Songs of devotion

Azerbaijan's star nomadic balladeer Alim Qasimov delivered a resolute and shortened performance

Azeri legend Alim Qasimov (centre, accompanied by his fellow musicians) sang six mughams with great power.
Azeri legend Alim Qasimov (centre, accompanied by his fellow musicians) sang six mughams with great power.PHOTO: JACK YAM/ESPLANADE



Esplanade Recital Studio/Sunday

National treasures rarely come as gentle, unshowy and workman-like as Alim Qasimov, the titan among the ashiqs, or nomadic balladeers, of Azerbaijan.

Back in Baku, the capital of this oil-rich, former Soviet country that edges the western Caspian Sea, Azeris stop him in the street to shake his hand.

His art is mugham, or classical Azeri music that goes back more than half a millennium.

A mugham's arc, as shown in this evening's six songs, goes from beseeching quavers to defiant arpeggios, punctuated by brusque bursts of talk-singing.

It often ends in reiterations of syllables, such as "duh-duhduh-duh", to a yelping flourish.

Most of Qasimov's spiralling melodies were in a minor key and, so, hung heavy in the air as he paused between songs to sigh, blow his nose and compose himself for the next effort.

His was the only voice from the Land of Fire this Sunday evening, as his daughter and fellow ashiq Fargana had to forgo Singapore because of emergency surgery.

The seven-minute video that preceded the performance and the ensuing slideshow in washed-out hues of ash, mud and pus while he sang summed up the patrician-like Qasimov's rough-and-ready worldview.

Not for him are Baku's gleaming new towers, such as its Heydar Aliyev cultural centre by the late architect Zaha Hadid. Give him old minarets and choppy, grey waters anytime.

Most movingly, the video had a moment in which he and his daughter were bathed in sunshine as they sang long and strong beneath a skylight.

She then mused that women were "delicate" and so the force with which ashiqshad to exert their voices was forbidding.

Her father's now-resolute, nowuncertain ululations certainly bore that out, most notably on the urgent mugham, My Days Are Passing By, composed by Alibaba Mammadov, with lyrics by Mikayil Mushfiq.

Qasimov was backed by four musicians, whom he did not name. One was Ra'uf Islamov - who had been featured in the video - on the kamanche, a spiked fiddle that he played with manic mastery like an erhu; another strummed the tar, a ukulele-like lute; the third was on the balaban, a reeded flute; and the last beat a drum.

Qasimov himself thumped a daf, or hand-held kompang-like frame drum, and thrusted it about while singing.

His solid, earthy voice was most exquisite whenever he hit the top notes, most notably on his second proffering, Love Of Loves by Ashiq Khanish Shirvani.

One yearned for him to stay in the higher registers as his plumbing of the lower keys was valiant at best, no matter how deeply he reached into himself.

Overall, the experience was less the crackle of flames and more the glow of embers. But his full-house audience was entranced throughout, even though with his lone encore, he was nine minutes short of his appointed 11/2 hours.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 19, 2016, with the headline 'Songs of devotion'. Subscribe