Aziza Mustafa Zadeh: Inhabiting the Mystical

Aziza Mustafa Zadeh: Inhabiting the Mystical

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Photograph courtesy of Jazziza Records

The mugami-jazz of Azeri-born pianist and composer, Aziza Mustafa-Zadeh belongs right here in this wellspring and outpouring of emotion. It illuminates everything: strength, drive, courage like flamenco; essence and virtue like a child; wisdom like the ancients!

To go back to the very beginning, to go back to a Sephardic ancestry, there is the soul – voluptuous in connotation. It is, at once, the invisible shadow of the body – with a sense of self and person, reaching out to its life in the spirit-world. It is desire, appetite, emotion and passion. So… spirit and emotion! Small wonder why in calo, the ancient Romany-Flamenco-Gypsy language, born in the blazing heat of the sun, we learn the word ‘vengue’, a street word that means ‘duende’, or ‘jaleo’. Although all three words were sometimes translated as ‘soul’, their meanings actually acquire an almost hallucinogenic blur! For each word describes more a state of mind, a transcendent moment of perception that can occur when the flamenco musician or dancer – or, for that matter, the Moorish and the Dervish musician and dancer too – sublimates him or herself into a seductive matrix of the emotion they are seeking to express, taking you out of time with them. It takes all of their life, all of their instincts, intuitions, emotional imagination and this complexity is poured out like a metaphorical waterfall, monumental in its impact! It cannot be manufactured. You can’t see it. Still, it exists, large as life. Like the waves of duende, jaleo or vengue… it appears and disappears, as it overwhelms you.

Like the Gnawas of Africa, the mugami-jazz of Azeri-born pianist and composer, Aziza Mustafa-Zadeh belongs right here in this wellspring and outpouring of emotion. It illuminates everything: strength, drive, courage like flamenco; essence and virtue like a child; wisdom like the ancients!

It was 1980 and I was in India, working on a documentary – with Bob Gill – on ‘Bhavai’, the ancient and dying form of folk theatre in the Western state of Gujarat. Of course, I woke and wound myself up to music – hours of it – as essential to brushing my teeth, bathing and eating! Having run out of things to listen to in my portable collection, I borrowed an unlabeled audio-cassette from a friend in the crew, as passionate about music as I was. The music that played out of it was strange and beautiful – a piano virtuoso – but more than that – a magician who was capable, I soon found out, of calming the savage breast – literally! The pianist had dazzling technique, a masterly sense of harmony and his soulful music made me struggle for breath. It was a song about impending death. I forget the title of the track no. But the music was from the album, ‘The Man from Baku’, by Vaghif Mustafa Zadeh, Aziza Mustafa’s father, who so stunned Dizzy Gillespie when he heard Vaghif, that he was moved to say, “Vaghif’s music is from another planet. It’s the music of the future!” I had to have a copy of it – which my Azeri friend was happy to make me. I was fortunate and also knew that no new music would ever be made by this genius of mugami-jazz. Vaghif Mustafa Zadeh had died on the 16th of December, the previous year. He died leaving behind a wife, Eliza Khanom – herself an accomplished singer, who gave up performing with the shock of her husband’s death – and his only other passion. This was Aziza. She was 10 years old when her father died. But he left her with the best inheritance a man of musical genius could possibly bequeath his child. This is a precocious talent and discerning passion for music. And this has grown into a fiery pianistic brilliance and the most extraordinary sensitivity for the Azeri mugam (inherited from her father), which she has most astutely blended in with the idiom of jazz.

To the relatively uninitiated – and I still count myself among them – mugam is an ancient, highly developed and complex form of music peculiar to Central Asia, Turkey, the Middle and the Far East. Its composition and performance demands a high degree of learning and professionalism. Much like the ancient griot traditions of African music, mugami music requires the musician to attain a higher – almost altered – state of being, because, despite the fact that mugami composition is based on the modal scale and rigidly structured, in its interpretation and performance a heightened state of emotion takes over the performer.

To back track, just a bit, mugam is based on many different modes and tonal scales where different relations between notes and scales are envisaged and developed. The music is meta-ethnic – almost omnipresent throughout Central Asia and the Middle East. Musicologists often mutter incomprehensible things when attempting to dissertate on the mugam tradition. Their explanations are so roundabout that it is impossible to work out the exact nature of the music. In reality ‘mugam’ has two different, but related meanings. The Azeri composer, Kara Karayev, writing in Sovietskaya Muzkya (1949:3) has the following explanation: “The expression ‘mugam’ is used in two senses in the folk music of Azerbaijan. On the one hand the word ‘Mugam’ describes the same thing as the term ‘lad’ (Russian for key, mode, scale). An analysis of Azeri songs, dances and other folk-music forms show that they are always constructed according to one (of these) modes. On the other hand the term ‘Mugam’ refers to an individual, multi-movement form. This form combines elements of a suite and a rhapsody, is symphonic in nature, and has its own set of structural rules. In particular one should observe that the ‘Suite-Rhapsody-Mugam’ is constructed according to one particular ‘Mode-Mugam’ and is subject to all of the particular requirements of this mode.”

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Based in Canada, Raul is a musician and an accomplished writer whose profound analysis is reinforced by his deep understanding of music, technically as well as historically.

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