Winter 1997 (5.4)
With a Song
in His Heart
by Azad Sharifov
Click here for music sample
Rashid performing at the
Republican Stadium in Baku (May 1954).
Right: The Behbudov Song Theater in Bkau that
Rashid worked so hard to establish (1997).
the name Rashid
Behbudov (RA-shid BEH-bu-dov) (1915-1989)
is automatically linked to the history of Azeri popular music.
His vocal masterpieces range from proud hymns devoted to the
beauty of the Motherland to tender, lyrical confessions of love.
Heis especially remembered for his portrayal of Askar, the rich,
merchant in search of love in the 1945 movie version of Uzeyir
Hajibeyov's music comedy, "Arshin Mal
Alan." Rashid Behbudov's
rare talent did not develop overnight. However, once he was discovered,
his fame spread like wild fire, and he toured tirelessly, giving
concerts one after another all over the world. Even though travel
for those who lived behind the "Iron Curtain" was generally
restricted, exceptions were made for Rashid.
The Cloth Peddler
was almost 30 years old when he was tapped to play the lead role
of Askar (As-KAR), the wealthy peddler, in the third (1945) version
of the black-and-white film based on Uzeyir Hajibeyov's 1913
musical comedy, "Arshin Mal Alan" (The Cloth Peddler). Askar
was the rich merchant, who disguised himself as a cloth peddler just
to get the chance to enter the courtyards of homes so that he
could catch a glimpse of all the pretty young women and choose
one for his wife. At that time, women were traditionally veiled
of the movie came on the heels of World War II and was so successful
that it not only made Rashid famous, but it won Hajibeyov the coveted Stalin
When the directors were getting ready to cast the film, one of
them, Reza Tahmasib, had thought he would offer Rashid the role
of Vali, Askar's servant. Vali's character was comical, a trait
which came naturally for Rashid. However, during the audition,
Tahmasib heard Rashid sing an aria written for Askar and decided
to give him the lead role instead. The film turned out to be
so successful that it was shown in more than 25 countries. Those
who had opposed Tahmasib's casting earlier decision thanked him
for his perception and farsightedness.
Iran and Turkey
often performed in the Near East. In Iran, he was accompanied
by the pianist Chingiz Sadigov and tar player Ahsan Dadashov.
They were so popular that their two-week tour in Iran stretched
into two months. His first concert in Turkey took place in 1961
with the talented violin player Azad Aliyev. The concerts in
Ankara and Istanbul were extremely successful as well.
I was lucky enough to see one of his concerts in Ankara in 1966.
At that time, I was a correspondent for the newspaper "Izvestiya."
It was his tenth concert on that tour. The concert hall was sold
out, but I decided to try to go anyway. Fortunately, Rashid's
manager saw me and motioned for me to follow him backstage. There
I found Rashid pacing the floor. The manager cautioned me, "He's
getting ready to go on stagebetter not disturb him right now."
I stood silently as if frozen.
Suddenly, Rashid looked up, recognized me and came and hugged
me. "Where have you been for so long?" he asked. "If
you only knew how much I miss Baku and my daughter. Thank God,
I'll be flying back tomorrow. So good of you to come. After the
concert, let's have dinner together." I remember that the
Turkish audience that night knew all of Rashid's repertoire by
heart and sang along with him.
was a sociable person; he loved getting together with friends.
I remember our meetings in Moscow in the Artists' Union, where
we used to meet friends like composer Zakir Bagirov, artist Toghrul
Narimanbeyov and artist Tahir Salahov.
At these gatherings, Rashid used to tell stories about his South
American tours 56 flights and landings in total. Some concerts
were even held at extremely high altitudes (4,200 meters above
sea level). During intermission, they used to offer him an oxygen
tank, instead of the usual cup of tea.
home to his wife, Jeyran, that the concerts in Chile were especially
difficult because of the ongoing political crisis there: "My
dear ones, this is the tenth day of our dangerous tour. Wherever
we go by bus, we are accompanied by soldiers. Sometimes we can
hear shooting in the distance. I'm rushing off to a concert which
will take place at the Opera Theater which is the same building
in which [Russian singer] Fedor Shalyapin, [Russian composer
and pianist] Anton Rubinstein and [American violinist] Menuhin
have all given concerts. At each of these concerts we have taken
the audience by storm. Each has been a success. I'm so happy
to get the chance to pave a way for Azerbaijani songs. But I
want to see you. All the best. Kissing you, especially my little
Rada. Your father, Rashid. August 5, 1973."
was also very popular in India and gave six concerts there. His
first appearance was in 1952. Rashid sang Azerbaijani songs and
then several songs in Hindi, Urdu and Bengali. It was a sensation.
Members of the audience told him that he sang Indian songs just
like a native. In India, he toured Delhi, Mumbai (Bombay) and
Calcutta. It was in India that he first met the great Indian
actor Raj Kapur and his wife Nargiz Khumar. They remained friends
for the rest of their lives. Later, Rashid wrote a book about
his trip to India entitled "In Far India."
A year later
in 1953, Rashid went back to India with a group of famous Soviet
musicians. This time he returned as a familiar face. Many people
throughout the country knew him. At each concert, he was asked
to sing the most popular Indian song at the time, "India
is the Best Country."
It was on this trip that something extraordinary happened. Rashid's
train was on its way to Hyderabad. Suddenly, a huge crowd of
Indians surrounded the train, holding flashlights, fruit and
flowers. They made the train come to a stop and insisted that
Rashid sing for them. So he obliged and stood in the doorway
of the train and entertained the crowd by singing Azerbaijani
and Indian songs. Eventually, the train was able to proceed.
though Rashid was extremely popular, official recognition of
his contributions to the performing arts was late in coming.
The title of "People's Artist of the USSR," the highest
honor that could be given to an artist, had to be approved by
the Kremlin. But the Soviet government balked and made excuses.
They would admit that he was great, but then would add disparagingly,
"But he's just a pop singer, not an opera singer."
But Rashid was not just a pop singer. He could handle extremely
complicated opera roles as well which he proved in the portrayal
of Balash in Fikrat Amirov's opera, "Sevil" ( 1953).
This work is based on the storyline of a dramatic play of the
same name by Jafar Jabbarli earlier in the century. The opera
is characterized by its bright and colorful national melodies.
Amirov himself offered the part of Balash to Rashid Behbudov.
In May 1959, a grand display of Azerbaijani talent went on display
in Moscow during the cultural event dubbed "The Decade of
Azerbaijan Culture." During the Soviet period, the Kremlin
went to great lengths to create the illusion that the many ethnicities
of its vast conquered lands were "one big happy family."
They often created cultural events to foster and cultivate this
belief. But it provided a chance for the various republics to
make their art known throughout that vast land that spanned ten
Amirov's "Sevil" was performed at this event with Rashid
playing the role of Balash. He demonstrated an unusual brilliancy
and talent and for this he was finally awarded the coveted title
of "People's Artist of the USSR."
Rashid's dream to create a place in Azerbaijan specifically designated
as a Song Theater. Prior to the Soviet occupation, Baku already
had an Opera and Ballet Theater, a Philharmonic Hall, a Comedy
Theater and various other buildings dedicated to various genres
of music, but nowhere was there a home for the genre of popular
Behbudov was already an established musician when he decided
to undertake this project. He envisioned each song as a mini-spectacle
with its own heroes, theme and development and he went in search
of a worthy setting where the dramatic aspects of these popular
songs could be dramatically presented. Creating the Song Theater
became a pet project for him. He was very proud of it and spent
a great deal of energy, anxiety and time on the conversion of
a pre-Soviet Jewish synagogue into the Song Theater. Simultaneously,
he worked on creating a professional music group that would be
associated with the theater.
But in the spring of 1989, all these projects soon came to an
end. The theater was preparing a new program for the Noruz holidays
(the Spring Solstice on March 21 celebrating the New Year). Rashid
looked fine despite his age of 74. His voice was still so strong
and beautiful. But suddenly, during one of the practices, he
With great difficulty, his friends managed to get him to Moscow
to the Kuntsevo Hospital, which was considered the best hospital
in the Soviet Union at the time. Doctors struggled to save him.
But it was too late. Rashid Behbudov was dying from kidney disease.
Sadly, he was so far from home. Until the last minute, he kept
expecting the door to open and friends to walk in. Every time
the door opened, he would ask, "Have my dear friends come
to visit me?"
Rashid was hoping that some of those who were attending the sessions
of the Supreme Soviet in the Kremlin would drop by his hospital
room. But during those days prior to Azerbaijan's independence
(1991), an enormous struggle was going on in the Soviet Union.
Those were difficult days for Azerbaijan. Friends were occupied
with other things. Only Jeyran Khanum, his wife, stayed by his
side in the hospital.
In one of his last letters written from the hospital, he wrote
with great optimism, "My dear ones, my boisterous loyal
friends! We will soon be together. It will be necessary to work
by yourselves during this interim. You'll have to work hard.
Please know that your loyalty to the theater and to art is the
best medicine for me." But Rashid did not recover, he was
too ill, and on June 9, he died.
there are a great number of singers who try to imitate Rashid's
style. But it's impossible to duplicate his mannerisms, his virtuosity,
warmth and incredibly rich voice. In December 1997, Rashid Behbudov's
80th Jubilee was celebrated in one of the prestigious concert
halls of Moscow. It was entitled "The Star of Rashid Behbudov,"
and the first performance was given by Rashida, his daughter
On many occasions, I've spoken with the well-known composer Tofig
Guliyev, the pianist who accompanied Rashid on many of his tours
inside the Soviet Union. Tofig, himself just celebrated his 80th
Jubilee in Baku on November 17, 1997. He is fond of saying, "Art
can be endangered by two things-a talented person who is not
a professional or a professional who has no talent." For
Tofig, that rare synthesis-professionalism and talent-was Rashid's
Tofig is proud that nearly half of his songs have been performed
by Rashid. In fact, he's convinced that many of them became famous
simply because Rashid performed them. "By our second rehearsal,
Rashid always knew the songs by heart. We've never had such a
performer, and God knows when we'll have such a talent again."
Behbudov was especially famous singing of Tofig's song, "Sana
da Galmaz" (Don't Be So Proud, Your Beauty Won't Last Forever)
and Rauf Hajiyev's "I Met a Girl." And he was the matchless
performer of folk songs such as "Kuchelere Su Sepmishem,"
(I Have Splashed Water to the Street) and "Evlari Var Khana-Khana"
(She Has a House with Many Rooms).
Inside the entrance of the Song Theater that Rashid worked so
hard for and which is now dedicated to his memory, there is a
large model of a globe. Many of the countries and cities where
Rashid performed are named, but no national borders have been
delineated. It's a vivid reminder that Rashid's songs knew no
borders. Here as well as elsewhere, he is remembered as the man
who put Azerbaijan's popular music on the map.
(5.4) Winter 1997
© Azerbaijan International 1997. All Rights Reserved.
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