Talking Azerbaijani culture: A conversation with Sevda Alekperzadeh
Below is an interview with Sevda Alekperzadeh, a distinguished performing artist based in Baku, the fourth in the interviews Azerbaijan in the World has recently conducted with leading figures of Azerbaijani culture. Mrs. Alekperzadeh’s official web page is at www.sevda.info/eng/.
Azerbaijan in the World: How is it that you became an artist? Was this a conscious choice or rather something more contingent?
Sevda Alekperzadeh: I think one is born an artist. One cannot fake it; one cannot suddenly decide to become a musician. It is thus genetically conditioned: one must have passion and a talent for it as inherent part of one’s Self. That is, music has certainly been inherent in me genetically. Even though I was born into a family of writers—both my grandfather and my father were well-known writers—all my family members including and especially my father also had a very fine voice. As a result, I have had the love for music since I was a kid and in the fifth grade, I made a firm decision to choose music as my occupation in life and to become a singer. At the age of 14, I joined the Aypara music band led by Vagif Garayzadeh. During my year with them, I also began studying mugham under the guidance of Alim Gasimov, as well as taking voice lessons on the side and listening intensely to jazz music at home. During the same year, I began to perform professionally on stage and took part in AzTV’s New Year program, for example. A year later, I left Aypara and began to perform solo and met Rafig Babayev who invited me to join and take part in the Baky Payizy (Baku’s Fall) competition. When I was 16, another music band—RAST (formed out of those who left Aypara)—invited me to join them, an invitation I accepted. In the same year, I entered the Azerbaijan University of Arts to study music comedy. After eight years with RAST, I began the solo career that I have pursued ever since.
AIW: How has the subject matter of your music evolved, particularly in light of your exposure to the diversity of music genres in your adolescence?
Alekperzadeh: One always feels the potential one has: In my childhood and adolescence, I was regularly listening to folk music and mugham—my dad brilliantly performed mugham—as well as to jazz and contemporary pop music. I tried all of those genres out, including professionally and as part of my academic training (I studied professionally our folk songs). In the process, I came to feel I had an aptitude for all them, and it is this feeling that has guided me along my way. As I have grown into a rather versatile musician, my artistic efforts would always—without me trying to prompt any particular outcome—result in an amalgam of sorts: I could naturally not stint myself within narrow limits of a single genre only. However, I have passed a long way to reach the point where I stand today.
AIW: In what ways do you think you are different from other Azerbaijani artists, like Aziza Mustafa Zadeh, for example, who seek to follow a fine line among several genres? Is there anything new you feel you have introduced, or would like to introduce, to the realm of music in Azerbaijan and beyond?
Alekperzadeh: First and foremost, I don’t think those who specifically aim to create something new will ever succeed, for any cultural product must be a result of a self-guided process and should come out naturally. As for myself, I don’t think there is any other Azerbaijani artist who has attempted the kind of fusion of Azerbaijani folk songs and other genres, including jazz and mugham, in vocal performances. There have certainly been others—such as Aziza Mustafa Zadeh, Vagif Mustafa Zadeh, and Rafig Babayev—who have attempted similar fusion in instrumental music, but I think I was the first to have tried it in vocal performances. And today, there are some others who are emerging and trying to follow suit.
AIW: Could you name any individual musicians, in Azerbaijan or indeed beyond, who have had an influence on your music?
Alekperzadeh: I would rather say that the music I perform these days has grown as a result of a natural, self-guided process by which many different exposures in music I have gone through have gradually merged to create something many see as my distinct style. While I certainly did listen to and greatly enjoyed work of many individual musicians, including Whitney Houston, Steve Wonder, Ella Fitzgerald, and Rachelle Ferrell, none had a stand-alone individual impact on what is my performance today. Instead, each added an element to what has emerged as an amalgam of influences I have gone through over my lifetime.
AIW: You perform both inside and outside Azerbaijan frequently. Which segment is more important to you?
Alekperzadeh: I don’t divide my audience into categories, for these all are people who come to listen to me, who love the kind of music I perform, and who love me. Hence, they all are dear to me, whether they reside in or outside of Azerbaijan. The only difference is that while performing abroad to the audience purely composed of foreigners, I feel a double responsibility, for I then represent not only myself and my music, but also my country and its culture.
AIW: There is a considerable number of Azerbaijani artists who have chosen to reside outside Azerbaijan at one or another point in life. Have you ever contemplated an idea of basing yourself outside your homeland?
Alekperzadeh: I have indeed received a number of invitations and suggestions, but have never seriously considered this option. To be outside-of-Azerbaijan is alien to me.
AIW: There has been much attention by the Azerbaijani government to promoting different strands of culture and arts, such as mugham, as part of an effort to mold a post-Soviet model of Azerbaijani identity. Is there a way in which you believe jazz could or indeed should play a similar role?
Alekperzadeh: It could only do so if it were ethno-jazz. Jazz in its pure form is not our music and no one in Azerbaijan could perform it better than Rachelle Ferrell or Ella Fitzgerald, for this is their music, not ours. For similar reasons, no one there could perform mugham better than our renowned performers thereof. Hence, we should rather go for mixed music, ethno-jazz. From my personal experience, I can say that the audience—domestic and international alike—is far more receptive to and welcoming of ethno-jazz rather than jazz in its pure form.
AIW: Have there been instances of, or are there plans for, collaboration between yourself and other artists from Azerbaijan or indeed elsewhere?
Alekperzadeh: Indeed, I often receive invitations from foreign artists. I just came back from Israel, for example, where I was invited to perform with Israeli musician Mark Piris Eliyahu.
AIW: Have your international performances been a result of direct contact between yourself and foreign agents, or were they rather organized through Azerbaijan’s Ministry of Culture?
Alekperzadeh: There are certainly instances when I perform internationally as part of a program organized by our Ministry of Culture, but most often my performances abroad have been the result of a direct interaction between myself and a foreign artist or a relevant cultural agency/company.
AIW: What is your assessment of the current state of the music scene in Azerbaijan? What should be done to prompt, and contribute to, its further evolution?
Alekperzadeh: There are many talented musicians in Azerbaijan, but each of them must decide on and establish his or her own priorities. Thus, it is not the government’s task on its own to foster the development of the country’s musical scene. There should normally be private agencies and agents that would work to promote particular kinds of music or artists. We do not have anything of the sort in Azerbaijan, and that is why the government has assumed some part of responsibility to this effect, even though it should not normally be expected to do so.
AIW: Azerbaijani government has invested a great deal in promoting mugham within the country and internationally. Are there other potentially promising strands of music that should receive more attention?
Alekperzadeh: Mugham is among our major assets worth bringing to international attention. Hence, I think it was a right choice to make. Indeed, to my mind, our greatest wealth consists of oil and mugham.