Alim Qasimov Ensemble

City Recital Hall, January 21


Sydney - January 21, 2017: The Alim Qasimov Ensemble  perform during the 2017 Sydney Festival (photo by Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival)
Alim Qasimov Ensemble. Photo: Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival.

As we enter the new world order of trashing truth and reviling cultures perceived as alien, it was like sliding into a parallel universe to relish the nuanced and ancient musical world of Azerbaijan presented by Alim Qasimov’s sextet. Here was truth intertwined with its perennial lover, beauty, and tradition in dialogue with its corollary, innovation.

Qasimov’s innovation is to interweave mugham, or Persian classical music, with the more folkloric ashiq idiom. In so doing he has reinvigorated his homeland’s musical tradition, and perhaps rendered it more accessible to a wider audience.

Whereas the sounds of Arabia and the Subcontinent are familiar to millions beyond those regions, this music, which bisects those two geographically and musicologically, remains an exotic mystery to most. As presented here it lacked the rhythmic complexity of its neighbours, but matched them in melodic subtlety.

This was primarily espoused in the singing of Qasimov and his daughter, Fargana Qasimova. Much of their art seemed to lie in the filigree ornamentation of quarter-tones within improvisations on set compositions: mesmerising invention allied to perfect intonation, exceptional breath control, impressive range and beguiling tone. In some ways Qasimova’s vocal flourishes even outshone her famous father’s, although he was capable of astounding leaps up into a falsetto range that could have almost transcendental impact.

The ensemble’s other members fulfilled roles as accompanists and improvisers, although in this latter capacity they received surprisingly little time in the foreground. Zaki Valiyev stood out with his dazzling interpolations on the fretted, vaguely guitar-shaped tar, as did Rauf Islamov on his kamancha (spiked fiddle). Both these instruments were used to engage in exchanges with the singers and to take short solos. By contrast Rafael Asgarov’s clarinet and double-reed balaban were more for doubling melodies and thickening textures than improvising, and Javidan Nabiyev’s hand-drumming on his two nagharas beefed up what the singers provided on their dafs (frame drums).

For a relative novice it was enchanting, without maintaining its highs long enough to be consistently transporting.