Author: Salatyn MIRZAYEVA
Shusha. 19th century. Khurshudbanu Natavan, the daughter of Garabagh’s khan, is well known for her sensitive and respective attitude toward culture and high art, hosting in her mansion literary evenings with the connoisseurs of art and rhetoric, as well as educators. Among the regular poets and writers around the warm and friendly hearth of Natavan’s mansion was Mirza Alesker, whom Natavan bestowed a title of Novras (“young” in Persian). Having been fluent in both Arabic and Persian, M. A. Novras also had an agile mind. He lived a very interesting yet controversial life, including promotions, wandering, and life in the cells of the mosques in Aghdam and Shusha. Mirza Alesker died in 1912, but left us a rich legacy of priceless books, and his descendants...
Today the voice of Shusha can be heard in different parts of the world. The great-grandson of Mirza Alesker is a pianist and composer, Honored Artist of Azerbaijan Shahin Novrasli, who gave concerts in the most prestigious halls of the world, including in New York, Paris, and Baku. Countless tours, duos with great jazzmen, various festivals, the birth of new melodies and album releases, such as Emanation, which was the winner of the Best Jazz Albums of 2017 nomination, are exciting steps in the rich career path of Shahin.
Mr. Novrasli is happy to see several of his wishes turning into reality, including the return to his native Shusha, visiting the grave of Mirza Alesker in the Shusha cemetery, and a contribution to the musical and cultural treasury of Shusha.
"Shahin, you are a descendent of a noble family from Garabagh. Tell us about your origins..."
"My great-grandfather Mirza Alesker Novras was born in Shusha in 1836, in a time which has been considered a period of cultural development in Garabagh. He was a poet and musician; he played tar and saz, and was fluent in three languages. He was the first Azerbaijani to translate Ivan Krylov's fables into Azerbaijani. In 1872, the Azerbaijani poet Khurshudbanu Natavan became the head of the famous Məclisi-Üns (Friendship Society) – a literary circle born in Shusha in the second half of the 19th century. My great-grandfather Mirza Alesker was one of the active members of the circle. He was also a regular of the Məclisi-Fəramuşan (Assembly of the Forgotten) – another literary circle, which has been active until 1910 and led by Mir Mohsun Navvab. These meetings hosted the most prominent poets and musicians of the time. Poet and educator Seyid Azim Shirvani in his poetic letter to Mirza Alesker greeted him with the words “Səlam olsun sənə, ey Kəbeyi-əhli-səfa, Növrəs”, having expressed the respect and reverence of the poets of the Shamakhi literary school and the members of the Səfa society to Novras’s works. Mirza Alesker had four children. His daughter Fatima Beyim married the son of Natavan, Seyid Hasan."
“We have lived through a difficult period with no chance to touch anything created by our ancestors in Garabagh. But today Shusha and other lands of Azerbaijan are free...”
"After our great victory and the liberation of our historical lands, I am full of pride and joy, but also sorrow for the victims (God rest their souls!) of the war. I have been to Shusha only once back in 1980. With my father and grandfather, I visited the grave of Mirza Alesker Novras. Indeed, for almost 30 years, we have not had an opportunity to visit the graves of our ancestors. Once we saw a video made by our soldiers in Shusha, where they found the grave of Mirza Alesker, which is right near of the grave of Gasim-bey Zakir. It is impossible to describe all those happy emotions and feelings that our family experienced watching that video footage.
“Thanks to the large-scale policy of the great leader Heydar Aliyev, the immense love for his homeland of his successors, President Ilham Aliyev and Mehriban-khanim, the dreams of my people have come true. It is the result of their hard work that led to our success in the war, returned us pride, faith in ourselves, in justice and happiness! Garabagh returned to us to continue to create magic, to generate great talents.”
"How do you imagine the future of Garabagh?"
"President Ilham Aliyev declared Shusha the cultural centre of Azerbaijan and the entire Caucasus. I am absolutely sure that Garabagh will flourish in the near future and become one of the most visited places in our country. As a native of Shusha, my dream is to use my international authority to bring the whole world of culture and art to Garabagh to make as many people as possible know and learn about it, about the native Azerbaijani land. The Shusha Academy of Art would unite the entire Caucasus and renew all the cultural traditions of Garabagh: poetry, carpet weaving, art, classical, jazz and national music, which will be in great demand. I think it would be important to hold international jazz festivals to promote and develop tourism in the entire region.”
"Perhaps you have some ideas based on Garabaghi motives. I think our victory could inspire you to create something new, a new project maybe?..”
"There are a couple of ideas I am currently working on. I think that in due time you will learn about them in more detail (smiles)."
"What would be a melody to open your concert in Garabagh?"
"Certainly, I would like to give my first concert together with my band and brothers in Shusha. And I would like to broadcast the concert online all over the world. I would start it with the Gülçöhrənin naləsi (Lament of Gulchohra) from the operetta of yet another fellow countryman of mine, the great composer Uzeyir Hajibeyli, Arşın mal alan. That piece is the most popular one from my last album From Baku to New York City with some 4 million playbacks worldwide. Note that this album was personally produced by a living legend – the American jazz pianist, composer and teacher Ahmad Jamal.”
"One of the popular topics today is the infamous COVID-19 pandemic. We know that you wrote Quarantine during the lockdown. Can you tell us about this project?"
"The idea of Quarantine was born in March last year, soon after the global start of the pandemic. But at that time we did not know anything specific about the disease. The whole world was locked at home. Our everyday life stopped, and everything seemed surreal. For some people, it was a very painful experience. I wanted to express my attitude to the problem. Quarantine is a single, an animated film dedicated to this complex and controversial period of time. It conveys all my feelings. Currently, I am working on my solo album with the same title, which will include Quarantine and other famous melodies."
"You release albums very often. Is there a common idea that unites the music in your albums, or is it sort of your chronological report to the audience?"
"Each album is a product of new ideas. First comes an idea, which I then turn into music. My last album is our common idea with Ahmad Jamal. The idea was to unite Baku and New York, demonstrating the path of an Azerbaijani musician from Baku to the shrine of jazz – New York. My previous album Emanation is a completely different idea. The same is true for my new album Quarantine. In short, there is no music without ideas."
"You often play the music of your idol, Vagif Mustafazade, at your concerts..."
"Vagif Mustafazade became my idol the moment I heard his music for the first time. I think he is not only my idol, but also the idol of many jazz musicians. In my repertoire, there are interpretations of some of his compositions, and I am happy to play them to promote his works."
"Does it matter who performs your melodies and how they present them to the audience?"
"Jazz musicians perform the works of other authors without asking for permission. Our music is for everyone."
"You have collaborated with both local and foreign performers. How do you find the process of working with local and foreign musicians?"
"Working with any jazz musicians, whether they are local and foreign ones, is always very exciting. Each musician is unique in his own way. Creative work gives birth to new ideas, a different improvisational approach. The most significant moment in my career was meeting the great Ahmad Jamal. Working and communicating with him is a huge experience. I am very happy of what the jazz luminary, who was born almost when jazz was born in the United States, said about me in his interview with a Parisian TV channel: "Shahin is one of the great pianists I have ever heard." We talk a lot, and I told him a lot about Azerbaijan. I am very proud that my music has interested a living legend. The product of this collaboration is his interest in Azerbaijani culture, music, food, nature. Once he called me and said: “Why didn't you tell me about Naftalan? I definitely need to visit your country.” (laughs). President Ilham Aliyev and Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva support and develop our culture, in particular jazz. Ilham Aliyev met with the American jazz pianist and composer, one of the most influential jazz musicians of the 20th century, Herbie Hancock. I would very much like the great Ahmad Jamal to visit our country in his 91 years. This would be a significant event in the history of our culture."
"In one of your interviews you noted that you have analysed music all your life and that it was difficult for you to listen to someone. Where do you get inspiration and new ideas then?"
"There is a process when one studies and analyses different performances. Then comes the process of creation, which is very individual. That’s why I do not need to listen to someone when I create because I can take ideas from the life itself to create something new. I can be inspired simply because I see when my work is interesting to people. Our state values its artists very much. National leader Heydar Aliyev knew all the artists personally and attended all significant events and premieres. President Ilham Aliyev and Vice President Mehriban Aliyeva treat creative people with great attention and care. Any good artist thinks about creativity first."
"Jazz was very popular in Azerbaijan in the 1970s-1980s. It regained its former popularity in the past years. What’s new in the modern jazz of Azerbaijan?"
"Azerbaijani jazz has always developed in line with the global jazz trends. The only difference is the time, which greatly affects the music too. The innovation in the jazz culture of Azerbaijan was the opening of the jazz centre and jazz clubs after the collapse of the Soviet Union. I must also mention the Baku Jazz Festival, which is one of the members of the Europe Jazz Network. We have Jazz Dunyasi (JD) Magazine, which has been published since 2005. In a relatively short period, it has managed to become one of the twenty best jazz magazines in the world. I think this is a great achievement."
"Do you follow the works of young jazz performers? How do you feel about underground performers?"
"Sometimes, whenever possible, I visit Baku for the jazz festival and listen to young performers. As part of the festival, there is a competition for the young people performers called jam sessions. There are many talented guys. I wish them success and good luck in achieving their goals. The path to becoming a good jazz performer begins with the underground music, jazz clubs and jam sessions, which are a great opportunity to meet different musicians, gain experience and express oneself. My eldest son Mirsamad loves jazz and joins all the jam sessions in Baku during the festival. He also rushes to take the stage (smiles)."
"Baku Jazz Festival is one of the brightest events in our city. In 2020, the festival shifted from its usual format to a televised format. What was it like without a live audience?"
"Last year was an anniversary year for the Baku Jazz Festival. It turned 15 years old in 2020. Therefore, I congratulate the most talented people – the Honoured Artist of Azerbaijan Rain Sultanov, Leyla Efendiyeva and the entire team. I wish them further success and interesting concerts.
“Indeed, the global lockdown has moved all public events online. During the festival, I presented my film Quarantine in the online format too. A concert means a direct contact with the audience, when it charges the performers, and vice versa. This is a contact of emotions and energy. Hopefully this year we will finally meet the audience live."
"What is jazz for a listener and a performer?"
"We perceive jazz in different ways. For the listener, it is a kind of process accompanying him for many years. Some start listening to jazz at the age of 10, some – in their 30s or 50s, trying to answer the question ‘what is jazz?’. In other words, jazz is a state of mind."
"What do you think about when you are alone with your music?"
"It is an indescribable feeling of merging my soul with the universal energy. At that very moment, it is impossible to think about something. There is only one thing possible – to feel and enjoy the moment."