The words Alim Qasimov sang on Friday night at Asia Society were nearly five centuries old, written by a poet from Baghdad, Muhammad Fuzuli, who proclaimed, “Let my miserable heart burn in the fire of love.” The poetry’s longing, pain and spiritual seeking became raw and immediate, arriving in bursts of improvisation that made every phrase leap out.
Mr. Qasimov is simply one of the greatest singers alive, with a searing spontaneity that conjures passion and devotion, contemplation and incantation. He now performs with his daughter and student, Fargana Qasimov. They sing mugham, the classical music of Azerbaijan, which is related to Persian, Turkish and Arabic traditions, and they have an American release, “Spiritual Music of Azerbaijan” (Smithsonian Folkways).
A mugham is a symphonic-length suite, full of contrasting sections: unmetered and rhythmic, vocal and instrumental, lingering around a single sustained note or taking up a refrain that could be a dance tune. It is sparse music: usually just a single melodic line accompanied by a drone or a beat. It is also strategic; in the course of “Shur” (“Emotion”), the mugham the Qasimovs sang, the tonal center gradually rises, pushing the voices higher and higher. As it moves through its structure and classical-poetry text, the mugham allows singers and instrumentalists considerable freedom to improvise within its modes.
Mr. Qasimov’s voice makes each line a revelation. His tone is urgent, whether he is gliding gently into a note or wailing to the skies. He has a vast lexicon of quavers, bends and ululations, and a breath supply that’s just short of infinite; his phrases swoop and tremble, crescendo and hover and then curve anew, with grace to match their power. It never comes across as idle virtuosity; each flourish magnifies the text.
Ms. Qasimov was a worthy duet partner for her father. She applies his style with a clear, strong voice and her own intensity, which encompasses feminine tenderness along with declamatory force. They alternated portions of the poem and sometimes sang an upbeat melody together. And in an innovation that Mr. Qasimov has brought to mugham, there were passages that had them improvising simultaneously, entwining their voices in a free-floating polyphony.
Mr. Qasimov has also expanded the typical mugham ensemble; along with a tar, which is a banjolike lute, and a kamancha, a spike fiddle, Mr. Qasimov’s group included a double-reed instrument, the balaban (sometimes alternated with clarinet), and the naghara, a hand drum. Both singers also play daf, a tambourine. But the rightful center of the music is Mr. Qasimov’s voice, drawing on centuries of tradition to set the moment of performance aflame.
Source: NY Times