The performers walked onto the Slosberg Recital Hall stage in brilliantly colored clothing. Their entrance was grand—a slight shimmer here and there of the fabric at the back of the gown—and then all five musicians took their seats on a great red rug. They wielded five somehow similar, yet peculiarly unique, instruments, and got down in their postures to adequately perform their craft. Not a word from anyone among the group was spoken, which gave all members a mysterious quality that warranted all the more attention. Almost immediately thereafter, feeling the anticipation of the audience, they started their performance.
Fargana Qasimova & Ensemble is an Azerbaijani group that performed on Saturday, March 7. The program included songs such as “My Beloved is Tormenting Me” by Jahangir Jahangirov, “Have Mercy on Me” by Emin Sabitoghlu and Rasul Rza and “You Are My Beauty,” an Azerbaijani folk song. The titles themselves are enough to conjure up beautiful images of a past that is still waging a battle against Western influence. Maintaining one’s roots is an extremely difficult task, especially in the light of increasing globalization.
The concert was brought to Brandeis through MusicUnitesUs, a program with the intention of raising awareness of diverse cultures through music. MusicUnitesUs has sponsored concerts to highlight the musical traditions from India, Afghanistan, Brazil and Mali. The organization holds the firm belief that music is a commonality that transcends all cultures and can serve to unite people across the globe. A greater understanding of cultures, therefore, can be formed through the appreciation of divergent forms of music.
Fargana Qasimova & Ensemble is a quintet, with Fargana Qasimova as both vocalist and daf player, Rafael Asgarov on balaban, Rauf Islamov on kamancha, Zaki Valiyev on tar, and Javidan Nabiyev on naghara. Though “mugham,” a form of Azerbaijani music, is typically performed by a trio—a singer and two instrumentalists—there is some variance and more instrumentalists can be added. “Mugham” is an essential aspect of Azerbaijani culture and has been likened to Azerbaijani poetry, the intricate patterns of Azerbaijani carpets, and the architectural magnificence of Azerbaijani houses. This art form requires some improvisation and allows the singer freedom to play with the musicality of the song and the lyrical content. This may takes years, if not decades, to master.
Qasimova’s vocals were like a sweet, yearning melody along the shore. It drifted and carried its harmonious charm throughout the auditorium, appearing to tell the story of those before us. Her voice spoke of the lives of our ancestors, and our ancestor’s ancestors, taking us farther and farther into the past on an altogether epic journey. Her vocal style runs in deep contrast to the superficial autotuned sound that Western music has fully embraced, transforming the passion and sentiment that vocals can convey into a lifeless drone, an almost inhuman voice. Although the entirety of the performance was sung in another language, and therefore could not be understood lyrically, the overwhelming power of her voice and the range of feeling it could communicate was profound, even awe inspiring. She put the life back into music, giving it heart and soul when it has shed those things long ago in the United States.
The other musicians wielded instruments that had a faint resemblance to the ones we have come to know, but with many stark differences. The kamancha, for example, looks something like a cello, but in order to play different strings, the performer turns the instrument slightly as opposed to moving the bow at a different angle. Tar, Azerbaijan’s national instrument, is a lute that has a resonating chamber that is made from the pericardial membrane of a cow’s heart.
When Fargana Qasimova & Ensemble was introduced shortly before the start of its performance, the speaker made the comment, “I know that there will come the time when I never want you to stop playing.” The speaker, in this instance, spoke very genuine words that I personally shared. Unfortunately, though, every picturesque moment in time must, eventually, come to an end. An end, however, does not denote an absolute loss or failure to recall. Actually, the reverie that was the musical performance was remarkable for its magical intonation, Qasimova’s charming vocals, and the mastery with which the other musicians played their instruments. All together this created such a profound sound that resonated well with the audience members, who will always hear the Azerbaijani music in their minds like the swift wind on the shoreline.