Winter 1994 (2.4)
Pages 54-55, 78
Ali Salimi, Composer
Putting Memories to Music
Interview by Pirouz Khanlou
Translation from Azeri by Abulfaz Bahadori
Perhaps no song is more familiar to Azerbaijanis throughout the world than Ali Salimi's "Ayrilig" ("Separation") written in the early 1960s. For Azerbaijani Iranians, the "Iron Curtain" of the Cold War period that isolated the Soviet Union from the international community was especially painful as it separated Azerbaijani families and relatives from even seeing and communicating with each other. Here in an interview in his home in Tabriz (June 1994) with Pirouz Khanlou, Salimi shares some of these youthful vivid memories that led him to compose this song.
How did your love for music begin?
I had a great love for music from very early childhood. My parents, however, were not musical at all. They thought music would prevent me from doing well in my studies. They were both very religious; that's another reason why they were against my love of music.
But whenever I heard the tar strings vibrate, it used to tug at my heart so deeply. Eventually, my aunt bought me a tar. She told my parents, "Don't you see? This kid is dying for music! Why don't you let him play it?"
And that tar became my life. I used to practice it everyday. I really took care of it, I would varnish it, make it shine. When my father understood how deeply I loved this instrument, he arranged for a music teacher to instruct me at home. A year later, my teacher told my father, "I can no longer teach your son; he already plays better than I do." I was about 11 at the time.
Who was your primary music teacher?
Ahmad Bakikhanov. He taught me mugham. He was a left-handed tar player so when I sat in front of him as a right-handed person, it was like a mirror. It was so easy to learn that way. I joined his ensemble with 30 players and we gave many concerts.
Tell us about your family.
I was born in Baku in 1922. My mother was from Northern Azerbaijan (at that time part of the USSR) and my father was from Iranian Azerbaijan. After my grandfather died of shock when his village was raided by neighboring villagers, my father left his sisters with neighbors and joined many villagers who went North looking for work. He was 14 at the time. Eventually, he ended up working in a mill in the Guba region and later married my mother in Baku.
How did you come to live in Iran?
Well, it all started one night in 1938. Upon returning home from a concert, I heard my mother crying. I'll never forget that scene. She was holding my sister and crying. It was the beginning of World War II. Stalin only allowed Soviet citizens to stay in the Soviet Union. According to the new laws, you either had to obtain a Soviet passport or leave the country. That's when they took my father away. That's why my mother was crying. They had found a letter from his sister linking him with Iran. Those days they were taking all the Iranians away. I even had to go into hiding at my uncle's house for awhile.
When we went in search of my father, we found the prisons full of Iranians. Only after many months through my mother's endless efforts were we eventually able to find him in a potato warehouse. They had taken him there since the prisons were so full. He had become very sick; many others had died.
My father wanted to return to Iran and begged my mother to somehow obtain an Iranian passport. He didn't want to leave us kids since according to the Soviet law, children belonged to their mother.
Again, my mother did a very brave thing. She went to the Iranian Consulate and claimed that she was originally from Ardabil. Now to tell such a lie would have meant certain death if she had been discovered, but the Iranian authorities believed her and gave us papers. They told us to be ready to leave for Iran within 15 days.
So we joined the huge crowds of refugees going to Iran. The only thing they allowed us to take was my tar. We had to leave behind all our relatives as we were now considered citizens of another country. The truth is-that was the beginning of a long separation for me, which became the title of my famous song, "Ayrilig". They put us in boats. They were calling out the names, and family after family began climbing on board. We had to leave my father; he would join us later.
All along these horrible journeys, my only solace was my tar. I played it everywhere we stopped, even on top of the refugee luggage. Sometimes I even earned money which I gave to my parents.
Ardabil was such a dusty, muddy little village at the time. We didn't even have glass on our windows, we were so poor. Children played in the streets barefooted, but they looked so healthy that when we first arrived I asked my mother why they had rubbed red paint on their cheeks. She told me that it wasn't paint but the mountain climate. Children from the north looked so pale and yellow in comparison.
Eventually, when the Allied Forces began occupying Iran, we moved to Tehran.
Azerbaijani music was not very well known in Tehran at the time. We started it. Up until that time, performing music had always been associated with smoking opium and drug addicts on the streets. Music, in general, really had a bad reputation.
How did you start playing for Tehran Radio?
Oh, that started in Mossadegh's time (the Iranian Nationalist Prime Minister who nationalized the oil industry who campaigned against the Shah). I happened to meet Mr. Yoosefnazhad, who was Mossadegh's Chief of Staff. He liked my tar performances and asked why I didn't play on the radio. I told him it wasn't allowed. He said, "They'll let you play tomorrow!" And the next day they welcomed us-these same people who had rudely refused to let us play Azeri music before.
From then on, usually just before the mid-day prayers, we performed 15 minutes of Azerbaijani music on Tehran Radio. Of course, we played for free. Only later did they suggest we increase the size of the ensemble and become properly employed.
Eventually, the Iranian Parliament approved the budget for our orchestra. Then I had to pass a test to become its conductor. Prominent Persian composers including the late Ruhollah Khalegi, Javad Ma'roofi, and Sahba administered the exam. They really liked my ensemble. From then on, they paid us cash for each performance in the radio.
How long did you play on the radio?
For many years. But four years prior to the Islamic Revolution, they labeled me a "Toudehi" (member of pro-Soviet Communist party of Iran) and kicked me off the radio. Savak (the Shah's intelligence agency) questioned me and my wife several times, but they couldn't prove anything.
Your name is so closely identified with the famous song, "Ayrilig" "Separation". How did you come to compose it?
For a long time I had been looking for the right lyrics to compose a song on the motif of "separation" since it was such a painful part of the lives of so many Azerbaijanis. For many, including myself, it meant separation from family members, relatives and loved ones-separation from home town and home villages over on the other side of the Araz River. During the period that followed neither, the Soviet regime nor Shah's regime allowed us to visit the other side. Going back was only a dream or, at best, a one-way ticket. One day a young man by the name of Farhad Ibrahimi brought me a poem that he had written. I used to receive a lot of lyrics that way so I didn't pay much attention at first. But when I finally read it, it really moved me. It was just what I was looking for.
The lyrics inspired me to write a rather hauntingly mournful melody. My wife, to whom I've now been married 35 years, was the first to sing it. She used to perform in our ensemble, singing all the Azerbaijani songs. We first recorded it for the radio.
How is it that this song is so well known among all Azerbaijanis?
In 1963 Rashid Behbudov (the most prominent singer of Northern Azerbaijan) together with Ahsan Dadashov, and Chingiz Sadigov came to Tehran. I performed the song for them at a gathering that was organized by Iraj Golesorkhi (the head of the Youth Cultural Center in Tehran). It made a deep impression on Rashid. He asked for the music and lyrics. I was very honored by his request but concerned since so many of my songs had traveled North without my name ever being credited. So he promised to name me as the composer and he kept his promise. It was recorded on two different records in two different arrangements; both identified me as composer. Amazingly, those records were never widely distributed. We received them in Tehran, but people in Baku were not aware of them and, obviously, Rashid did not sing it on many occasions because even to this date many people in Baku don't know that I had given it to him.
It's no exaggeration to say that "Ayrilig" became one of the most popular songs throughout Azerbaijan. Rashid went to great lengths to promote our work and compositions in an interview with "Novesti Rasiye" (News of Russia), a famous daily paper in Iran. Our pictures were also published there. On his next trip to Iran in 1965, he honored me by singing it, accompanied by Baku's most famous musicians.
But later on the composer, Cheshmazar, arranged your song for other singers, didn't he?
That was much later. It was when the Turkish singer, Emil Sayin, had come to Iran. Cheshmazar who had been one of my pupils asked my permission to give the song to Emil Sayin. I agreed but asked him not to change the arrangement. However, later on we heard it sung on the radio by Gugush (the most famous Iranian-Azeri female pop singer). But the arrangement didn't maintain the original feelings. They even announced somebody else's name as the composer. Nowadays, Yakub Zorufchi from Tabriz and many others from Baku continue to sing "Ayrilig" and so the song is still very much alive to this day.
How do you see the future of Azerbaijani music in Iran?
During the Shah's time, Azerbaijani music was never promoted. We mainly played for our own entertainment. Folk music is somehow promoted these days and people are more supportive. But Azerbaijani classical music is generally ignored by the authorities and has advanced very little. And this, despite the fact that most of the official anthems at the beginning of the Revolution were composed by me and other Azerbaijani composers. Generally, the government does not support us financially, and the truth is, I can barely pay the rent for my private music school, let alone expect any income from it.
How about Azerbaijani music in the Republic of Azerbaijan since the collapse of the Soviet system?
During my last visit to Baku, I noticed that because of the critical economic state, the income and level of lifestyle of musicians are in such a tragic state. Everything has become market oriented and the musicians are suffering. In fact, many of them have had to leave the country to earn money elsewhere just to survive.
One has to give credit to the Soviet system, despite all its corruption and short comings; at least they supported the arts. I would even go so far as to say that no where else in the world did the fine arts and music ever receive more support than from the government of the Soviet Union.
Of course, in the case of Azerbaijan, it was thanks to Uzeyir Hajibeyov that Azerbaijani music became established to such a fine level of classical art. Soviet authorities wanted to eliminate many Azeri folk instruments such as the tar in order to bring it closer to Russian and European music. In other words, to unify the "Soviet people's music". Hajibeyov did not let this happen. He even introduced the folk instruments to the massive classical orchestra. He realized the incredible potential of Azerbaijani instruments.
Azerbaijani lyrics by Farhad Ibrahimi
Music composed by Ali Salimi
I cannot sleep at nights, thinking of you.
I cannot get these thoughts out of my mind;
What am I to do since I cannot reach you?
Oh, separation, separation, painful separation.
It's harsher than any pain-separation.
The dark nights are so long in your absence.
I don't know where to go in the dark distance.
The nights have injured my heart so much.
Oh, separation, separation, painful separation.
When I remember your hazel eyes,
I ask the stars of your whereabouts.
Have you forgotten me, now that we are apart?
Oh, separation, separation, painful separation.
From Azerbaijan International (2.4) Winter 1994.
© Azerbaijan International 1994. All rights reserved.