Author: Salatyn MIRZAYEVA
Flashing lights, maestro's first hits on ghaval-stone, audience applauding in rhythm with vigorous and emotional performance of Natig Shirinov and his team... It was this performance that has left an indelible mark on the memory of Azerbaijanis and millions of other people around the world. It was a clear evidence of age and richness of Azerbaijan's musical heritage, its past and present. And the same performance opened the finale of the Eurovision song contest held in Azerbaijan back in 2012.
He is a world-famous expert on Azerbaijani national music and a master naghara player. With his concerts around the world, he is known as an innovator who has been constantly experimenting with measures and beats to improve the seemingly well-known percussion instrument. Natig Shirinov is the first rhythm composer of Azerbaijan. Together with the Natiq rhythm band, he now enjoys worldwide recognition, which has brought the team many awards. Natig Shirinov was awarded the titles of the Honoured and the People's Artist of Azerbaijan in 2007 and 2018, respectively. The Natiq has shared the stage with world famous musicians during the concerts in the US, Germany, Austria, the UAE, China, France, Iran, Switzerland, Italy and other countries. In November, the band gave a grand concert at the Heydar Aliyev Center in honour of the 44th anniversary of Natig Shirinov. We met with a famous musician a few days before the concert in a small room filled with various types of naghara, ghaval-stone, silence, creative solitude and God. That's where we found the maestro.
"We found you engaged in prayer. How did you find your path to God? What does He mean for you?"
"One never knows how he ended up in this world and how he will depart from it. I am just like everyone else. Faith in God gradually emerges as the life progresses bringing along the wisdom. Only then does the Almighty allow us to know about His existence, albeit selectively, meaning He does not reveal Himself to everyone."
"There is a wise saying above the door of your office: "Hər şey təkdən yaranıb cüt olur." (Everything is created in pairs from the one)"
"Actually, this expression had come to my mind way before I read the Holy Quran. But when I found it, I was surprised to read it in the Book. God is One but He reflected His second Self in us. Indeed, everything in the world is created in pairs: sweet and bitter, top and bottom, good and evil, beautiful and ugly, and so on. There is no third of a kind. It is the same for musical rhythm when one (claps once) is reflected in its double (claps twice). A single clap gives us only a sound, while by doubling it, we create a rhythm. Everyone can hear a rhythm but not everyone understands its deep meaning. God created the Earth in rhythms. He inbreathed the same rhythm in the soul of His first creature too. We know this rhythm as a heartbeat, which is the source of life on the Earth. If that rhythm stops, the life will stop too. This rhythm is equal to two clicks (makes two clicks with fingers). This is a simple truth with a deep meaning."
"One of your compositions is called Mənim dünyam (My World). What is the world of Natig Shirinov?"
"As you can see (pointing to the hall), my world is open to everyone. My world is my prayers, my Quran and my naghara. I do not wish to appear as someone playing nice here, a goody-goody, you know. In fact, the Quran was the largest school of education for me. My world is my family and my children. My world is my students and friends. I have been teaching at the Zeynalabdin Taghiyev School since 1995. I came here when I was eight to learn playing naghara but has created so many things since... My 1,500 rhythms, the concept of playing the naghara with seven notes, as well as my 12 modifications of naghara were born here to enrich the cultural heritage of my homeland. All of these things are innovations. First performances ofMənim dünyam, Mehriban dedicated to the First Lady and First Vice-President of Azerbaijan, Atəşgah, Sarı gəlin, and Qarabağ have also taken place in this hall. You see these barrels? (pointing at the back of the hall). They have water inside. And they can make incredible sounds. I can also show you these 3- and 7-litre jars making nice sounds too. Then I discovered the rhythms 4/24, 4/74, 4/36, 11/5, 5/5, 9/5 and so on, although only three or four rhythms had been known in Azerbaijan. I was also lucky to be the first person to tell the world about the ghaval-stone. The late Chingiz Mehdiyev used to play the ghaval-stone very well too but I had a chance of introducing it to the world at the Eurovision 2012. This school has given me a lot. Today I give back all my knowledge and skills to my students. And I am grateful to the Almighty for everything."
"You presented a new percussion instrument at the Baku-Moscow Exhibition held at the Heydar Aliyev Centre. What is so special about it?"
"It was an ancient type of naghara from Azerbaijan called sakhsy naghara and dating back to the 4th century BC. I restored and presented it to the museum. It is a unique instrument, which exists only in Azerbaijan and sounds very close to human spirit. I have also restored and presented to the museum küpe, which is also a percussion instrument with an incredible sound scale. I plan to make a similar instrument for myself. I have such exclusive types of naghara that one cannot find anywhere else."
"Are there any disputes about the ethnic background of naghara?"
"There are similar disputes regarding our other national instrument, balaban. But none of our neighbours can challenge the belonging of naghara to Azerbaijan. Today, naghara is played in Georgia, Armenia, Uzbekistan, Tunisia but they have only one type of naghara, while Azerbaijan had eight, and now twenty-one types of this instrument. One can try to prove the opposite but all the arguments will disappear as soon as an Azerbaijani begins playing naghara. I believe in three concepts of honour: homeland, family, and profession. Almost everyone is committed to the first two, but only a few of us to the third one. That is why I am doing my best to make sure that our neighbours do not make naghara their own."
"You have discovered many different facets of naghara. Is there anything left?"
"There is only one thing that can end with me — my life. However, whatever ends with me will definitely continue in the deeds of the next generation. My last work was dedicated to the 100th anniversary of the Azerbaijan Democratic Republic. It was the biggest naghara in the world that we introduced to President Ilham Aliyev and Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva. I think that creative process is endless. Only true love for work can be productive. It never ends and does not leave you. I will stick to my naghara for the rest of my life. If you ask me about my biggest dream, I will say it is the establishment of a large Rhythm Centre in Azerbaijan, which, I am sure, will have a positive impact on the development of music in general. I thank my state for the continued support. I believe that the time will come and we will be able to realise our dream with the permission of Allah and the support of the state. Of course, we can dream of many things but not always get what we want. But I have never lost my hope, nor have I grumbled. I take everything easy just doing my job. One cannot escape the inevitable. As the saying goes, keep calm and live in your own rhythm.
"How do you feel about playing various musical genres like jazz on national instruments?"
"It's fine with me. I highly appreciate such performances."
"Have you ever tried playing jazz on naghara?"
"Yes, I am the first musician playing jazz on naghara. You will agree that we admire a person if he or she can speak many different languages, don't we? And I can speak the language of rhythm of the world. I do not need darbuka to play arabesque because I can "speak" the language of arabesque on naghara, although I have a large collection of different instruments from all over the world. I took lessons from the famous masters of rhythm in India, Iran, Uzbekistan, France, and Spain. Only then I realised that I did not know anything. Knowledge is infinite. Everything in life is relative, and one can learn and think until death. Now I can play the rhythms of Indian dhol, African djembe, or a regular drum. But not a single instrument can make a sound of Azerbaijani naghara or ghaval-stone. When a Hindu hears me speak the language of his music on naghara, he gets surprised and asks me how I do that. Naghara is a very important instrument, and the school of rhythm should be established in Azerbaijan. For example, there are twelve mughams, seven of which are the most important. But there are so many little things hidden in 1,500 rhythms, and each of them deserves studying. Rhythm is a separate world that cannot be compared with anything else. All music is based on rhythm."
"Who is your target audience?"
"Interestingly, my music is most understood and felt by wise people and children. But I try to be clear to any listener. Yet my chief playground is concerts for international audiences to whom I can tell about the deepness and universality of our musical traditions."
"Can you tell us more about your performances abroad?"
"Sometimes I catch the listeners counting the rhythm. It is very interesting. I really like catching the rhythm with the audience. Usually my audience divides into two parts, where the first goes on with one rhythm, while the second with the other. It is an exciting experience when the whole hall turns into a single group. The brighter and richer the rhythm, the richer the music."
"What scenes do you remember the most?"
"I did my first public performances at wedding parties but then I continued as a professional. It was a difficult transition indeed. The most recent and emotional performance that impressed me positively took place in India. Perhaps I am the only musician from Azerbaijan who gave a concert in front of 1.5 million people. It was a great honour for me to stand on the stage with the famous and recognised musicians. My trip to India would not be possible without the support of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation and a personal support of the director of the Heydar Aliyev Centre, Anar Alekberov. He told me about someone called Sadhguru, who wanted to see me. I later found out that he was an Indian yogi and mystic, and the founder of the Isha Foundation, which is a charity institution running yoga programs around the world, including India, the US, Great Britain, Lebanon, Singapore, Canada, Malaysia, Uganda and Australia. When I finished my performance, Sadhguru stood up and began to applaud standing. All spectators followed his example. What could be more pleasant for a musician who is in love with his job?.."
"You have performed with many famous musicians. How do you feel about working on stage with them? Are you able to come to terms, so to speak?"
"I was lucky to work for many years with a true legend of Azerbaijan, Alim Gasimov. That was an incredible experience. We have many great khanendeh but Alim is unique, as he has no equal today. Thanks God I had a chance to work with him. In 2004, we performed with the Ukrainian singer Ruslana, Turkish virtuoso darbuka player Misirli Akhmet, who opened Rihanna's concert. I also enjoyed working with an American jazz drummer, composer and big-band leader Billy Cobham at the jazz festival in 2007. It was easy to work with all of them simply because they were mindful of rhythm. Shows are an important tool to transmit your energy to the audience but the most spectacular show is professional performance. It is very difficult to perform at concerts when your only instrument is something made of leather and wood. Usually I try to avoid concerts with singers to let my audience enjoy the tandem of sounds without verbal interference. You just listen to the rhythm, which caresses your hearing."
"How do you select the members of your band? Can you introduce your staff to us?"
"I have been working with them for many years. These include my students, my son Umud and Hikmet Rzayev. The latter two have joined me from the very beginning. All of them are very important to me because they feel me better than others. They understand me without words."
"Do you remember your first broadcast?"
"I will never forget that. Director of Space TV Etibar Babayev supported my first broadcast on the program called Meeting Place. But before that I had visited the studio for six months, sometimes in rainy weather, waiting until I am allowed to be televised. Finally, Babayev became interested and asked what I wanted. When I told about my intention, he agreed, provided he would cut my scene completely if he did not like it. I will never forget that concert, when I performed my first song Umud. Then my son was still a baby. Music Director, Nadir Akhundov, was amazed at the reaction of people who had called the studio demanding for repeat."
"Did you believe that you would enjoy this recognition in the future?"
"I have never studied at conservatoire or music school, but I can tell you everything about naghara, the secrets of its harmony and the science of rhythm. I will play naghara while I can breathe. It is my destiny. It is my mission bestowed upon me from the heavens, to which I give all my strength and love. I just create sometimes without even understanding what I am doing and what will come out of it. I just follow my inner voice and, believe me, I'm not even looking for answers. Once a man who could not afford a single naghara, now I have thousand instruments."
"You are going to celebrate the 20th anniversary of your band after two years..."
"Yes, this is an important date. We plan to hold a festival with a march of nagharas. We also plan to hold a procession to mark the 100th anniversary of our national leader Heydar Aliyev. We have many beautiful ideas, and we need strength and patience to implement them."
"Who is a musician, after all?"
"Beautiful question (thinking). Frankly, it is the first time I am asked this question. I have not thought of that before. Each musical performer can claim that he or she is a musician. But I believe that a musician is one who loves his profession and cherishes it as his own child. Real musicians for me are Fikret Amirov, Gara Garayev, Uzeyir Hajibeyov, who have opened the path that we are currently following. Rihanna, for example, is famous but Michael Jackson is well known around the world, even in a smallest village. He is a man whom I consider a star musician. A musician is a person who thinks about enriching the national heritage and contributing for the future generation.
Each rhythm is an expression, a piece of thought. Rhythms can take you far away making you think. And you begin to understand the depth of music, find answers to your questions. So, a musician is a person who can take your thoughts far away, the one who gives you emotions that make your heart tremble."