Spring 2001 (9.1)
Master of Mugham
Blair and Pirouz Khanlou
Gasimov's Latest Concert in Tabriz
Poetry of Mugham
Alim Gasimov's (1957-
) career as a mugham singer nearly ended at age 14. He'll never
forget the humiliation he felt while competing in a local music
contest; when he started singing what he figured was mugham,
the audience started laughing at him. Alim stepped down from
the stage with tears in his eyes. Fortunately, he didn't give
up on mugham.
Twenty-eight years later, in 1999, Alim won the prestigious UNESCO
Music Prize, one of the highest international accolades that
a musician can hope for. Previous laureates have included Dmitri
Shostakovich, Leonard Bernstein, Ravi Shankar and Nusrat Fateh
UNESCO International music prize winner Alim Gasimov at home,
surrounded by posters of his mugham concerts.
As the foremost mugham singer in Azerbaijan, Alim has recorded
nine albums and lately has been featured quite frequently in
Azerbaijani newspapers and TV programs. He has performed in France,
the U.K., Germany, Belgium, Spain, Brazil, Iran and the United
Alim is attracting many new fans to mugham. Russian-educated
Azerbaijanis and young people in general don't usually care much
for the mugham genre. Many prefer listening to Western pop music.
But surprisingly, they have been going to Alim's concerts and
buying his CDs.
Azerbaijan International is honored to have this chance to delve
more deeply into the world of Alim Gasimov. We talked to Alim
about how he puts his individual, innovative stamp on traditional
What is mugham?
To Azerbaijani singer Alim Gasimov, this traditional music is
"food for the spirit." "Mugham [pronounced moo-GAHM]
is something sent from God," Alim explains. "It was
created together with humanity. You can't create it anew."
More specifically, mugham
consists of Azeri, Persian or Arabic poems - mostly love songs
- set to improvised music. The lyrics are written down, but not
the music. Depending on the specific mode of mugham being played,
the improvisation traverses a designated number of tetrachord
sequences, for example, three tetrachords consisting of 2 half-steps
and one full-step, or vice versa. The improvisation for one mugham
may continue for 30 minutes to a few hours.
has sung mugham in many corners of the world, as you can tell
from the concert posters that wallpaper his apartment.
Some people suggest that the word "mugham" derives
from the Arabic word "maqam", which refers to an official
meeting place where medieval caliphs and other Arabian dignitaries
gathered to hear tales and rhyming prose, and later music as
In the early 20th century, Azerbaijani composer Uzeyir Hajibeyov
identified seven main mughams (rast, shur-shahnaz, seygah, bayati-shiraz,
humayun, heyrati and chahargah) plus five secondary mughams.
Each mugham is said to be connected with a certain feeling or
emotion; for example, "seygah" represents grief and
"shur-shahnaz" stands for tenderness. But Alim claims
that mugham is not as simple as that: "You can't attach
strict theory to mugham," he insists. "For example,
some say that 'chahargah' reveals the spirit of fighting and
war. But I say that it reveals the feeling of spiritual elevation
Alim maintains that he doesn't have a favorite mugham modal form.
"I feel the nature, the character, the smell and the color
of each one. For me, each of them is like a human being with
its own personality. You have to understand them from within.
If you have the capability to see them, you can follow them even
to the stars. Maybe this is what enables the spirit to transcend
the body. I believe in the spiritual world. I believe it never
"I want to see mugham as a world of spirits. The spirit
is incomprehensible, God is incomprehensible. It's not like mathematics,
where you have a formula like two plus two is four. That would
make it finite.I want to see mugham as something inexhaustible.
From this point of view, I don't want to say that 'seygah' expresses
grief, or 'shur' expresses tender feelings, and that's it. Mughams
express a myriad of complex feelings."
Alim Gasimov and his 21-year-old daughter Fargana have recorded
three albums of mugham music together.
When deciding upon lyrics for mugham, Alim chooses ghazals (poems
with an Eastern meter) by classical poets such as Khagani, Fuzuli,
Shirvani and Sabir. "I used to choose the words that earlier
mugham singers performed," he recalls, "but I don't
do that anymore. I select the poetry myself now."
Alim has one condition for selecting a poem - it has to touch
him emotionally. "I read the poem and if it makes my heart
tremble, I choose it. Some poems are not accessible for me. I
don't get meaning from them."
Left: Alim Gasimov and his 21-year-old daughter
Fargana have recorded three albums of mugham music together.
interpretation of these poems depends largely upon the listener.
For Alim, the poetry is about philosophical notions rather than
lyrical love. "You can say they deal with love," he
says, "but everybody interprets them in his own way. This
is very important in mugham; since the music is independent of
a strict framework, the poetry should be so, too.
At a young age, you might interpret the poems as talking about
love for a beautiful woman.
The older you grow, the more philosophy you see in them. An older
person, for instance, might interpret these poems from a Sufism
point of view."
Some of the poems are in Arabic or Persian, which means that
Alim doesn't know the meaning of every single word. "Maybe
I can't always identify the exact meaning of the words,"
he admits, "but I feel and understand by intuition what
they imply. Maybe it's even better that I interpret the poetry
myself. The word touches my heart and then 'lights a torch' there."
According to Alim, there is a huge difference in the way contemporary
singers do mugham as compared to earlier performers: "Mugham
performance has been changing throughout history. At the beginning
of the century, we had Seyid Shushinski and Jabbar Garyaghdioghlu.
Today we have our contemporaries. But I think today's mugham
is actually closer to earlier forms. Now we're singing more like
the mugham that was performed at the beginning of this century.
"Although one particular person may introduce a certain
improvisation, it can influence an entire generation. It's like
fashion - one person introduces it, but then it enters and affects
the performance of others."
Alim realizes that his style of mugham is not like that of his
contemporaries. "I may perform differently from others and
stray from the usual traditional patterns. For those who like
that, they might say, 'He's a breath of fresh air.' But others
criticize me and say that I'm destroying the tradition of mugham
Unlike other Azerbaijani mugham singers, Alim sits cross-legged
on the floor. Some Azerbaijanis don't like this, even though
it is an Eastern tradition to perform that way.
Alim also plays the gaval differently from most mugham singers.
The gaval is a tambourine - like percussion instrument that the
singer uses to set the tempo for the accompanying tar and kamancha.
"I never practice the gaval beforehand," Alim says.
"It just comes naturally. It comes from inside me. I don't
know how I come up with such rhythms. I don't calculate them
beforehand. In the past, I used to perform the traditional pattern,
but I wasn't able to continue it. It would have exhausted me.
I listen to my heart, and that gives the rhythm of the gaval
a certain freedom."
Besides the singer and his or her gaval, mugham also features
two more instruments: an 11-stringed tar and a three-stringed
kamancha. Alim is accompanied by two brothers from northwest
Azerbaijan, Malik Mansurov on tar and Elshan Mansurov on kamancha.
But he recently expanded upon this traditional grouping to include
a naghara (a metal-bodied drum), a clarnet and a double-reeded
balaban as well. The balaban is a pipe instrument that can produce
plaintive sounds much like the sustaining notes of a bagpipe.
The musicians in Alim's ensemble are relatively young. He selects
them because they don't play mechanically. "I think they
feel the same thing as me spiritually," he says.
At its heart, mugham is about improvisation - an ocean of musical
and emotional possibilities. "You swim and swim and it never
ends," Alim explains.
He believes that improvisation means choosing a way of life -
a way of living in mugham. "For example, when you go to
a birthday party, you take a gift. But not everybody takes the
same gift. One person can take a bunch of flowers, another, a
box of chocolates, somebody else creates a painting. Through
mugham you convey certain feelings. Improvisation is selecting
a way to convey those feelings."
As with other types of music, practicing is still crucial for
this improvisation. "The pieces we perform are not simple
songs," Alim points out. "We have to practice and practice.
And what's more, every time we practice, we find more nuances.
This is also how improvisation works."
Listening to Mugham
Mugham is not an easy genre to understand, especially for a non-Azeri
speaker. For those who are new to mugham, Alim suggests listening
for the following things: "First of all, pay attention to
the timbre and quality of the singer's voice as well as the emotions
it produces. Also, make sure to pay attention to the improvisation
and the range of the voice."
For Alim, it's actually easier to sing mugham for foreigners
because they are less familiar with the genre. "When I'm
performing abroad, I feel more comfortable," he explains.
"In Azerbaijan, something keeps me from throwing myself
into my own world. Here, the audience knows 90 percent of what
I sing. And there are professionals in the audience, which places
a huge responsibility on me to meet their expectations. I feel
I have to measure my every step."
Alim discovered the world of mugham as a child, when he began
singing for his own enjoyment. He grew up in the town of Shamakhi,
100 km northwest of Baku. "I had no idea that I would become
a singer," he remembers. "Nobody in my family influenced
my career, at least not directly. My father has a good voice,
but he's not a professional." Alim's father occasionally
sang at Azerbaijani wedding parties, where musicians will often
sing or perform for hours at a time.
While Alim's parents recognized that he had musical talent, they
were too poor to buy him a musical instrument. Instead, they
did the next best thing. "My father killed one of his goats
and took the animal's stomach membrane and stretched it across
a frame to create a frame-drum for me," Alim recalls.
It soon became clear that music was more than just a hobby for
Alim. "Actually, I didn't have any other choice besides
music," he confesses. "I didn't have any other talent,
and I couldn't see myself doing anything else. I was faced with
the harsh reality - either singing or nothing."
Alim does admit, though, to qualities within his mother and father
that have influenced his path. "My mother is very energetic,"
he says. "She's a woman who sparkles. My father has a beautiful
voice, but he sings only for himself. He's quiet and calm. So
I guess I took my mother's energy and my father's voice. For
me to have been born, they had to be together. That was God's
will. Whatever has happened in my own life has been shaped by
destiny. I am being led by destiny, I feel this."
When asked about other interests and passions outside of performing
mugham, he admits, "I can't find comfort anywhere else or
in anything else. I get bored quickly. I guess it's fair to say
that my only world is music."
Alim studied at Baku's Asaf Zeynalli Music College from 1978
to 1982. His teachers included Seyid and Khan Shushinski, Zulfu
Adigozalov, Hajibaba Huseynov and Agha Khan Abdullayev. At age
25, in his second year as a professional mugham singer, Alim
won Azerbaijan's Jabbar Garyaghdioghlu Singing Competition.
During the Soviet period, when Alim was studying music and beginning
to make his way as a professional singer, the official attitude
toward mugham was not very supportive. According to Alim, the
Soviets treated mugham as an unimportant folk art: "Mugham
was performed just to show that we Azerbaijanis had this relic
in our history. The Soviets wouldn't allow long performances
of it. Of course, certain singers tried to protect mugham even
under these restrictions."
Back then, it was unusual for a musician or any other person
to travel outside of the Soviet Union. "If someone made
a trip," Alim says, "there would be announcements on
TV and articles about it. People were very excited about journeys
and tours, and everyone would come out to see that person off.
But these days, it's not such a big deal. We come and go and
hardly anybody knows about it."
The Next Generation
Today Alim and his wife, Tamilla Aslanova, live in an Oil Boom
residence that dates back to the early 20th century and has been
carved up into many apartments, as was the custom during Soviet
times. Their living room with its high ceilings is literally
wallpapered with large posters from Alim's many performances
around the world. Tamilla serves as his manager and helps to
document events and maintain the scrapbooks of his performances.
They have three children: a son, Gadir, and two daughters, Fargana
and Dilruba. Fargana, who is now 21, has been performing mugham
with her father for the past five years.
"When Fargana was as a baby, she used to cry a lot,"
Alim recalls. "I would sing mugham to calm her down. Once
she started talking, I taught her ghazals [poetic form used in
singing mughams]. I could see that she had potential in her voice,
and that's when I started teaching her to sing."
Fargana recalls: "I remember my father saying to me, 'When
you grow up, we will sing together.' Then in 1996, he took me
to one of his concerts in Germany. Everything started from there."
Surprisingly, the two of them don't practice very much together,
even though Fargana lives at home with her parents. "We
understand each other very well," Alim says. "We don't
need to practice together a lot."
When Fargana decided to study music at Baku's Music Academy,
Alim began teaching there. "I want Fargana to be more educated
than I am," he explains. "I'm more experienced in music
than she is, but she has a stronger theoretical base than I do.
Now I'm trying to pass my experience on to her.
"We have wonderful teachers of mugham here in Azerbaijan.
But many of them can't perform it. They know theory brilliantly.
As for me, I have to admit that I don't know theory. My knowledge
and feelings come from the singing and performing of mugham itself.
Actually, I don't accept too much theory in mugham. Somehow I
feel that it takes away from the spontaneity of the spiritual
When asked about Uzeyir Hajibeyov's influence on mugham, Alim
says he sees him as a great personality: "I don't think
I should express opinions about him. I haven't read his book
['Principles of Azerbaijani Folk Music', which is even available
in English]. The musical theorists should speak about this, not
Alim won the UNESCO Music Prize in 1999, which he says was a
complete surprise: "Actually, I didn't believe it when they
told me I had received it.
"I think of the UNESCO prize as a reward for my dedication
to art," he continues. "I've never deceived anyone
when it comes to music. Maybe in life, I've made mistakes, hurt
people or told lies. But my attitude toward my art has always
been very sincere, very genuine.
"What I mean by that is that I have never treated music
as a source for gaining an audience. I've always sung the way
I felt - the way I wanted. I could have changed my direction
to fit my audience, but I haven't. I've always sung and acted
independently - the way my heart wanted. As Fargana reminds me,
I've always sung the same way, whether there were three people
in the audience, or a thousand.
"Sometimes my relatives tell me to relax, not to knock myself
out so much, not to kill myself at concerts. I nod in agreement
with them, but when it comes to the actual performance, I never
manage to restrain myself. Unless you sacrifice yourself for
art, it doesn't come alive for you."
Music and Mysticism
Alim's singing is marked by extreme intensity and concentration.
"When I sing, it seems like I leave the physical world,"
he explains. "I feel myself entering a different world,
a spiritual world-as if there is no materiality. I feel so good
and comfortable there; I would love to stay there forever. But
unfortunately, when I finish singing, I suddenly return to this
"Sometimes this feeling just comes - it's not dependent
upon whether I want it or not. I understand that you have to
be so pure, so clean and so honest to gain access to this other
world. Somehow it seems to border between life and death as we
know it. There have been several times when I have felt myself
on that borderline.
"I don't know if this can be traced back to roots in Sufism,
to Nasimi Mansur Hallej, for example, and his conviction that
you can forget your physical existence and act 'outside your
"To tell you the truth, I am almost unaware of the world
of Azerbaijani philosophers. For whatever level I have attained,
I have reached it on my own experience. Maybe I'm lucky that
I'm unaware of these things on a theoretical basis; maybe that
makes it more natural for me. Somehow I just seem to intuit these
"Actually, human beings are amazing, they spend their entire
lifetimes on a journey discovering themselves. Suddenly you find
yourself doing something that you don't expect of yourself, meaning
that you don't fully know yourself. I'm constantly at war with
myself, as if there is another 'me' inside of me."
Alim believes that mugham can have a purifying effect on both
the singer and the audience. "It cleanses you from inside
and makes you purer," he explains. "It makes you pay
attention to the eternal things in life. I believe that mugham
has tremendous power - I'm convinced it can even prevent criminals
from committing crimes. There's no place for hatred in your heart
when you listen to mugham. It works upon your soul.
"Sometimes young people come up after a concert to thank
me. That's like giving me wings. I feel so elated when I can
awaken such feelings in people while they are still young; mugham
is not an easy genre for young people to understand.
"When I see my audience taking a trip into a spiritual realm
together with me, I feel happy. This is the greatest reward in
Alim Gasimov's latest CD, entitled "Love's Deep Ocean"
(no Azeri title), features him and his daughter Fargana;
the album was released in Frankfurt by Network Medien. In the
near future, samples of Alim and Fargana's music may be heard
at Azerbaijan International's Web site at AZER.com. Click on MUSIC. Jala
Garibova also contributed to this article.
(9.1) Spring 2001.
© Azerbaijan International 2001. All rights reserved.
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