Azerbaijani culture In Diaspora: A conversation With Sabina Rakcheyeva

Below is the third in the series of interviews Azerbaijan in the World has recently conducted with leading figures of the widespread Azerbaijani diaspora on the state of Azerbaijani culture abroad.  This third discussion, which focuses on music, is with Sabina Rakcheyeva, a distinguished Azerbaijani violinist living in London.  Dr. Rakcheyeva’s official web page is at  

Azerbaijan in the World:  How did it happen that you became an artist?  Was it a rational choice of conscious mind or the spontaneous pursuit of what you felt was your calling in life?

Sabina Rakcheyeva:  When I started taking violin lessons—I was seven at the time—I certainly did not know I was going to become a professional musician.  Although my mother has always been very fond of classical music, none of my family members is a professional musician; so the decision to try myself out in music was one of my own and not a function of family influence of any sort.  Having once seen someone play violin on TV, I asked my mother to buy one for myself.  She proved receptive to my desire and followed up by enrolling me in a music school.  While about half a year into my music classes I wanted to quit (the classes proved far more demanding and required far greater commitment than I had initially assumed); upon my mother’s insistence I continued and following one more year, I started to get a taste for music and good violin sound.  I also enjoyed performing on stage, so I decided to continue into a more advanced level.  At the age of 13, I decided to become a professional.  I then left a regular high school and enrolled in a Baku music college at the age of 14 and subsequently the Baku conservatory at the age of 18, from which I graduated—with both a bachelor’s and master’s degree—in 2000.  I continued my musical education at the Juilliard School in New York, spending three years there and graduating with a master’s degree in 2002.  

AIW:  When was it that you established your own ensemble?

Rakcheyeva:  When I completed Juilliard, I decided to remain in New York for two more years performing as part of various orchestras, chamber music groups and ensembles.  Only when I moved to London in 2007 did I set up my own first ensemble.  I am still with that group, with which I recorded my first album UnVeiled in 2011.  The latter, for the first time, features music of my own making.
AIW:  How has the subject matter of your music evolved and what influences have affected you in this evolution? 

Rakcheyeva:  Like every other beginning violinist in my part of the world, I began as a classical musician, for a simple reason that there was no extra curriculum offered at the music school.  When I moved to New York at the age of 21, I began to experiment somewhat with jazz and improvised music; but even then, my repertoire remained dominated by classical music.  In part, it was again a function of the imperatives of professional training I had received (one is inevitably restricted by an academic curriculum one’s school has to impose), but in part this derives from the desire of someone who left her small world at a rather young age—indeed, I left Baku as a teenager—to succeed as a professional musician in the international realm, which effectively translated into the desire to become part of the international classical community.  Besides and like any artist, I wished to have an exposure to and receive a feedback from wider and more diverse audiences, something I could not get at home.   

After I was out of school, I wanted to find my own niche.  I would not suggest my interests shifted completely from classical music, however.  Rather, they expanded to involve—apart from classical music—some elements of jazz and improvised music.  Indeed, through my music, I now attempt to create fusion of Western, classical and traditional compositions.  While the idea to fuse my music with, and ground it in the traditional elements was in a way intuitive, it was also my way of relieving myself from the tight constraints of the academic program I had to pursue in Baku and New York.  And that I was able to experiment and improvise with other musicians in my ensemble encouraged me further to do something on my own. 

AIW:  You are Azerbaijani, yet now you are based in London and normally perform outside your homeland.  Do you nonetheless feel you represent Azerbaijan with your music, or would you rather suggest that your music is more cosmopolitan in nature? 

Rakcheyeva:  My position on this is two-fold.  On one hand, even though I am from Azerbaijan, my background is in classical music.  So, when I perform classical music as part of, say, a 50-piece orchestra, I become part of the international classical music community, part of a whole, that is, and one far bigger than myself and, indeed, far wider than Azerbaijan.  But on the other hand, in any other circumstances, I always represent and am always referred to as a violinist from Azerbaijan.          

AIW:  In what ways, then, do you think your music represents Azerbaijan and communicates Azerbaijani identity to outside listeners?

Rakcheyeva:  Because my current work is fusion of the West and the East, my Azerbaijani origins are always reflected in my own compositions.  For my first collection, for example, I used some mugham as a background tune, as well as some elements from traditional Azerbaijani songs.  In fact, I grounded some of my compositions in Azerbaijani folk songs, such as Sari Gelin and Lacin, among others.  

AIW:  You noted that creating fusion between the Western music and Azerbaijani traditional elements has been your way to distinguish yourself from other performers on the international musical scene.  In what ways do you think you are different from other Azerbaijani artists in this; those, that is, who attempted similar fusion with their music, like Alim Gasimov who has tried to create a cultural mix between Azerbaijani mugham and Western elements, or indeed Aziza Mustafa Zadeh who, like her father, tried to create fusion between jazz and traditional Azerbaijani music?    

Rakcheyeva:  I strongly believe that in the current globalised world in which we are living, it is extremely difficult—if at all possible—to claim you have created something no one had ever before done, for at least one simple reason that we can’t know and can’t be exposed to the work of everyone there is and has been.  Rather, my goal is to express myself, indeed convey my message, through music by virtue of my own means and my own ideas.  For me, those ideas are certainly new, for I personally don’t know of any violinist from Azerbaijan who would do the same things as I do.  And for me, a sense that I am doing something that to me is original is a sufficient incentive to work and create.  But again, since I am also a classical musician, I am always happy to play something that has been performed hundreds and hundreds of times by others as well.    

AIW:  You note your goal in music is to convey your message.  What is the message?

Rakcheyeva:  First and foremost, it is my feelings that I strive to convey.  It is also, however, the cultural elements of where I come from that I try to communicate to my audience.  I feel very strongly about the place of my origin and its culture and am proud that I am well positioned to communicate some elements of that culture to the Western audience in a language, which they understand and to which they are receptive.  And my strong belief is that one should always approach people in their own language and by their own means.  In this sense, my efforts at presenting the elements of Azerbaijani traditional music in a classical or jazz arrangement are partly meant to serve these goals as well.  This sort of exposure could well serve as a first step on the way towards the introduction of the Western audience to the richness of Azerbaijani music.              

AIW:  Then can one say that it was from these strategic considerations that you sought to fuse the several streams of music in the first place?  

Rakcheyeva:  Only in part, because the other part of the process was rather intuitive.  When I started performing and even when I performed some traditional Azerbaijani music with violin, I would play it in a somewhat Western way because of the training I have received.  I certainly could not simply pick up a violin and perform mugham in a way a traditional kamancha artist would do, for example.  I would necessarily, if inadvertently, add some Western elements to the sound.  When I first did this, however, I felt that effort might indeed become something I would try doing on a more continuous basis.  The first time I felt this was in New York when, in the middle of a concert in which I was performing classical music, I was unexpectedly asked to play a piece of Azerbaijani traditional music.  Following my performance, many people approached me saying they had never heard Azerbaijani music before, and adding that with my playing—indeed, it wasn’t purely traditional music that I performed, but a tune in my own improvised arrangement—they understood and grasped it quite well.         
AIW:  Can we then say that what your music is today is a result of your Azerbaijani origins, on one hand, and Western training to which you were exposed, on the other?

Rakcheyeva:  Certainly, but there is also a third element—my personality—in which my music is grounded.  The personality factor is very important, for you may well find people similar to me in terms of their cultural origins and academic background, yet different in terms of the music style they perform.  Regardless of what training an artist has gone through and wherever she comes from, when it comes to interpretation of whatever she has been exposed to over the lifetime, be that training or culture, it is always about realisation of the artist’s inner feelings and perceptions and this is where her personal character kicks in.          

AIW: Apart from these three factors, could you name any other individual musicians, in Azerbaijan or indeed beyond, who have also had an influence on your music?  

Rakcheyeva:  First and foremost, I am certainly grateful to my teachers who introduced me to the world of music and who instilled in me a belief that I have certain abilities and talents and that, provided I work hard, the music pathway could prove rewarding.  

As far as the particular nature of my music is concerned, my big idol in the earlier years of my career—again to a large extent given the Soviet Union context in which I grew up and began my professional career—was Russian violinist David Oistrakh.  To me, he was and still is one of the greatest violinists of the past.  When it comes to composers, my favourite is certainly J. S. Bach.  More recently, Alim Gasimov and Aziza Mustafa Zadeh proved big influences on me and my music.  Indeed, their success at breaking through the realm of the Eastern world and gaining popularity in the West, in part through their efforts to mix and fuse the Western and Eastern elements in their music, is impressive.  Alim’s sheer personality has impressed me as well, humble but passionate and authoritative.         

AIW:  Where do you see your music going next?

Rakcheyeva:  I certainly look forward to trying new experimental approaches to music, as well as continuing performing classical music.  I will hopefully continue performing with my current ensembles and will also involve myself with new chamber groups.  In terms of genres, I will continue incorporating some elements of Azerbaijani music into my compositions and improvisations.  And finally, I will also advocate for music as an important tool of communication and cultural diplomacy.   

AIW:  Have there been instances of, or are there plans for, collaboration between yourself and other artists from Azerbaijan or indeed elsewhere?

Rakcheyeva:  Given that I was deeply into the writing of my doctoral dissertation over the last few years and that I have been rather immersed into the cultural scene of the West, there has not been much opportunity for me to collaborate with Azerbaijani performers.  Now that I completed this stage of my life—indeed I just had my graduation on July 20—I certainly plan to pursue more collaborative projects.  In the past, I did experiment with Alim Gasimov, for example; it was wonderful and we might well do something together in future.  I also like the style of our young and very talented pianist Isfar Sarabski; so he and I might well collaborate in future as well.           

AIW:  Which of your concerts do you consider a particular success? 

Rakcheyeva:  Over nearly twenty years of my performing career, I have had many fantastic and memorable experiences on stage.  I consider the most successful performances those when the members of the audience really enjoyed the performance and came backstage to tell me that the music made an impact on them and their state of mind.  To me, this is an ultimate reward for any artist. 
AIW:  You mentioned you spent the last few years of your life doing a PhD with the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London.  Could you say more about that stage in your life?  How did you arrive at the decision to do a PhD? 

Rakcheyeva:  The years of 1995-1996, when I was around 18-19 years old and was still in Baku, were pivotal ones for Azerbaijan.  There were a lot of new embassies opening up, many new concerts and orchestras staged, many private events organised, and so on.  I was very lucky to become part of all this as I was constantly invited to perform at various concerts and private events.  Indeed, I had a very tight schedule at the time, performing several times per week.  Even when I left for New York, I continued my active involvements in different kinds of events, including and particularly those organized by our embassy in Washington, DC, for international audiences.  And it was when I started performing outside Azerbaijan that I came to feel I represented Azerbaijan and I began to develop an interest in public diplomacy and took notice of the power of music to connect people of diverse cultural and professional backgrounds.  Given this new interest, I later took part in several international conferences, seminars and workshops on diplomacy, particularly public diplomacy.  One of those workshops, organised by the Prince of Lichtenstein in the summer 2007 at the time when relations between the United States and Iran were particularly tense, was on the situation around Iran.  The organizers invited me as well as someone of Muslim origins yet based and trained and performing in the West.  Having attended this meeting in which both representatives of Iran and Western countries including the United States were present, I saw just how tense relations between the parties indeed were at the time and how difficult it was for them to find a common ground and engage in a constructive dialogue.  I gave a performance immediately after the meeting, one which representatives of both sides attended.  Having seen how all of them—regardless of the obvious and seemingly irresolvable tensions one could observe in relations during the actual meeting—came to relate to my music in a way that a sort of positive interaction between them unfolded after my performance as they started discussing different elements around it, I have begun thinking about the role an artist could play in negotiations and bridging seemingly unbridgeable positions between the parties.  Shortly thereafter, I came across a doctoral program in the music department at SOAS, the framework of which promised to enable me to use an approach rooted in my music background and apply it to international relations.  So I decided to apply and this is how I moved to London in 2007 and became a PhD student at SOAS, where I have spent the last five years of my life.                     

AIW:  Do you now feel it was a useful experience and something you could indeed use in future as you progress further in your career as a performing artist?

Rakcheyeva:  It certainly was!  First of all, as a result of the research I did, I met many interesting people with whom I hope to remain in contact.  But apart from this, because of this experience, I can now present myself not merely as a performing musician, but also as a cultural practitioner of a different sort.  As a violin performer, one’s contribution is limited to whatever concerns actual violin performances, but as someone with an academic degree, I have an opportunity to apply a theoretical approach to the role of music and musical improvisation in the negotiations process.  Indeed, my dissertation primarily focused on particular ways in which one could use musical improvisation as a tool in cultural diplomacy.  I should note that my first CD was part of this academic project and only later became a stand-alone commercial project.  The first ensemble I established in London, the one I still remain with, was also initially meant as part of this project.  The idea was to observe on a very practical basis the process by virtue of which an improvised piece of music emerge as a result of a complex negotiation process within a multinational group of musicians—each coming from different cultural backgrounds and espousing therefore different tastes in music—and then draw comparisons with a similar process of negotiation in the realm of international relations and diplomacy and draw useful lessons the former could offer for the latter.  I hoped that practicing diplomats could look into the complex process by which an improvised piece of music comes to being and draw useful lessons as to the ways in which “negotiating” people could relate to each other, negotiate their differences and find a jointly worked out solution.  Finally, I also looked into the ways in which music could be used in conflict resolution, as well as in efforts to represent one’s country to broader audiences and in wider realms.              

AIW:  Did you also look, then, at the cultural policies of Azerbaijan and did you come up with any recommendations one could use to improve the latter, especially given the obvious efforts the Baku government has been making in this direction recently? 

Rakcheyeva:  Yes, indeed.  I examined what has been done so far in terms of the country’s public/cultural diplomacy and asked myself whether anything could be done more effectively, including and primarily internally within the country’s musical scene.  One recommendation I came up with, for example, was a call to focus on long-term collaborative projects effected as part of the country’s cultural diplomacy abroad, projects that would pair Azerbaijani musicians and artists with their peers abroad and promote their interaction beyond a one-time performance. 

AIW:  More generally, what is your assessment of the current state of the music scene in Azerbaijan and what should be done to prompt, and contribute to, its further evolution?  That is, what forms do you think the government’s support for music, and perhaps art in general, could assume?

Rakcheyeva:  Indeed, a primary focus of my dissertation was on the ways in which one could work to benefit the local cultural agencies and agents.  Although Azerbaijan has many talented artists, our local cultural agents and agencies have yet to develop to the point that they could satisfy the demands of the country’s rapidly growing cultural scene and thus be positioned to contribute to its development.  The key problem in this regard is that the Ministry of Culture, the country’s key agent of the kind and one that receives the largest portion of the government fund, is responsible for all the cultural projects there are in the country, both internal and external.  In such a situation, progress becomes simply impossible.  For if you don’t stimulate, including financially, local agents coming from different strands of music, including those different from mugham and jazz which are currently receiving the biggest chunk of government attention, the local cultural scene will inevitable grow increasingly impoverished.  That said, we need to begin by encouraging smaller cultural initiatives, allocating smaller grants, on a competitive basis, to smaller cultural agencies and agents like galleries, music groups and independent artists.  Currently, the artists who do get some funding support have not won a competition, but have been “selected” by one party or the other on the basis of the latter’s own, inevitably limited, knowledge of the country’s cultural scene. 

In addition, for the domestic artists to flourish, Azerbaijan needs a solid cultural management system in place, something we clearly do not have at the moment.  Given this latter deficiency, for example, the Ministry of Culture—whenever it needs to implement a cultural project—has to outsource its implementation to some external agency.  Not only does this cost additional money, it also fails to stimulate local agents of the kind.  Yet this is not because the Ministry does not want to outsource the event to local agents that they end up turning to external ones, but because we simply do not have local agents of the sort in the country.  We must therefore start by training a certain number of local people as cultural managers.  While establishing a relevant program internally might well take some time, we could begin by sending a certain number of people to study in the relevant programs abroad.  Only then could we gradually observe the emergence of a range of different private agencies and individual agents.

Another way in which the government could stimulate the internal cultural scene, make it more competitive and build a more healthy and better functioning funds allocation system is to establish a National Arts Council similar to the one that exists in the United Kingdom.  The latter—if allocated an important portion of government funds and given a certain extent of independence in its functioning—could provide funds, on a competitive basis, to smaller cultural agents.  It could also work to design and implement larger projects of programmatic nature, something currently done by the Ministry of Culture.  In that event, the government would no longer—via its Ministry of Culture—emerge as a direct and unique funder of all the cultural activities in the country, but as a stimulus of greater diversity.     

AIW:  You have talked about music management.  What about music education per se?  What is the state of affairs in that realm in the country and does it need an improvement of any sort?

Rakcheyeva:  In part, we should be grateful to the Soviet education system, which made sure that music education in Azerbaijan remains rather good.  What needs to be done, however, is to give the young Azerbaijanis more opportunities to engage with the international music scene as well, something that does certainly exist at the moment, but we need more of this.  Moreover, we need to work to upgrade the curriculum currently used at musical schools in Azerbaijan.  Introducing some unconventional courses in the curriculum, like improvisation, fusion music, jazz—something where people could be more creative—would certainly be an improvement. 

AIW:  The government has by now come up with a number of mechanisms, including the international festival in Gabala and international mugham festival, through which it exercises its cultural diplomacy.  What do you think about these efforts?

Rakcheyeva:  These efforts have indeed been very positive and do help promote our culture abroad.  What we need to make these efforts ever more effective is, again, to have a better cultural management system in place.  We have wonderful artists to represent our culture and we have sufficient funds to be able to invite distinguished artists from abroad; the absence of a solid cultural management system is the only missing link.  At the same time, we need to be concerned about promoting the broader cultural education of Azerbaijanis, something the newly established national cultural program, if paid attention and further improved—could certainly help with. 

AIW:  Azerbaijan recently hosted Eurovision song contest.  What role do you think it played in the country’s cultural diplomacy?

Rakcheyeva:  While many serious artists, including in the West, regard the Eurovision contest as a major pop event only, several artists have told me that the performances of Azerbaijani traditional music included in the overall program did indeed provide an impressive introduction to the country in general and its rich culture in particular.  

AIW:  Finally, do you believe that art could have a wider influence within Azerbaijan beyond the cultural realm to which it directly relates?

Rakcheyeva:  Absolutely!  Art can affect anything and everything.  For art is all about human relations, it is something that a human being produces, whether by means of a musical instrument, a brush, or a pen.  Everything that lies beyond is, in fact, nothing but a continuation of a human spirit and human emotions.  No wonder that the biggest figures in history, including in politics, have been involved with arts at any stage in life in one way or the other.  For any dimension in our life, be it diplomacy or economic realm, is all about human relations, and as long as this is the case, art can and does have a large role to play.  Consequently, the more we invest in art, the better, the more intelligent, and the more virtuous nation we shall become.