Jazz Dunyasi: Did you know very much about Azerbaijan before you came?
RF: Nothing, other than a little bit on Google, of course, you have to Google it.... and I read about Cyrus the Great being in the region and the Medians, the ancient culture.... and the ancient civilisations that were in this area. I wanted to do a little tour but I did something on the flight to my ankle, so I couldn’t.
JD: How long are you actually staying here?
RF: I leave tomorrow.... I’ll have to come back with time to see some things. I love history and the history of the area really intrigued me. And the music, I just heard some of the music, and the scale, the vocal scale, how they use the voice here!
JD: Was this mugham?
RF: Mugham? Is that what it’s called? I must get some mugham music!
JD: It’s improvisation – Azerbaijani improvisation
RF: Yeah! It’s that sound, it’s just incredible – the way the voice is used – Mugham music? Wow! Where does it come from? Is it tribal?
JD: It’s very spiritual music, the words used are from old poetry and it’s open to improvisation. One of the aspects of culture you may be interested in is that there has been a long history of jazz here and one of the most prominent jazzmen of recent times was Vagif Mustafazade who combined jazz with mugham.... Maybe you know Aziza Mustafazade, his daughter? She’s a singer and pianist.
RF: There was a gentleman singing on television and I was intrigued...
Ruslan: The national music you saw? That was mugham.
RF: That was mugham! And the very first gentleman that sang?
JD: Mensum Ibrahimov
RF: Ah! He is stunning! You know I stopped eating to listen to him. That’s how arresting his voice was. Would you mind writing his name down please?... Very clear, the definition between the notes was very articulate and the control of his instrument was breathtaking, it was very exciting.... The clarity and the discipline and the way he completely gave himself, offered himself totally to the music, to creating the music through his body, it was amazing.
JD: What do you think about trying this sound.... mugham?
RF: It’s not something that comes natural, because it’s not from my culture, but it fascinates me and my ear turns to it right away. I’ve been listening to singers who sing in modalities... I do things with my voice that no one has ever done before, because no one has thought about it. I never really think about it, I just feel and whatever comes out, comes out. Even in my culture the things that I do with my voice are considered unusual, I don’t sing ‘normally’. But I find that when I’m exposed to other cultures I can see that there’s something that is cultural, something that you grow up with, the sound, the way the voice is utilised, the notes. There was another woman who sang right after this gentleman and she did something glottal with her voice and she did it with such precision, it sounded like – did you ever hear a CD when it starts skipping? – and she did it in a very musical way, just incredible and that excites me because I can see that is something that can be nurtured and if you listen to it enough you can do it. I can’t do it now, though.
JD: In your biography, it says that you began singing when you were six...
RF: I can’t remember a time when I didn’t sing.
JD: Why did you start?
RF: Some of us when we arrive on this planet, you know, we arrive here knowing what it is that we want to do and every last one of us arrives full of gifts, some gifts are more obvious than others, some of us take time to find our gift or stumble into the gift, or discover the gift, and others have it right there in front of them the whole time. I guess I was one of those who had it right there in front of them the whole time. My mother tells a story about how she was practising the organ and she was reading the music and trying to go from one chord to the next with her eyes on the sheet music and translating it through her mind into her hands. She said I was sitting on the floor playing with dolls and she kept hitting the wrong note, and I got up after a while and tottered over to the keyboard and hit the right note and went and sat back down playing with my dolls. So something, I really can’t explain it, it’s just part of who I am, I’ve known what it is that I wanted to do for many years. I remember being very small, like in kindergarten, in first grade, and just loving to sing; I’d sing my heart out; that was my favourite thing to do, my favourite class.
JD: And music is your life?
RF: Absolutely! Every part of me, everything that has been of any value to me, I’ve learned from music.
JD: But you have also worked on your gift...
RF: Oh yes
JD: And when you were at Berklee you studied composition...
RF: Composition and arranging
JD: Why did you go towards composition rather than developing the singing at first?
RF: Because I had a vocal coach in Berklee who tried to train me to sound a certain way, to sound like Sarah Vaughan, and there can only ever be one Sarah Vaughan. And I knew at that point that that vocal programme was not necessarily what I wanted, so I gravitated towards composition and arranging and I was playing piano by then and I’d already developed my voice to where I needed it to be, not where someone else needed it to be.
JD: Through your life you have sung in different genres. You’ve sung R’nB, jazz, pop.... you’ve studied classical as well, so where are you happiest?
RF: Where am I happiest? I would say in my own music. I write music from all those different genres. The thing is I like to stir them up in the same pot and put in some special seasoning! And that’s where I’m happiest, in that writing process, in the mix of the music that I write.
JD: What are your feelings before the concert, and what are you expecting from it?
RF: My feelings before a concert I never really tune into, because what I try to do before a concert is just go inside myself and breathe in a calm, and a sense of calm before the storm.... it’s a process of gathering energy and preparing to give out a tremendous amount of energy in a small amount of time. People will give out the amount of energy that I will give out in the next 90 minutes in the course of a 40-hour work week. I happen to do it in 90 minutes, so afterwards I’m exhausted! (laughs) But beforehand it’s a process of just knowing what’s to come, knowing how to conserve my energy and how to turn everything inward, like the food (I ate)becomes a source of energy and inspiration for me; how it was served with such elegance and dignity and such warmth and hospitality. I take the energy from that and, kind of, tuck it away and it will come out as music. And I’ll take the energy of how Ruslan just rolled out the red carpet for me. He’s patient and taught me words in Azeri and picked me up from the airport... I tuck that away and it’ll come out as music. And this meeting, and the beautiful smiles and how you are all embracing me right now... even with the language barrier, whatever... I was thinking that I might have to speak the entire interview in Azeri! (laughs) All that and the laughter, I take all of that in and it gets synthesised and it will be transformed and given back into music, so you’ll be able to hear yourselves at 8 o’clock (laughs).
JD: We must let you prepare for the concert....thank you very much
RF: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure.
LEYLA EFENDIYEVA.Jazz Dunyasi