A slight, silver haired gentleman from Azerbaijan might seem like an unlikely candidate to entrance a theatre packed with music lovers - unless that man is Alim Qasimov. The singer, who is one of the world's foremost performers of mugham music and rightfully lauded for his exceptional vocal ability, appeared at the Cultural Foundation for Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage's Music of the World series on Tuesday.
With his soaring voice and both arms outstretched above him, the singer gave a powerful and hugely authentic performance, showing that his reputation as a legend of the genre is well deserved. Murgham's roots stretch back to ancient Persia and the Ottoman Empire. Singers of the style are known for their deeply personal and devotional performances, full of love, pain and yearning. The complex art form combines poetry and improvisation, and is most commonly practised in Central Asia and the Caucuses.
For Tuesday's performance, Qasimov was accompanied by the customary tar and kamancha string instruments. He also was joined by his daughter, who regularly appears with her father (the pair also have made several records together). Fargana Qasimov came on stage 10 minutes into the performance and didn't leave until it finished. Although her range is undoubtedly strong, her voice is less emotionally engaging than her father's.
The strength of his voice was instantly striking. Almost without moving his lips, the singer swiftly moved from whoops to whines, expressing every sound with crystal clarity. He is perhaps best known internationally for having performed with late US singer Jeff Buckley, another great vocal talent. Although the concert showcased Qasimov's vocal ability, it would be an oversight to ignore his fellow musicians. The tar player Alasgar Mammadov and the kamancha player Rauf Islamov expertly wove the landscape in which the singer's music lives. With the tar's twangy flurries of notes and the kamancha's soaring, willowy tones, the atmosphere is warm and exhilarating.
The melodies that Qasimov sings sound unstructured to someone who isn't a mugham expert: there are certainly no choruses. All of the tunes seem to follow a similar pattern, though, building slowly towards a thundery peak before peeling back towards a whimper. Strangely, many of the songs burst into something reminiscent of western folk songs in their last minutes before ending in largely the same way - a great "hey!" and the bang of a frame drum.
Although the musicians were excellent at painting a world with heavily textured sounds and emotion, the performance sometimes dragged a little. The audience, however, gave little sign of any dissatisfaction. As well as thunderous applause in between every song, the crowd would often launch into delighted clapping after one of Qasimov's particularly impressive mid-song bouts. Most impressive of all was the way in which all the musicians fused melodies so effortlessly, creating a warm and hugely emotional atmosphere, and evoking a similar response from the audience.