Tag Archives: maqam

The Allegorical Romance of “Layla and Majnun”

Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival Presentation

Layla and Majnun Photo Credit: Susana Millman

 

Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival treated New York to a spectacular performance of the 7th century classic Arabic Bedouin tale of impossible love, “Layla and Majnun,” October 26-28.  There are numerous secular and mystical versions of the legend all over the world, once described by Lord Byron as  “the Romeo and Juliet of the East.”   Over centuries, two key poets in world literature popularized the story throughout Central Asia, the Middle East, and beyond.  The story has become renowned and celebrated in the history of literature, visual arts, cinema, and music in many diverse cultures.

The 12th century Persian poet, Nizami Ganjavi, whose epic poem of close to 5000 distichs rends the heart with the immense agony and longing suffered by Layla and Majnun, the two hapless protagonist lovers in the story 1. Their union is forbidden by their parents due to the all-consuming love madness of Majnun (meaning “possessed”).  Nizami’s version eventually influenced the 16th century Azerbaijani poet Muhammad Fuzuli’s version.  In turn, the Azerbaijani composer, Uzeyir Hajibeyov, borrowed Fuzuli’s work to create the Middle East’s first opera that premiered in Baku in 1908.  Considered a national treasure in Azerbaijan, the 3½ hour long opera is still performed at the Azerbaijan State Opera and Ballet Theater every year as the season-opener.

Through collaboration between the Mark Morris Dance Group, the Silk Road Ensemble, the late British artist, Howard Hodgkin, and Azerbaijan’s famed singers Alim Qasimov in the role of Majnun, and his protege daughter, Fargana Qasimova as Layla, Lincoln Center’s presentation was a finely wrought synthesis of the theme story in music, dance, and visual art.

Intense and fast-paced, the performance is based on Hajibeyli’s opera score and the libretto on Fuzuli’s poem, Leyli and Majnun.  Lasting just over 65 minutes, the original opera has been transformed into a chamber piece as a suite arrangement in 6 parts.  It opens with a prelude medley of traditional Azerbaijani love songs, sung by Kamila Nabiyeva and Miralam Miralamov who play frame drums, while accompanied by players of kamancheh spike fiddle and tar lute.   As an overture, the introduction foretells the passion, despair, and unbearable pain to come.  They set the tone for the complexity of the drama to unfold, the desperate yearning by two separated souls in quest of love and union with each other.

The actual performance condenses the story’s many episodes into 5 acts: Love and Separation, The Parents’ Disapproval, Sorrow and Despair, Layla’s Unwanted Wedding, and The Lovers’ Demise.  16 dancers stylistically fuse ballet, Azerbaijani folk dance, and Sufi dervish whirling over tiered stage levels. They enact the sequence of dramatic episodes against a screened abstract painting of vibrant green and red giant expressionist brush strokes created by the artist Howard Hodgkin.

The music is glorious and the dramatic binding force. Flashes and passages of western classical modalities enhance the foundation of Azerbaijani classical music, the mugham genre.  In Lincoln Center’s program notes, Azerbaijani ethnomusicologist Aida Huseynova, notes,

Mugham is a branch of the large maqam tradition cultivated in the Middle East and Central Asia.  An improvised modal music, mugham historically has been performed by a mugham trio that consists of a singer playing gaval (frame drum) and two instrumentalists playing tar (lute) and kamancheh (spike fiddle).  Mugham remains a precious part of the traditional music heritage of Azerbaijan.  Since the early 20th century, mugham also has become the main source of creative inspiration and experimentation for Azerbaijani composers…. In 2003, UNESCO recognized Azerbaijani mugham as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity 2.

In concert with the featured star vocalists, Alim Qasimov and Fargana Qasimova, seated on a low dais center stage,10 musicians expand the traditional mugham trio formation.  On a diverse instrumental mix of kamancheh, tar, shakuhachi, pipa, hand percussion, two violins, viola, cello, and bass – they are true to the Silk Road Ensemble vision of global cultural cross-pollination and musical dialogue.  Theirs is a grand symphonic expression of the story, illuminated by rapidly changing passages of pathos, glints of joy in hope, sorrow.  Theirs too is delicacy and elegant refinement.

To hear the opening strains by the string musicians is to be transported to a realm of contemplation of the soul.  They tug at your heart, gently.  With a shift in tempo, all musicians join in, allegretto, and with urgency.  The symphony swells, bearing the powerful melismatic wails of Majnun.  Layla begins to lament, sob, and weep. The dancers whirl, swoop, and leap in rhythmic counterpoint movement with the orchestration.  So begins the impassioned, doomed dialogue between Majnun and Layla, musically alternating with instrumental passages.

Although on one level this is a tragic secular story of unrequited love, the entire performance narrative carries mystical overtones of Sufism.  Sufis have long interpreted the love story as a reflection of love for God.  In allegory, Majnun symbolizes the Human Spirit longing for the Beloved or Layla as Divine Beauty.

Majnun strives to realize “perfect love” in Layla, a love that transcends sensual contact with the beloved, a love that is free from selfish intentions, lust, and earthly desires. Precisely for this reason, many commentators have interpreted Nezami’s Laili and Majnun as a Sufi (Islamic mystical) allegorical narrative, where the lover seeks ultimate union with, as well as annihilation in, the Beloved (i.e. the Divine or the Truth). Majnun’s harsh life in the desert, then, has been compared to the ascetic life of Muslim mystics who rejected earthly pleasures and renounced worldly affinities 3.

There is also deeper meaning in the Azerbaijani mugham itself.  The musical experience is meant to bring about a transformation of consciousness.  Aida Huseynova has commented: “Mugham is about a catharsis.  You go through suffering and you purify your soul.  You come to some new phase of your development as a human being.  And this is the main meaning, spiritual and philosophical, of mugham.  Mugham is just not music, it’s a philosophy 4.”

A universal epiphany occurs in the ending death of Layla and Majnun – their ultimate union with the Beloved Divine.  Like a jewel, the facets of the performance still shine bright in memory.  I still haven’t decided if I felt that the performance as a suite composition could have been longer or whether I wished to be caught in its spell for just a few more minutes.

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Artist Profiles: Bora Yasar

Bora Yasar

Bora Yasar was born in 1973 in Gaziantep, Turkey. He studied Alevi music and played saz for a semah group. He studied and applied classical Turkish music maqam and sufi music on the fretless classic guitar with neyzen Sezgin Bademli (University of Gaziantep Conservatory). In addition to his musical studies, Yasar studied Agricultural Engineering at Ankara University (1992-1994), Environmental Engineering at Mayis University (1994-1997) and Mechanical Engineering at University of Gaziantep (1997-21).

He has been researching Mesopotamian and Anatolian (which contains Turkish, Kurdish, Suryani, Armenian, and Laz) music and their similarities.

He plays saz, kopuz, yayli, mizrapli, tanbur, and fretless guitar.

Currently, he lives in New York and is working with different musicians from all over the world.

Our goal is to musically combine the traditions of the different ethnicities, societies and tribes of Asia Minor throughout history beginning from Greeks and including Romans, Ottomans, Armenians, Jews, and Kurds,” says Bora Yasar. Along with Olcay Sesen, he makes up Sounds From Anatolia, a group they founded several years ago in Gaziantep, an ancient city in the South-East part of Turkey.

Sounds From Anatolia utilizes classic scales and local instruments to create a fusion of modern day sounds that bear traditional forms of Classical Turkish,Folkloric and Sufi (Tasawwuf) music. Played in the Anatolian maqqam (mode system), these songs include a wide range of styles from songs of mystical love (ghazal), to hymns (ilahi) and music of the Ottoman court. By fusing this musicwith their own improvisational compositions, they become archivist of the traditional repertoire while molding old forms into a new form. Their music isnot East meets West, more than it is ancient meets today.

Their mission of introducing the indigenous music of their ancestors to the world brought them to the US last year. Here is a short excerpt from our conversation with Bora:

How did you start working together?

Everything started organically. We met in college, had long conversations about music and gradually started playing together. In time we realized that there were more people around us listening to our music than we had initially thought.

How would you define your sound?

We are very interested in ethnic sounds. Every major society that resided in Anatolia left a distinctive sound and style. That’s why the region is so rich today. Lift a stone from the ground and you can trace the marks of different cultures that have existed there. The music of Anatolia is a mosaic and so is our sound.

What kind of instruments are you using in your music?

I went to school in different parts of Turkey and was introduced to different sounds inherent to those regions. I played with local musicians at family fests and gatherings and was introduced to a myriad of local instruments. I play classic and fretless guitar, tanbur (a long-necked plucked lute with frets),flute, cura, and kopuz (a short-stringed lute with three strings). My partner Olcay accompanies me with the classic guitar.

Musically speaking, who influenced you?

We are influenced by a wide array of artists but most importantly I would say Erkan Ogur. He is the pioneer of the fretless guitar and an extremely experienced musician in the field. Other than that the Armenian duduk player Jivan Gasparyan, Goksel Baktagir, 13th century poets Yunus Emre and Asik Veysel. We also buy almost everything Kalan Music puts out in Turkey; all their releases are superior.

In your shows you mention the story of Mississippi and the blues. What is the real story?

I read an interview with Erkan Ogur and he was saying that in order to be able to play the blues or jazz you had to cross the Mississippi river 4-5 times.Ogur was drawing a comparison to Turkish folk music and explaining how difficult it is to master it. So, we decided to come here and see if we can cross theriver.

Are you really going to do that?

We don’t know, maybe. We’ll begin with the Hudson River, we live in New Jersey. [laughs]

Who would you like to collaborate with?

Needless to say, Erkan Ogur is our biggest influence and we would give anything to play with him. I also found out that Omar Faruk Tekbilek lives in New York and we would like to collaborate with him as well.

What is your goal for the future?

We would like to play as much as possible to introduce our sound to the American people and at the same time learn their ethnic sounds.

[Interview courtesy of Bora Yasar].

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Artist Profiles: Alim Qasimov

Alim Qasimov
Alim Qasimov

Alim Qasimov, born in 1957 in Shamakha is an Azerbaijani musical legend, revered as one of the five best singers of all time. Qasimov is known for his work in traditional Azerbaijani music and more specifically his renderings of mugham and ashiq.

Mugham is a traditional, or classical, musical style which has its origins in the Caucasus and the Turkish-speaking peoples of Central Asia. The word mugham itself derives maqam, denoting the modus in Arabic music, The notion of mugham also applies to the performers: the singer, and the ensemble. Within the latter you’ll always find three instruments: the tar (lute), the standing kamanche (violin) and the daf.

Ashiq, the rural bardic tradition that is found in Turkey, Azerbaijan and the Azeri region of Iran.

Qasimov has released several albums, toured the world’s most prestigious venues and festivals and in 1999, 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 Ali Khan.

Alim Qasimov has also participated in Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Project, a celebration of the art and culture of the ancient Silk Road.

Fargana Qasimova, Alim’s daughter, has absorbed her father’s musical gift, and is well on the way to becoming a great singer in her own right.

Discography:

Classical Mugham (1996)
The Legendary Art of Mugham (Network, 1997)
The Art of Mugham: Azerbaijan (Ocora, 1997)
Love’s Deep Ocean (Network, 1999)
Spirit of the East, with Esti Kenan Ofri (Magda Music, 2000)
Oyanish (2003)
Central Asian Series, Vol. 6: Spiritual Music of Azerbaijan (Smithsonian Folkways, 2007)
Intimate dialogue – Live at Morgenland Festival Osnabrück (2009)
Rainbow: Music Of Central Asia Vol. 8 [CD + DVD] (Smithsonian Folkways, 2010)

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