"The infinite possibilities of percussion"

A sage once said that the quickest route to knowledge was to communicate with the intelligent. Jazz music is one mode of communication. Talented jazz musicians make us witnesses of their musical research, while at the same time allowing us to participate. Listening to this music excites an energetic communication or, more exactly, an exchange of energy. It is not hard to see the pleasure on the faces of both musicians and audience as they are moved by the music. The main difference between the dilettante and the real jazz man is the inner freedom achieved by the latter as he improves his playing. This involves the creation of a special world which carries a spiritual comfort, allowing the soul to soar in free flight.
If communication is the shortest way to knowledge then literature, art and music take us on the longest path. Perhaps the mission of jazz is to take people on a longer, but no less interesting, journey.
Jazz experts consider that the Azerbaijani percussionist Tofiq Jabbarov is an example of such a musician. We should explain here, to those who do not know, the meaning of the term 'percussionist'. This player is not restricted to the traditional drum kit, but uses his hands directly on instruments such as the conga, bongo, cowbell, tree-bells, maracas, cabasa, tambourine, rumba-sticks, wood-blocks, bells, vibraphone, xylophone, marimba and others.
Group leader Emil Ibrahim oglu Mammadov told me that it was possible only to speak well of Tofiq Jabbarov. "He is a good musician and friend who lives for jazz; he is a man in love with life. Boredom and sadness are banished from his presence; Tofiq always greets us with a smile and his energy affects everyone around him. You won't find anyone to speak negatively about him, he is such an enthusiastic exponent of jazz. Wherever musicians gather, Tofiq never waits for a lead, it's always, 'Hey, let's play together'."
This man is always researching and it's always possible to play music with him, based on the interesting rhythms he creates. He continually develops new rhythms and is the pride of Azerbaijan; he always represents his country with honour.

Tofig Jabbarov

Tofiq, muellim, you are certainly a fortunate musician. In your long career you have worked with many great musicians - the masters of Azeri jazz. How did you first become interested in such exotic instruments as the conga?
It came from older members of my family. My father used to play accordion, and my uncle the guitar. They liked jazz very much and we often listened to the records of Polish musicians. It wasn't just jazz that I was interested in, however; at first, in my youth, I was more interested in rock. Like my friends, I liked very much the music of the Liverpool group, The Beatles. When I was at school, I began to go to the Pioneers'
House; we played rock there, too. At that time Azeri pop musicians were highly professional. As well as rock, we would also play the songs of Rashid Behbudov, Muslim Magomayev and Polad Bulbuloglu.

And what about jazz? When did you realize that jazz was the music for you?
Listening to those records, I realized that this music was something quite different; I was in another world, I could feel it quickening my pulse. It's contagious, once you're gripped, there's no way out! Jazz is in your soul. We played jazz in the Pioneer House, as well as the rock and pop music.

Tofig Jabbarov

You mean you were playing the congas?
Of course not, congas were a rarity then I was playing the drums. I began playing the congas seriously in the early 80s after joining the group 'Gaya'. I was first experienced the magic of this instrument when I heard the music of Carlos Santana on a spool tape recorder at the start of the 70s. The strange rhythms in the melody were something new for me: I wondered how many drums were used, and how they managed to get such different sounds. I finally realized that they were using congas and other 'hand' drums.

Tofig Jabbarov

Were you still playing at the Pioneers' House?
Yes, but then I was called up into the army and I played in the military orchestra. Serving with me was a jazz trombonist; he completed his service before me and talked about me when he went home to Kyrgizistan. He called me one day and asked if I'd like to play in the Frunze (now Bishkek) Philharmonia. In his way I joined the former USSR's musicians' collective and played in the Philharmonia for two years. That was a very good school for me, there were a lot of very good musicians and we often went on tour.

But how did you come to join Gaya?
That was at the start of the 80s. I had already been back in Baku for two years, and was playing in the Theatral restaurant, opposite the Russian Drama Theatre. Teymur Mirzoyev, leader of 'Gaya', was looking for a drummer - one day he came to the restaurant with his friends, he heard me and asked me to meet them. They had heard some other musicians but hadn't liked their playing. 'Gaya' were rehearsing then in the Bakport Club, near Gagarin Bridge. They liked my playing and invited me to join them; at first I agreed, but later refused.

You were scared of playing with such famous musicians?
No. It was simply that 'Gaya' were frequently on tour and I didn't want to leave Baku at that time. Rauf Babayev came many times to the restaurant to try to persuade me, but I stuck to my decision and they took on another drummer. I met him again a year later, and this time I was asking, "Rauf, don't you need a conga player?" He said, "Of course we do." This is how I began to work with 'Gaya', staying with them for five years.

Did you begin to play the congas there?
Yes, they'd brought a set from Cuba in 1974. When I joined, I had no experience with the congas but I responded intuitively and began to rehearse. I was lucky - 3 months after joining 'Gaya' we were sent on tour to Cuba - we stayed in a hotel next to the sea. Local musicians played congas every night and I couldn't tear myself away from watching them. It was a beautiful scene - can you imagine twenty people playing congas around a fire? It was hardly surprising that, after one or two nights, I joined them. I learned a lot in concerts, which were like jam sessions: I learned how to play and recognized the very rich possibilities of the instrument. We didn't have a school to teach us how to play. Playing congas is fundamentally different from the playing of other percussion. Like the grand piano or violin, congas demand a very serious approach.

But how did you meet Rafiq Babayev?
I first played with Rafiq Babayev in 1983 at the first Baku Jazz Festival, dedicated to the memory of Vagif Mustafa-zadeh - he was playing then at the Rashid Behbutov Song Theatre. In the Festival I played with three groups: Rafiq Babayev's ensemble, the 'Gaya' quartet and the Moscow Hotel music group.
Tofig Jabbarov

Later, in 1985, Rashid Behbutov invited me to his Song Theatre, but I refused - then Rafiq Babayev was leader of the State TV & Radio Ensemble. By this time I had already left 'Gaya' and Rafiq muellim invited me to join his group - I stayed with him from then until the tragic death of that unique musician. As time went on, I realized his greatness, and after his death many things changed: jazz retreated into the shadows. While playing with him, we played folk jazz and toured many foreign countries.
But I was lucky again…Salman Gambarov invited me to join his 'Bakustik' jazz group and I've worked with them for nearly ten years. During this period we have performed in a variety of prestigious jazz festivals: Germany, Tbilisi and Odessa. Last year we played in a great jazz festival in Freiburg. It continued for 17 days and featured a number of well-known stars, like: Joshua Redman, Charlie Mariano, Cassandra Wilson, Perry Robinson, Jeff Ballard...

You are playing with Emil Ibrahim oglu Mammadov’s trio, too...
As I told you, I have been lucky in finding groups; this trio was formed at the end of the 90s and we play Latin American folk and traditional jazz. They are very talented guys who love their work, so it is really interesting to work with them.

I have often noticed audiences paying more attention to the percussionist
Yes, percussion makes a very interesting set - at home I have a lot of bell instruments, but you may notice that sometimes in a piece I touch the bell only once; it's just a feeling inside that that moment needs the bell.
Jazz-based improvisations. It's interesting how musicians playing different instruments are heard as one entity.
We play together with foreign musicians in jam sessions. We all have the same opinions and we speak the same language. Obviously, in an improvisation each of us plays separately; it's the same in football, a good player plays well in any team.

Tofig Jabbarov

But what happens when the other players' levels are lower, wouldn't this affect the whole result?
The weaker ones will strive to raise their game, in this way I am lucky, I have always played with good players who feel the music. Naturally, everyone is not the same, there are something like fifteen really good players, the others try to match them. Young musicians often come to hear us and we invite them to play with us. After some time you can see some development; young musicians progress - it's normal. In my youth I listened to and learned from professionals - in general this process continues, I always listen to other musicians and I rehearse every day. Our work is like sport, if you stop rehearsing, you'll lose your form. I play for half an hour before breakfast every day, after breakfast I go back to the instruments and play until I am satisfied that I've taken another step forward, otherwise I feel that I've missed something. Playing with other, good musicians is the best stimulation to progress. I sometimes see people gathering under my flat to listern; my neighbours don't complain, they see me often on television and are even proud of me.
There is a famous percussionist/drummer Alex Acunya, I have a video of his performances, the cassette is like a favourite book on the bedside table, I might have watched it a hundred times. Every time I put it on I find something new and question myself, "How could I have missed that moment?" It's always like this, I know that I will watch it tomorrow and again find something new. I only regret that I didn't study more in my youth. If I could have my time again, I would rehearse more and wholly dedicate myself to art, playing 6-8 hours a day.

We can conclude that yours has been a joyful life from the beginning, but it's also a fact that jazz doesn't have mass appeal - in Azerbaijan there have been periods of both blossoming and decline. Was there ever a time when you felt like leaving jazz and moving into a different sphere?
I have never felt that. I believe that a real musician can always find a way to earn his bread, we are versatile musicians, we can play everything. If necessary we can play pop or folk music, that's why none of us is without money for bread. I have always performed in concerts with our famous stars - it's the same the world over, even famous maestros can be heard on popular recordings. If we look at the history of jazz no one can deny that at certain periods this music was banned and the musicians have always encountered different problems. And so we were surprised when we were able to earn money from playing jazz.

But why talk about difficulties? If a musician loves his music and plays from his heart, what kind of difficulties can there be? The main thing is that the audience can understand what you are offering to them - it doesn't matter if the audience is one or a hundred… If you create art from your innermost self, then it is worth doing.
Now I'm working on an interesting project with nagara player, Natiq Shirinov; we are gathering all the good musicians of Azerbaijan. We have rehearsed sessions using different types of drum, creating syntheses of our national rhythms with those of India, Latin America and other ethnic rhythms. I believe this experiment will be successful.

Tofig Jabbarov

What about future generations? Do you want to pass on your knowledge to them?
I do, I want it very much. Young musicians often approach me and I give my advice, demonstrating some aspects of the art, but I don't really have the conditions to do this work properly.
In my time I have met many difficulties. I can say that I started from scratch and have progressed step by step. After listening to one player and watching another, I began slowly to understand the meaning of these instruments, but I can't say that there is no more to learn, because the possibilities of the conga and other percussion are infinite...

by Seymur Zakaryayev