Sami Yusuf: Nasimi's poetry in its depth and breadth is captivating and even life-changing when fully understood

In an exclusive interview with AZERTAC, Sami Yusuf, who composes music and leads the growth of a new global music genre that engages millions of listeners, spoke of his love for Nasimi, mugham and Azerbaijan

Baku, October 5, AZERTAC

British musician of Azerbaijani origin Sami Yusuf, who participated in the first Nasimi Festival of Poetry, Arts and Spirituality held in Azerbaijan, has given an exclusive interview to AZERTAC. The following is the text of the interview.

The first Nasimi Festival of Poetry, Arts and Spirituality was held in Baku. What do you know about Nasimi creativity?

SY: Nasimi is one of the great mystical poets and thinkers whose works I heard from an early age through my family and the musicians and poets who frequented our house as I was growing up. He was legendary among the Azeris as the author of the first Divans in the Azerbaijani language, but his influence extends far beyond this one nation. While being lauded as a renowned Turkic-speaking poet-mystic, he is also recognized for his writings in Persian and Arabic. The genius of Nasimi is that his message, his thought, and his unparalleled eloquence was not limited to his own time and place. It originated in the Eternal and that is why its echo is heard as clearly in our time as it was in his.

How do you evaluate the festival?

SY: The Festival was brilliantly conceived and executed. By joining the past and present around the themes expressed in the writings of Nasimi - themes of the underlying unity of all life amid multiplicity and the essential human potential for touching the Divine - the Festival presentations also pointed a way forward into the future. And that way incorporates the multiculturalism and tolerance that is expressed in Nasimi's thought and that Azerbaijan is famous for.

The performances, exhibits, and lectures that took place throughout Baku were remarkable in their diversity while maintaining a unity of purpose. I applaud the work of the organizers, especially president of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation Mehriban Aliyeva and vice-president Leyla Aliyeva, as well as the dedicated people at the Ministry of Culture.

As far as we know the "New global music genre" was created by you. Is that true?

SY: When I began my music career, nothing like my sound had been heard before; it didn't fit into existing categories. I named the genre Spiritique. It is a sound meant to evoke a sense of spirituality, and the lyrics at times celebrate the sacred, at times have an uplifting message promoting positive values of social cohesion, tolerance, and unity.

In this context, I'll mention that I was awarded an honourary Doctor of Letters degree from Roehampton University for what they termed my extraordinary contribution to the field of music, and I remain (to the best of my knowledge) the youngest recipient of that award. It was in recognition of my work through Spiritique and my creation of this new genre of music.

Preserving tradition and legacy through music is a priority for me and I have been devoting much of my energy to that over the past several years. This is not a departure from the Spiritique genre, since Spiritique encompasses these musical expressions.

Do you like mugham?

SY: Mugham is a profound and beautiful music. Its complex melodies and cadences have been transmitted across centuries from generation to generation, nourishing the souls of listeners and performers alike. There is not a single poem from mugham that is not in some shape or form, whether through symbolism or directly, connected to the sacred, to the Divine. In fact I use it for meditation; I reflect and meditate through mugham.

The work that is being done to preserve and promote this precious musical heritage is vitally important in this age when so much traditional wisdom is being lost through neglect and disregard. Again, I note the role of the Heydar Aliyev Foundation for their visionary work in establishing the International Mugham Center and the annual International World of Mugham Festival, to name just two of the many outstanding activities taking place as part of this effort.

You shared the stage with mugham singer Alim Gasimov. How does "New global music genre" combine with mugham?

SY: Alim Qasimov is a living legend who brilliantly communicates his inner 'spiritual fire' through his music. I was honoured to have him join me on stage at my 2015 concert in Baku where we performed 'Sari Gelin' together with only traditional instruments as accompaniment. The musical form of mugham is in perfect accord with the parameters of the Spiritique genre, and in fact I am exploring a collaboration with Alim Qasimov on my upcoming album.

Besides you and your father, a composer, who else was a musician in your family?

SY: I always consider it my great fortune to have been born into a family that encouraged my earliest inclinations toward music. I began playing music at a very early age with their support, support which continues to this day. My father is a professional musician and both his family and my mother and her family were musical. They had a great appreciation for and knowledge of classical and traditional music as well as the mystical poetry traditions, which are so closely related.

How well do you speak Azerbaijani language? What language do you speak in your family?

SY: I grew up in the UK and as a result my Azeri is not fluent. It is the first language I heard in this world; it is the language that my parents speak with each other, and the language spoken by my relatives. I would say that it is the language that is in my blood; I have a great affinity for it. In the ways that language is shaped by - and shapes - cultures and peoples, Azeri is a central part of my essence.

Did you know that German scientist Michael Hess learnt Azerbaijani language because he fell in love with the Nasimi poetry?

SY: I was not aware of this, but it is not surprising. Nasimi's poetry in its depth and breadth is captivating and even life-changing when fully understood.

What do you feel when you come to Baku?

SY: To put it simply, I feel at home when I come to Baku. It is a delight to walk through the city's old and new sections. Both are beautiful in their distinct characters. On my most recent trip I visited Shamakhi whose traditional ambience affected me deeply. And most of all, of course, it is the people of Baku and Azerbaijan that give the physical place it unique character full of welcoming energy and passion for life.

When do you plan to release your new album?

SY: I am releasing a new album in November 2018 called SAMi that has a contemporary, British/Western sound. After that I have a Sufi-inspired album coming out with lyrics drawn from mystical poets. I hope to use poetry by Nasimi in that album as well. It is on this album that I am planning to collaborate with Alim Qasimov.

Would you like to somehow connect your new album with Baku?

SY: This is something I would like very much to do. I would love to do at least one music video in Baku. There are other projects I have mind to do in Azerbaijan; it's a matter of finding the right opportunities and the right timing.

Do you plan to hold a solo concert in Baku?

SY: I performed in Baku in 2015 and 2017 and again this year. Each event was very well received and a great pleasure for me. Honestly, I do not perform often. I do so for select causes and ideas that I believe in and support. Looking forward, I would like to perform a solo concert in the Heydar Aliyev Center, which is a stunning venue. I envision a full concert with a traditional set up - which is how I perform now - and it would incorporate mugham.

What is the attitude of the Western audience towards your songs related to Islam?

SY: That is an excellent question. I would like to frame it as non-Muslim audiences in the West - rather than Western - because there are many Muslims living in the West, like myself. My experience has been that these audiences love traditional music; they love traditional sounds. People are profoundly moved when they hear music that is reaching out to them across centuries and across cultures. Even though they may not understand the lyrics, there is an echo of the world of the spirit that is conveyed to them and that they become immersed in. And that world of the spirit is in truth the one that is found at the essence of us all. It is that essence that I seek to convey, and, thankfully, the audience response tells me that so far I am succeeding.

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