah: an upward leap from la to do (la is slightly flattened). Alim and Fargana Qasimov render the opening verses of Shirvani’s ghazal antiphonally in free rhythm over an embellished drone provided by the kamancha, tar, and balaban. The final four lines of Bardasht gradually descend a full octave to the initial pitch of the subsequent piece, Maye. The text of Bardasht begins:

Oh friend, do not drag me to the edge of that desert today,
That moon is not here, so do not take me to this empty spectacle.
I became love-crazed from the fairies’ braids,
What excuse can I give to Adam, who brought me into this world?


Like bardasht, maye is a generic compositional form that establishes the modal character of a mugham-its characteristic melodic motifs, tonal centers, principal intervals, typical melodic embellishments, and poles of melodic tension and resolution. Maye focuses on developing tonal relationships in the lowest octave register of a mugham, while subsequent sections gradually explore successively higher tonal regions.


Beste-Nigar is a shu’be-a secondary mugham, or melody archetype that appears at a specific point in the development of a principal mugham, here chargah. A short instrumental prelude introduces a modulation from the scale of chargah, anchored on do, to the initial emphasized pitch of beste-nigar, mi, which arrives at 1:14. After an extended exploration of the tetrachord mi-fa (fa#)-sol-la, Beste-Nigar modulates at 5:20 to a transposition of the chargah scale set a fourth higher, on fa. The modulation is brief, and at 6:09, mi reappears as the tonal center. At 7:00, the melody descends to do, reestablishing the scale of chargah and concluding with an instrumental dance tune (reng).


Hisar is another secondary mugham of chargah, characterized by upward transposition of the chargah scale to the fifth scale degree, sol. In contrast to Beste-Nigar, the transposition is sustained, marking a clear increase of emotional tension. Hisar ends with a fast-paced instrumental reng that segués into the next shu’be, Mualif.

Oh, caravan leader, take our caravan to a safe haven,
Be merciful, lead these devastated ones to the tulip garden.
Oh, headwind, it is time for a beneficent favor,
Blow our ship from these high seas to the shore.


Mualif continues the melody’s ascending trajectory, modulating upward from sol, the tonal center of hisar, to a focus on si, re, and, at Alim Qasimov’s dramatic entrance at 2:36, mi, an octave-and-a-third above the initial do. It is in this high register that Alim and Fargana Qasimov’s voices achieve the subtle interplay of antiphony and polyphony that represents an innovation in mugham performance style.

Oh, Captain,* devote your ship to God,
Ask for the land of my beloved, lead your ship to a safe haven.
Hizir’s** road led straight to the land of the Caspian-dwellers,
Take Hizir’s path, take us also to that country.
* The word naxuda in Azerbaijani is a play on words that means both “captain” and “atheist.”
** Hizir is a Muslim saint whose virtues include aiding lost travelers.
Mükhalif-Tarkib. Tarkib means “modulation,” and Mükhalif-Tarkib consists of a modulation to a tonal area that extends upward from la. A brief refrain of chargah reappears in the middle and at the end, preparing the transition to the next shu’be, Mansuriyya.
He who wants to be a leader, let him,
Let him kiss the tavern door and order a glass (of wine).
If there was a destiny for me written in the water of heaven,
My God turned it into rosy-red wine.


Mansuriyya recapitulates the modal character of chargah an octave higher, providing an emotional culmination to the entire suite. At the end, the melody descends to the initial do, completing the cycle of melodic modulations and transpositions and bringing the piece to a close.

Part 2: Composed Songs Tracks 8–11 represent songs written both by composers trained in Western classical music [track 11] and by ashiqs-oral tradition singer-songwriters whose song texts portray, often with wry humor and searing irony, the power of love and the pain of separation [tracks 8–10].

You Are the Light of My Eyes

Music: Shafige Akhundova (1924– )
Text: Bekhtiyar Vahabzade (1925– )

This composition fuses a popular song by one of Azerbaijan’s best-known female singer-songwriters with an excerpt from a “mugham opera,” Leyli and Mejnun, composed by Uzeyir Hajibeyov (1885–1948) and first performed in 1908. Shafige Akhundova’s song melody opens the composition with lyrics by poet Bekhtiyar Vahabzade, who became a leading dissident during the late Soviet period.

You are the light of my eyes, I fell in love with you at first sight.
You are the first strike on my heart, come, let’s celebrate life close together.
You are the light of my eyes, you are the fragrance of our garden.
Oh my love, what is this separation? I have waited enough, my jasmine,
You are the light of my eyes.

At 3:25, the song segués seamlessly to the mugham section inspired by Hajibeyov’s opera. For his libretto, Hajibeyov drew on the famous Leyli and Mejnun of 16th century poet Muhammad Füzüli. The Qasimovs set portions of Füzüli’s text to a composite mugham melody of their own creation loosely related to melodic material in the opera. At 12:17, the mugham melody segués back to the song, which is briefly refrained before the end. Alim Qasimov said about his creation, “Fargana and I believe that all who listen to this piece will experience their own internal world of love.”

Eshqin Mehebbeti (Love of Loves)

Music and Text: Ashiq Khanish Shirvani (1932– )
Vocal solo: Alim Qasimov

The words eshq and mehebbet both mean “love” in Azerbaijani (eshq is the root of the word ashiq). The song tells the story of a young man who falls in love with a neighbor’s daughter and decides to marry her. In order not to burden his poor parents, the lad arranges the marriage himself, and informs his crestfallen mother only after the wedding. As a prelude to the song, Alim Qasimov sings a couplet from a ghazal of Füzüli set to a melody in mugham bayat-i Shiraz (0:00–2:11).

My soul has fallen into the love of loves,
Mother, my dear, please dry your tears.
I have passed twenty years,
I cannot wait another year, my dear [mother].
What is this secret I have fallen into, Mother,
I have fallen into love’s fire.
I never knew the power of love like this before, Mother.

Jeyran (Deer)

Music: unattributed
Text: Ashiq Alasgar (1821–1926) with ghazal by Haji Reza Serraf (d. 1907)
Vocal solo: Fargana Qasimova

In this song, Fargana Qasimova performs the part of a lovesick ashiq (minstrel) who seeks to woo his beloved by singing to her, accompanying himself on the saz (long-necked lute). In the ghazal that follows (beginning at 2:56), the singer begs his beloved to reveal her heart’s secrets. Alim Qasimov offers the following commentary on this popular song: “In Azerbaijan, jeyran refers to a kind of deer that lives in the mountains and the plains. They’re lovely animals, and because their eyes are so beautiful, poets often use this word. There are many girls named Jeyran in Azerbaijan. We hope that when listeners hear this song, they’ll get in touch with their own inner purity and sincerity.”

Let me encircle you with love,
Your black eyes and eyebrows, Jeyran.
I have fallen into the flames of longing,
Help me to recover from this pain, Jeyran.
Let the partridges cackle, my little deer,
If I cannot love you openly,
Then let me love you in secret.
With my saz, with my saz,
Oh beloved, I encircle you with love.

Köhlen Atim (My Splendid Horse)

Music and Text: Jahangir Jahangirov (1921–1992)

Composer Jahangir Jahangirov wrote this song as part of a film score for Yenilmez Batalyon (The Invincible Battalion), a patriotic film about the struggle of Bolshevik soldiers against counter-revolutionaries in the early Soviet period. Reflecting themes characteristic of Azerbaijani folklore, the song expresses the hero’s longing for his homeland and family and his love for the horse that will take him there. Alim Qasimov calls the song “Köhlen Atim,” and learned it by ear from the movie. True to oral tradition, his version varies somewhat from the original text.

A wind is blowing, dispersing the mountain fog
My mother’s eyes are on the road,
All she has left is hope
All she needs is me.
I am on the way to see my dear mother
Oh, snowy mountains
The clouds are bunching up [to hide me]
Let my carriage reach the village
Oh, my spirited horse!