Ukrainian-Azerbaijani Drummer: “We play all over, but Azerbaijan won’t have us”

Azerbaijani musician Orhan Aghabeyli is one of Ukraine’s best percussionists, and is in demand across the country. But Azerbaijan itself is still unfamiliar with one of its most talented sons.

Azerbaijani musician Orhan Aghabeyli is one of Ukraine’s best percussionists, and is in demand across the country. But Azerbaijan itself is still unfamiliar with one of its most talented sons.

Meydan TV spoke with Aghabeyli to learn more about his trade, his career and his future plans.

As far as I remember, you used to live in Kharkov, but now you have moved to Kiev. Tell us about your travels around the world, your ‘personal geography.’

I was born in Azerbaijan, but grew up in Kharkov where I studied jazz-drumming in the conservatory. Then I went abroad. I ended up in a number of countries: I had contracts in South Korea, Germany, Poland and Turkey. I worked and worked, and then I realized that I still had some unfulfilled mission in Ukraine. I realized I had lost something. So I broke the contract I had at the time and returned to Ukraine

How was your start in Kiev?

It was a hard start. I hardly knew anyone. I took a small room, and began to pay more attention to my drumming skills – to the djembe, the goblet drum and frame drums. I went to a ‘casting’ for drummers, and I was hired by a group, “Gypsy Lear”.

At the same time I worked in a few other musical bands. Thanks to a friend, guitarist Orest Galitsky, I ended up working for Ukrainian pop-diva Irina Bilyk. They needed a percussionist, and he invited me along. I’ve been working with them for the past three years now. I’ve played with the winner of the Eurovision Song Contest, Djamala, as well as with Zlata Ognevich, Maria Burmaka and with the group, “Mannequin”.

The project in which I’ve worked the longest is “Marinita”. We play jazz, based on folk melodies from different countries. The basis of the group is Marina Zakharova, pianist and vocalist, and me. We have been playing for 12 years, since our graduation from conservatory. We invite different artists from abroad, from Israel, from Europe, but in the end everything revolves around Marina.

With Marinita you find unique folk songs, medieval Sephardic lullabies, ancient Azerbaijani songs. Who deals with the selection of the repertoire?

I find the Azerbaijani and Turkish themes. I know these languages, so I help with pronunciation, translation, so that Marina understands what the song is about. Marina covers Spanish and Ladino. We then arrange these melodies to our taste.

Tell us about your Azerbaijani lineup with Marinita.

Azerbaijani music is very rich – our great musicians over the centuries have proved this. For example, Vaqif Mustafazade. With Marina we played his whole repertoire. It was really quite fun.

Now we have an Azerbaijani lineup fit for an hour.

The other day we flew to Strasbourg, where we played Crimean-Tatar and Azerbaijani music in the Parliament of the Assembly of the Council of Europe. We played about 15 Azerbaijani songs and 10 Crimean-Tatar songs.

In May 2017 you also performed at the “Baku Jazz in Kiev” festival. This was the first cultural exchange event between Ukraine and Azerbaijan of this magnitude. What can you say about this event?

It was the first festival organized by the Embassy of Azerbaijan in Ukraine and it was very well organized. It took place in the Heydar Aliyev park of Kiev, and a bunch of artists from Azerbaijan played their music. Unfortunately, I did not have the time to get acquainted with them. I specifically asked that Marinita and I be the first on the stage…we played, and I immediately jumped on a train and rushed off on tour. We played “Lachin”, “Garagashin vesmesi”, “Sari Gelin” (Yellow bride) , “Getmel Gel” (Don’t go, come)  in our arrangement. Overall it was a great festival, I’m proud of such moments. It would be great to have more concerts of the kind, and more often.

Do you perform in Azerbaijan?

No. I offered the Marinita project to some Baku-based concert-organizers. The first thing they did was start bargaining. If I had no experience of working in other countries, I would probably have perceived this differently. But I have experience. And when you compare how people communicate with each other here, and how they do so in Azerbaijan, well…I just didn’t strain myself too much. No means no. I thought that since I’m Azerbaijani, they would consider me one of their own. But it turned out quite the opposite, and even worse. I wasn’t worried but Marina was very upset. She really wants to get to play in Azerbaijan.

But it’s not the time right now to go to Azerbaijan. When the time comes, they’ll invite us.

Have you played in any Azerbaijani music clubs?

Yeah, I’ve worked with Baku DJ Mansur. I played in “Chinara” club in Baku, that was fun. I flew there in 2016, and I saw my grandmother there as well. My grandmother lives in Quba. She hadn’t seen me for 20 years. And here I come in, all bearded. . . But she recognized me of course, and when I walked in, she hugged me and was very happy to see me. She is a strong and cheerful woman. She immediately put out some baklava on the table, claiming it was baked from her own secret recipe. She put out tea, and other things an Azerbaijani snack-table deserves. All my relatives are in Azerbaijan. But I was only able to see my grandmother, my uncle and brother that time.

You have your own percussion school in Kiev now. Is it difficult to find students or do they storm you?

The company “Akropolis” offered me free tools and instruments in order to open a school. I told them, “Guys, me, opening a school!? Really!?” But eventually I agreed, and the first volunteers appeared. I have never seen myself as a teacher. But all of a sudden a number of students piled up, people began coming in and everyone liked it. That was five years ago. Now my students are being invited to festivals and concerts. For example, in May, some had 2 – 3 performances a day. Some of them used to perform with me, now they perform by themselves.

Do you have any Azerbaijani students?

No, but they’re aware of course that I have a school. I invited the Union of Azerbaijani Youth of Ukraine, but not one of them has appeared in the history of the school. I’ve had people come even from other countries, but no Azerbaijanis. They’re probably not interested.

Tell us about your newest projects and plans.

I have a younger brother, Shirkhan Aghabeyli. He’s now studying in Boston, and he’s a great guitarist and bass player. He has a very unique style of playing, something I think that has been influenced by his Azerbaijani background. He has done quite a bit to popularize Azerbaijani music. He has his own project going on, in which he has included Azerbaijani melodies and folk music. People are always impressed how beautiful Azerbaijani music can be. For example, “Qubanin ağ alması” (The white apple of Quba). He was telling me that when he plays that song, people are gripped. I am very proud of my brother, and I am planning to go visit him. I just want to hug him, I haven’t seen him in three years.

I want to record my own album as well. And to open a branch of my school in Kharkov – in the city where I grew up. I want the whole world to know about percussion in Ukraine. If Ukraine will be known as a country with fantastic percussionists, our musicians will be invited to other countries. And I want to participate in this process.

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