26 May 2024

Sunday, 13:00


Polina Dessiatnitchenko: “I notice the charmed looks of people whenever I speak Azerbaijani or pick up the tar.”



Will you be surprised if I tell you that Polina Dessiatnitchenko is an ethnic Ukrainian living in Canada and playing tar. She loves the Azerbaijani culture. Polina is an ethnomusicologist. She was born in Russia but has been living in Canada since she was 10 years old. Polina first learned about the Azerbaijani mugham in Toronto. She was fascinated by its sounds the instant she heard the mugham. Then Polina applied to the department of ethnic studies and chose the national Azerbaijani music as an area of research. The department reacted to Polina’s decision with understanding and created all the conditions necessary for the research. Today, Polina cannot imagine her life without mugham. This is a striking example of how the music can erase the boundaries. Polina misses Azerbaijan very much when she is in Canada, while we enjoy listening to Polina’s performance of Azerbaijani mugham and become surprised when we learn about her deep knowledge of the features and "goodies" of our culture. Had she not been Ukrainian, one could say that she is an Azerbaijani. Anyway, is nationality important when one thinks with the heart?


"We are going through a very difficult time because of the novel coronavirus. But music has always helped relieve anxieties in such times of uncertainty and melancholy..."

"There is a famous saying in Azerbaijani: ‘Music is food for the soul’ (Musiqi ruhun qidasıdır). Music acts like a balm for the soul, soothing and removing all the negativity, especially when you feel anxiety and stress growing inside you. Music has a great power to unite people. As a simple example, consider the songs that are already known and listened to as the universal pieces of music. They are known all over the world. When we start singing or listening to them, we feel the sense of solidarity. Today, when we are all isolated from each other, when close friends and relatives are thousands of kilometers away from each other, only music helps to feel that we are close and nothing can separate us. I am sure that each of us knows songs that we can easily associate with our beloved ones, or even various memorable locations and events. And as soon as we hear that very song, our memory takes us back to that person or place that day... I live in Canada and really miss Azerbaijan. But I have mugham, which gives me an opportunity to travel to the places of my dreams, where distances and oceans matter not..."

"Your first acquaintance with mugham was in Canada when you were 17 years old. In 2013, you came to Baku. It means that you fell in love with Azerbaijan through tar, doesn’t it?"

"In fact, my acquaintance with the Azerbaijani music happened even earlier (smiles). My former piano teacher in Toronto, Maya Jafarova, is Azerbaijani, and she taught me how to play the masterpieces of such great composers as Vagif Mustafazade, Gara Garayev, Adil Babirov and others. It was a fascinating experience, which soon made me a frequent visitor at various events organised by the Azerbaijani diaspora in Toronto - one of the largest diasporas of Azerbaijan in North America. I met wonderful Azerbaijani musicians living in Toronto. I would especially like to mention Ismayil Hajiyev, who even invited me to perform with his Silk Road chamber orchestra. A mugham trio, including Munis Sharifov, Sahib Pashazade and Güllü Muradova, came from Azerbaijan to perform with the orchestra. I accompanied the musicians on the piano. It was that performance that completely changed my life and career."

"What was your inner state when you decided to give yourself over to the power of mugham?"

"The musical world of mugham; it literally mesmerised me! This mysterious musical genre is full of emotions, including impulses of love, happiness and longing, passion and wisdom. I was also struck by the ability of tar to convey the works of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven so subtly. My passion for the Azerbaijani culture prompted me to choose mugham as the topic of research for my doctoral thesis, and after that I decided to visit Azerbaijan for the first time."

"How would you describe the first contacts of a Ukrainian girl from Canada with the Azerbaijani culture and traditions?"

"I came to Azerbaijan as a researcher of ethnic music. As I said, initially, it was all about collecting information for my doctoral thesis, which means that I had been preparing for a long time. I studied the history, traditions and customs of the local population, and tried to learn as much as possible about the behavior and lifestyle of Azerbaijanis. My knowledge of the Russian language and the study of Azerbaijani, especially the study of mugham, really helped me overcome the cultural barrier. I notice the charmed looks of people whenever I speak Azerbaijani or pick up the tar. They always wanted to help me; they were very hospitable and friendly. I really appreciate these qualities of the Azerbaijani people."

"You have been almost everywhere in Azerbaijan. Have you had a moment of a cultural shock? Something totally unusual and impressive, maybe?"

"I have been to Sheki, Shamakhy, Ismayilly, Khynalig, Guba, Gabala, Lankaran, Nardaran, Mashtagha, Kurdakhany, Zira, Govsan, and lived in Baku for four years. What really impressed me was strong family traditions. For most people, family values are a priority. I attended many Azerbaijani weddings to watch the performances of khanendeh (mugham singers). It was very interesting to see the wedding customs as the basis of Azerbaijani culture. On one of my first trips to Azerbaijan, I visited the holy places known as ‘pir’. It was in 2013. I saw rituals such as chyldagh, or the burning of a rolled paper over the human skin to ease anxiety and relieve fears. I was very surprised to see the elements of mysticism in folk medicine. There are other beliefs, very strange, but interesting, such as scratching one’s bottom to avoid the evil eye when someone says good things."

"You studied mugham and tar with many masters, including Vamig Mammadaliyev and Elkhan Mansurov. What is the difference between their styles, and what is the most valuable thing you have discovered?"

"I was very lucky to be a student of one of the most outstanding masters of tar in Azerbaijan: Ramiz Guliyev, Aslan Maharramov, Elkhan Mansurov, Valeh Rahimov, Vamig Mammadaliyev and Elkhan Muzaffarov. My first teacher was Muhammed Amanollahi from Tabriz, a former student of Ramiz Guliyev. He lives near Toronto, and before visiting Azerbaijan, I studied with him for several months. Today my teachers are Elkhan Mansurov and Vamig Mammadaliyev.  Mammadaliyev’s style combines the patterns of Ahmed Bakikhanov and Haji Mammadov, as it is brilliant in terms of speed. This style is very popular today. My performance improved significantly after lessons with Vamig-muallim. He taught me very interesting and rare patterns in playing mugham. Mansurov’s style is unique. Elkhan Mansurov is the main successor to Bahram Mansurov. His style requires a lot of technique and mastery of various mizrab (mediator) touches, such as ‘pervane mizrab’ or ‘alif mizrab’. The main technique here is not the speed, but the expressiveness of performing with mizrab. This style, which is the closest to singing ghazals, requires going in line with the arudh, one of the metrics in Oriental poetry. I recorded a disc with a repertoire that Elkhan-muallim taught me. It is called Təfəkkür səyahəti (The Journey of Thoughts), and is available for listening on my website (https://polinadessi.com)."

"Maestro Vamig Mammadaliyev once said that musicians should hold to the classical style in tar playing in order to take the music to the next generation in the ‘right form’. You also prefer the classical style of performance. How can one remain popular among the contemporary audiences without compromising the classical style?"

"Mugham is a musical art that requires improvisation. You can call it flexibility, which may be used to adjust the performance for a specific audience, including the contemporary one. But only the professional musicians with a strong classical background can turn improvisation into success, which is an interesting experience, but not as simple as it might sound. Mugham performers typically need 5 to 15 years to master the classical style. Only after that they can make changes to their style by adding their own barmags (idiosyncratic musical gestures), which they recognise as their individual manner of performance. Only the mugham players with a deep knowledge of the classical style and rich life experience can improvise to convey their music to wider audiences, which then can touch the heart of any listener, whether it is a connoisseur of classics or a fan of modern trends."

"Which musicians are experts in improvisation?"

"Definitely, Alim Gasimov. You can feel how exactly he follows the classical style when you listen to his earlier performances. Over time, this knowledge was transformed, growing into his own style. Only after that he created a completely new way of singing the mugham. He has completely revolutionised this ancient musical genre. Now he makes people cry regardless of their age, religion and origin. The lack of classical background distorts the mugham. My teachers call it yamag vurmag (patching), when one can borrow ‘patches’ from various ‘old school’ music styles of Iran, Turkey, India, jazz to please the audience. But I seriously doubt that the music will be complete emotionally and philosophically."

“You called your thesis The Philosophy of Mugham, which means that you value the main idea of the music. Can you describe your perception of the philosophy of this ancient form of Azerbaijani national art?”

"The philosophy of mugham is to make people think about the meaning of life and their existence. I think that the founding theme of mugham is ‘eshq’, which is yet another incarnation of love as Sufis understood it. This is love that can be interpreted as a path to the truth, to perfection. The Arabic word ‘eshq’ comes from the same root in ‘asheqa’ - a plant that absorbs everything around it. So, it is all about passionate love and desire, which transform us, giving us the strength to overcome the difficulties and disappointments, and encouraging us to make sacrifices if necessary. This is the eshq of Majnon to his Leyla, whom he imagined as a reflection of God. Not only a person but also God or one’s homeland can be the object of such a love... Mugham holds a deep and very tangible association with the meaning of eshq. One can experience love listening to mugham. And no words are necessary in this case. This is the philosophy of mugham. Eshq is also the theme of ghazals – poems used in mugham. I spent a lot of time discussing the philosophy of ghazals with the prominent masters of Azerbaijani art, including Vasim Mammadaliyev, Valeh Rahimov, Haji Aghil Malikov, Tarlan Guliyev, Ilgar Fahmi, and Lala Alizade."

"Does your music enjoy silence, solitude or the noise of the halls with the stormy applause?"

"It is something in the middle of the two. Mugham needs an audience because there is energy that comes from the audience and can inspire me. But it is important to note that it is difficult to imagine the performance of mugham without a close and more intimate, spiritual, if you like, connection with the audience. A too large audience might not work in this case."

"These words reminded me one of your sayings that ‘mugham is like a prayer’ because it is as confidential..."

"Mugham is an expression of love. For me, this is an expression of love of life. This is a moment of philosophical contemplation (‘tafakkur’) - a kind of thinking that purifies our soul and reminds us of everything we should be thankful of. When I first came to Azerbaijan, I was surprised to see people crying when listening or just talking about mugham. I think that people experience the same feelings during a prayer."

"Tell us about your instruments."

"I have three tars: one for concert performances and two for practicing at home. The concert tar is made in the Bahram Mansurov style with a special order of strings, a special kharak (bridge) and a hole in the membrane. These features are the secrets of the Mansurov school, which change the sound of the instrument. Playing tar is like developing a relationship with a person. First you need to get used to the instrument by training everyday, developing your own technique until you get blisters on your fingers. But this should not scare you. You should learn how to take care for the instrument, clean it, change strings and so on. Only after you leave all the difficulties behind, you will be able to perform as a single entity! Believe me, this is a pleasure that is worth it. I gave names to my instruments, because for me they are living guides to the world of mugham. I called my concert tar Simurg - a mythical bird, which is a symbol of divine beauty. I also have another wonderful Azerbaijani instrument called ghaval. One of my goals is to learn to play its fantastic rhythms."

"Two years ago, you were focused on touring with concerts in Europe, teaching your own students and promoting tar in Canada. Did your dreams come true? Are there new goals?"

"I visited different cities in the USA, Canada, Great Britain, Germany, Greece, where I gave lectures, participated in conferences, made presentations about mugham, and gave various tar performances. Unfortunately, due to lack of time, I do not have students any more, but I still hope to have them in the future. For now, I continue learning mugham."

"Your achievements include collaboration with the Harvard University..."

"I defended my doctoral thesis in 2017 at the University of Toronto, and immediately after that I received a scholarship at the Harvard University for writing a book about the Azerbaijani mugham. At Harvard, I gave lectures on mugham and spent a lot of time at local libraries and archives. We also organised a conference but, unfortunately, it was postponed due to the current global coronavirus crisis."

"When did you recognise that you found your own path of life? What advice would you give young people who are in search of themselves, how not to lose motivation and where to get inspiration?"

"I would tell them to be curious about everything that surrounds them and be open to the new. We live in a vast world with so many different cultures and styles of life. A whole life is not enough to know mankind in all its diversity. In the search for myself, I always tried to know the life itself, trying to treat this phenomenon in all its multifaceted spectrum, and to avoid stereotypical thinking. Unfortunately, there are many factors that distract young people from the truth. At some point, they just miss a chance to understand their true passion in life. That’s why you need to be vigilant and very attentive to yourself, your inner world and desires. And my key piece of advice to young people would be to value and not to waste their time, because time is the only thing that we cannot stop or return."