Azerbaijan International

Autumn 2002 (10.3)
Pages 60-63

The Show Must Go On
Memories of Accompanying Azerbaijan's Greatest Singers
by Chingiz Sadikhov

Chingiz Sadikhov's latest CD, "Piano Music of Azerbaijan".
Listen and purchase at AI Store.

Renowned pianist Chingiz Sadikhov (1929- ) has spent much of his life accompanying Azerbaijan's most prominent singers, including Bulbul (1897-1961), the founder of Azerbaijan's professional vocal school; Rashid Behbudov (1915-1989), the singer who most often represented Azerbaijan throughout the world during the Soviet period; and Muslim Magomayev (1942-October 25, 2008), one of the former Soviet Union's best-known pop stars. When asked how many songs are in his repertoire, Chingiz readily admits that there are so many that he wouldn't know where to start counting. Up until his move to San Francisco in the mid-1990s, he boasts, there was not a single Azerbaijani song that he didn't know or couldn't play. Recently, Chingiz spoke with AI about his long musical career and his philosophy about the art of accompanying.

I always say that we pianists have to be prepared for anything. Other musicians get to have their own instruments - violins, cellos, trumpets, clarinets.

They're familiar with all the nuances of their instruments - both positive and negative. But we pianists have to make do with whatever happens to be available. If we get a good piano, we say "thank you". If we get a bad piano, we say "thank you" as well. What else can we do? Before each performance, I make it a point to check out the piano. I want to know how it's been tuned, if it has any false notes, if all of the keys work, if the keys are stiff or not. From experience, I've learned how important it is to be forewarned.

Piano Hammers Missing

Left: Performance of Muslim Magomayev accompanied by Chingiz Sadikhov in the "Holiday of Song" in the city of Kirovabad (now Ganja) on July 7, 1971.

Once in the early 1960s, I went out to sea to perform at a concert for the oil workers at Oil Rocks [the world's first deep-sea oil exploration project, constructed on trestles and piers in the Caspian in 1948]. Upon arriving by ship, I went over to the club to check out the piano. They told me: "Oh, we have such a wonderful piano! It's brand new. We received it just yesterday. But it's locked and the director has the key. Don't worry, the piano tuner was just here yesterday to check it out. Everything is fine."

That evening, the concert emcee announced: "'Azerbaijan Ellari' (Land of Azerbaijan) by Fikrat Amirov, performed by the 'Honored Artist of the Republic', Sona Aslanova, accompanied on the grand piano by Chingiz Sadikhov."

Sona and I made our entrance onstage and took our bows. I sat down at the piano. But when I started to play the introduction, no sound came out! What could possibly be wrong? Sona looked at me, I looked at her. I tried to calm her: "Don't worry, everything will work out." Again, I tried to play, but again, no sound. I then raised the piano lid and discovered that all of the piano hammers were missing. No wonder there was no sound! Later I found out that two of the hammers had been broken, so the tuner had taken all of them out to be repaired.

Left: A statue to the memory of Rashid Behbudov has recently been erected in Baku's Cemetery for the Honored Ones (Fakhri Khiyaban). Photo by Elman Gurbanov.

Right: Sadikhov (left) accompanying singer Rashid Behbudov.

In the meantime, what were we to do? I was supposed to provide the accompaniment for the entire concert. Without me, there would be no program.

The curtains closed, and the audience started booing and yelling. We had to come up with a solution right away.

I asked the director: "Do you have an accordion?"
"Yes, a big accordion that we use for concerts. Why?"
"Bring it right away."

When the director came back with the accordion, I had him set up a table. Then I told him, "Now choose three strong guys from the audience."

I only knew how to play the right hand on an accordion; I didn't know much about the buttons on the left hand. So we set the accordion down on the table and I asked two guys to hold it down on both sides so that it wouldn't move. The third guy had the tough job of stretching the bellows in and out while I played on the keyboard, piano-style, with both hands. And so, the show went on.

Piano Pitched Low
Then there was another time in late 1962 when Rashid Behbudov was on tour in Iran. As soon as we arrived in Isfahan, I went to check out the hall where we would perform. It had a beautiful piano - well tuned, new, easy to play.

Above: The State Variety Ensemble of Azerbaijan performing with Rashid Behbudov in 1957. Rashid (center). Chingiz Sadikhov (far right).

An hour before the concert, we began warming up. Rashid went onstage to make sure everything was in order. He had a pitch pipe and soon detected that the piano had been tuned a half-step lower than normal. For instance, the G key played an F# - that is, the note that was a half-step lower. Can you imagine?

Rashid was puzzled: what could have happened? I told him: "I checked the piano this morning, but since I didn't have a tuning fork with me, I couldn't tell that anything was wrong. Besides, Rashid, if the piano were tuned too high, it would have made it more difficult for you. It's tuned lower, so that should make it even easier for you. It's not so disastrous after all."

"But my voice is used to singing exact pitch," Rashid observed, and then he told me: "Do whatever you want, but I absolutely must sing in the key that I'm used to."

And so all evening long I had to transpose the songs up a half-step. Instead of the key I usually played in-A minor-which is very comfortable for me and doesn't require any black keys, I had to transpose everything to B - flat minor, which uses almost all black keys. All of this had to be done instantaneously - not just for one or two songs, but for all 32 on the program! We had no chance to rehearse in the new key. What else could I do? It was extremely difficult. I'm sure I still have a few gray hairs from that concert.

Early Signs of Talent
I was born on April 5, 1929. My musical training started at an early age, when
I was six years old. My family discovered that I had perfect pitch and could play back melodies that I heard. For instance, when I heard a melody that I liked, I would go up to our piano at home and start picking out the tune with one finger; sometimes, I would even add a little harmony with my left hand as well. That's when everybody decided that I should study music.

My parents were not musicians, although my birth mother used to sing mugham [traditional modal music]. People tell me that she had a very sweet, pleasant voice and could sing very well. As she died when I was only three years old, I don't remember. But, perhaps, I inherited some of her musical ability.

When I was 10 years old, in 1939, Uzeyir Hajibeyov organized a special children's music school at the Conservatory, which was called the School for Gifted Children. Hajibeyov was such a great, great person. I remember how he would talk one-on-one with every child who was selected for that school. When my turn came, he called me into the room, gave me a hug and asked me to play a musical piece.

And so I attended the School for Gifted Children from 1939 to 1946. Since the school was located within Baku's Music Conservatory itself, upon graduation from the 10th grade, students automatically entered the first year at the Conservatory. No entrance exams were required of them.

In 1951, I graduated from the Conservatory, then headed to Moscow for postgraduate studies at the Conservatory there. I succeeded in taking classes from Professor Alexander Goldenveizer, who at that time was heading up the State Commission for graduation exams.

Throughout those years, I studied to be a classical pianist. But when I returned to Baku in 1953, one of those chances that come along "once-in-a-lifetime". It completely changed the direction of my life. It just so happened that Professor Bulbul was preparing for a tour of Central Asia. Something had happened to his accompanist, I don't remember exactly what. Bulbul asked me: "Chingiz, why don't you come with me? I'll be singing Azeri folk songs. You know all of them, so you can accompany me."

So we went to Central Asia. Once I started accompanying Bulbul, I realized that my calling was not as a solo pianist, but as an accompanist.

Role of the Accompanist
During that tour, I soon learned that accompanists must have the ability to adapt immediately to any situation. At one of our concerts, after Bulbul had sung his entire program, the audience wouldn't let him go. He sang six more songs that we had never rehearsed before. Such things can happen.

Onstage, the accompanist is responsible not only for himself, but for the soloist as well. He has to be reliable and allow the vocalist to express his own emotions and technique without worrying about the accompanist.

An accompanist has to be able to sense if the soloist is having a good day or a bad day, if he's performing well, or if he has the slightest hint of a cold. And he'll need support, too, if he suddenly draws a blank with the lyrics.

Most accompanists just play the harmony, but sometimes the singer needs more support than that-for example, to help him achieve high notes, or to help him through certain phrases so that he can sing easily.

I was the first one in Azerbaijan to emphasize that an accompanist must play without looking at the musical score. Why? Well, if he has to look at the music or his fingers, then he can't concentrate all of his attention on the vocalist. An accompanist should memorize all of the pieces - that way, he can concentrate on the vocalist and sense his every move. If the singer is running out of breath, then the accompanist can support him with more harmony. Maybe the singer wants to stretch out a note or a phrase for dramatic effect. An accompanist needs to be sensitive to these issues and always be ready to adjust instantly as required.

Rashid Behbudov
I worked with Rashid Behbudov for seven years, from 1956 until 1964. When Rashid organized the State Stage Orchestra of Azerbaijan, I became its concertmaster and accompanist. He and I worked with that orchestra until 1958. Then Rashid decided that he didn't need the orchestra, so we began working without it, just the two of us.

Our first trip abroad was to Syria, then Iraq, then again to Syria, Egypt, Turkey and so on. There were a lot of trips outside of the USSR. In 1960, Rashid and I went to India. I remember that he sang an Indian song there. [During the interview, Chingiz started humming the melody to this Indian song that they had performed together 42 years earlier]. Rashid loved to learn some of the popular songs in the native languages of the countries he was performing in. That always made a deep impact and endeared him to his audience.

I learned a great deal from Rashid. I learned to really feel a vocalist. I remember how Rashid would stand next to the piano, facing the audience. I could only see the right side of his face, but I knew from his right cheek what he was going to do next: whether he would stop, whether he would stretch a note - I could read it all from his right cheek. The contact between us was that deep.

With Rashid, everything was thoroughly rehearsed beforehand. He had certain patterns about how he would come onstage, how I would come onstage, how we would bow, how I would take my seat, and so on. He would stand with his arm outstretched on the piano; then, once he was ready, he would raise his little finger, and I would start to play. His most popular songs were basically folk songs, such as "Gulabatin" (Golden Thread), "Aghajda Alma" (Apple on the Tree) and "Uja Dagh Bashinda" (On Top of the High Mountain).

From November 1962 until February 1963, Rashid and I toured Iran - 80 days altogether. We visited four cities: Tehran, Isfahan, Shiraz and Abadan. But no matter how much Rashid asked, we weren't allowed to go to any of the cities in the Southern Azerbaijani provinces, such as Tabriz, Ardabil or Urmia.

Almost all of our concerts were packed. But I'll never forget once, in Tehran, about 10 minutes before the concert was to begin, I looked out from behind the curtain and noticed that there were only about 100 people in the entire hall, which had the capacity of seating about 900. "What's the matter?" I wondered. "Are the people tired of us already?"

I asked the theater manager what was wrong. "I don't know," he told me. "But all of the tickets are sold out. There's not a single one left."

We told Rashid about it. "Well, if all of the tickets are sold out, then we'll have to do our work." So we did the entire concert for only 100 people. Many of the women in the audience were crying during that performance. When I see a woman cry, to me it means that she is experiencing very deep emotions. It's a good thing; it means that the music is bringing out very deep feelings.

After the concert, when we were backstage, we heard a knock on the door. Two older men entered. "Thank you very much," they said to us. "That was a superb concert. We enjoyed it a lot. We are Azerbaijanis from Tabriz. Our two families decided to buy all of the tickets to your concert so that nobody else would be in the hall."

Can you imagine? There were two families: grandfathers, grandmothers, sons, daughters, grandchildren, great-grandchildren - 50 people from one family and 50 from another family. They had traveled the 300 miles to Tehran specifically to attend Rashid's concert and bought all of the tickets! Since we weren't allowed to tour in the Azerbaijani cities in Iran, they had come to us.

Muslim Magomayev
After working with Rashid, I worked at the Philharmonic for one year as a soloist and accompanist. Then in 1964, I began working with singer Muslim Magomayev. Again, it was seven years that we performed together, until 1971. We toured all over the Soviet Union and visited several other countries, including Hungary and Canada.

Muslim was extremely emotional and spontaneous - in fact, quite different from Rashid. For instance, one day Muslim would start the concert early; the next day, he would be late. Depending on his mood, he would sing one song one day, and the next day - another. He just went onstage and sang, thoroughly immersed in what he did. In this respect, Rashid and Muslim were quite different from each other.

Muslim is very talented. His voice has a unique timbre and a wide diapason, which allows him to sing many types of songs: opera arias, Neapolitan songs as well as folk songs. When we toured together, he would mesmerize his audience. His popularity had no limits.

I remember once Muslim and I were performing at the "Decade of Azerbaijani Culture and Art" in Moldavia. After the concert, we returned to our hotel. It was already 10:30 at night, and we were staying on the fourth floor.

Suddenly, I heard voices outside chanting, "Ma-go-MA-yev! Ma-go-MA-yev"! I went out onto the balcony and saw at least a thousand people gathered in front of the hotel. When Muslim appeared on the balcony, they said: "Muslim, we couldn't get to your concert. Please sing to us now!" Can you imagine? Singing from the balcony of the fourth floor, without any accompaniment?

Muslim said to me: "China [pronounced CHEE-nah, an endearing abbreviation of Chingiz], what should we do? Go get the accordion from the orchestra downstairs." I went downstairs, got the accordion and returned to the suite. That night, Muslim sang about a dozen songs to the crowd, with me accompanying him on the balcony on the accordion.

Experience Abroad
During my lifetime, I've traveled to dozens of countries-India, Vietnam, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Turkey, Iran, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Libya, Lebanon, Poland, Bulgaria, Hungary, Romania, Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, Germany, England, Finland, Canada and the United States. That's pretty much it.

In 1971 I was appointed Director of Baku's Music School No. 16, where I stayed until 1981. During my tenure, the USSR Ministry of Culture sent me to Adan, Yemen for three years (1973-1976). While I was there, I taught 40 students everything that was being taught in seven-year music schools of the USSR. After graduation, they became teachers at music schools in Yemen.

Six years later, the Prime Minister of Yemen, Ali Naser Muhammad, personally invited me back to serve as an advisor to Yemen's Minister of Culture. I worked there for three years (1983-1986), helping to arrange all of the cultural events in the country: concerts, festivals, visiting artists. I brought in exchange students from Azerbaijan who were studying Arabic; we also sent Yemen students to study at the universities and institutes of the Soviet Union.

At that time, I was on leave from my job as Artistic Manager of AzConcert, a post I held throughout the 1980s. At AzConcert, I was responsible for managing all of the concerts held in the Republic, including the concerts of local and visiting artists, singers, musicians and dancers. I also worked as a Professor at the Baku Conservatory, in the accompaniment department.

Move to the United States
In 1991, my wife, Jeyran, and I visited the United States at the invitation of our American friends Mabel and Roger Owen, who were members of the American-Soviet Friendship Society. During that visit, I gave a charity concert in Berkeley, California to raise money for the children from Chernobyl who had been brought to San Francisco for treatment. Mabel and Roger asked me to include some Azerbaijani pieces into my program, which I gladly did. I never imagined that the Azeri music would produce such an emotional effect on the audience. You could see tears welling in people's eyes.

After the concert, everybody thanked me for introducing such beautiful music to them. They asked a lot of questions about Azerbaijan and its people. At that time, the war was going on in Nagorno-Karabakh. Few people knew the truth about the situation in the region; for instance, they didn't realize that Karabakh doesn't even border Armenia. That was when I got the idea to familiarize the American audience with the beauty of Azeri music. Soon after I returned to Baku, however, I broke my leg and couldn't travel. Finally, in 1994, I moved to the United States. Those first few years were very difficult. Just imagine what it was like for me. I was used to all kinds of privileges back in my homeland. I was a well-known figure among my people. Then suddenly I came to this country where nobody knew me and nobody needed me. That was such a difficult period for me. Remember, I was about 65 years old at the time, not a 20-year-old lad.

But gradually, I'm finding my way. I've performed Azeri music in more than 30 cities of the United States and Canada. I'm proud to say that often there have been many questions and discussions after the concerts, as listeners are always keen to learn more about Azerbaijan.

I consider myself privileged to be able to do that at my age for my people and for my country. I'm 73 years old now. My country has awarded me with the most coveted titles possible - Honored Artist of Azerbaijan (1959), People's Artist of Azerbaijan (1987) and Professor of Music. In 2001, the Azerbaijan Cultural Society in Northern California awarded me with a plaque in recognition and appreciation of my service to Azerbaijani music.

I have two daughters who are very good professional musicians and teachers - Nargiz (piano) and Lala (violin). When they perform, they always include pieces by Azerbaijani composers in their programs. Recently, Nargiz and I played "Aziz Surat" (Dear Image) by Tofig Guliyev on two pianos at a concert. I'm sure my daughters will follow in my footsteps enjoying and promoting Azerbaijani music.

Chingiz Sadikhov [also spelled Sadykhov or Sadighov] lives in San Francisco. He was interviewed in Los Angeles in August 2002 by AI Editor Betty Blair with Arzu Aghayeva and Narges Abadi. He may be reached at Chingiz has just released a new CD, "Piano Music of Azerbaijan," which features Azerbaijani folk songs and love songs. It is available at the AI STORE at The CD was engineered and produced by Kutay Derin Kugay of 7/8 Music Productions. To listen to sound samples or purchase, click on "Music".

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