Useyn Bekirov: “Jazz is the music of the people. It has a place for Crimean Tatar sound”
Shortly before the presentation of his new album Taterrium in April, jazz pianist and composer Useyn Bekirov spoke to The Ukrainian Week about ways to present his native culture in his music, jazz clubs in Ukraine, and the history of Crimean Tatar jazz since Soviet times
Interviewed by Hanna Trehub
Crimean Tatar culture is represented in the world not only through the folklore format, but in jazz as well. What is the foundation of Crimean Tatar jazz tradition, and where does it start?
— Jazz came to Crimean Tatars after the Soviet authorities deported our entire people into Central Asia. The place and time played a role in this. The Uzbek city of Fergana was a powerful jazz center in the mid 1970s with its own club and a bunch of bands. It hosted great festivals. It saw outstanding workshops and musicians, including Valeriy Kolesnikov, a well-known trumpeter and jazz teacher of Ukrainian origin, or Russian jazzman Yuri Parfionov.
My father Riza Bekirov is a jazz pianist. I followed his footsteps. He used to play in the Fergana band Sato. It was a unique band of sorts – the first Crimean Tatar ethno jazz group. It consisted of guitarist Enver Izmailov, clarinetist Narket Ramazanov, bass guitarist Leonid Atabekov. They started experimenting back in Soviet times and even managed to make a couple of records. One, titled Efsane, is still available online. What they did was play jazz versions of Crimean Tatar melodies. The Bolshevik authorities were very rough about jazz or Crimean Tatars, but these people managed to make two records. As to me, I don’t only make Crimean Tatar music – I turn to Azerbaijani and Armenian melodies too. My friends are musicians of various ethnic backgrounds, we all experiment in a number of styles.
Jazz is the music of the people and it has a place for Crimean Tatar sound. I create arrangements of our folk songs, compose my own tracks in the folk style. If you look at it in detail, Crimean Tatars don’t have too many extremely professional musicians. Their number has increased in the past few years, but with the annexation of Crimea and the need to leave the peninsula music education and conservatories have become a secondary issue again. I remember my young years – music lessons in a house with no electricity or running water. This memory is somewhat similar to what we are going through today. 80% of Crimean Tatars lived that way.
Enver Izmailov is a world renowned musician. We used to be neighbors in Crimea and I had a chance to communicate with him. Back then we didn’t have as much access to music as we have now, and he brought home tons of jazz records which we could listen to. It was extremely important.
As Ukraine regained independence, Crimean Tatars began to return home. This process unfolded in the atmosphere of active construction of houses back in Crimea. Everyone was obsessed with that. What conservatory could we possibly think of? I was probably the first Crimean Tatar to enter a higher music education facility to play violin. The first three years were extremely difficult. I’m still deeply grateful to those people in Kyiv who helped me and supported me.
With the annexation of Crimea Jazz Koktebel had to change its location. Did it affect the festival? Does Ukraine have anything similar in terms of the quality and variety of performers?
— I played at this festival for a number of years together with Jamala, bass guitarist Ihor Zakus and his quartet. Odesa Jazz Festival has a somewhat similar scale to that one today. In any case, for me as Crimean Tatar, such platforms are a chance to introduce to the wide audience the music of my people, to remind them that a culture like mine exists. Koktebel festival moved to Zatoka in Odesa Oblast after the annexation of Crimea. It changed the address but preserved its atmosphere. As to the location, it is true that Crimea and Koktebel are hardly replaceable in that regard.
Professional path of a jazzman starts with clubd, not big stages. Does Kyiv have enough such venues where musicians can gain experience and the audience can hear them in a chamber format?
— There are very few jazz clubs in Kyiv, though it is nice that they exist. Unfortunately, Art Club 44 closed down. That was a place where 90% of Ukrainian jazz musicians started their career. At one point, getting to play there was regarded as sort of maturity test: a young jazzman from a provincial town could come and jam there, and get noticed eventually. Young musicians had a place to grow and move forward. Take saxophonist Bohdan Humeniuk – he started at 44, and now he’s a respected teacher at the academy in Montreal.
If there more venues like 44 where musicians could share their experience, Ukrainian jazz would have faster and better progress. In the past 3-4 years, we’ve had very good new teachers who can pass on performance experience to the younger generation. That’s why young musicians are playing completely differently today than they would have 10 years ago.
A jazz club is about chamber format of performing and consuming music. A bigger concert requires more spacious concert halls. I can name three or four jazz clubs in Kyiv where people just come and play. And we are talking about the capital, a big city of several million people. Take Istanbul – it has tenfold more jazz clubs in Kyiv. Let alone the EU or USA. Even Dubai has more than Kyiv, although it’s a desert and a culture that seems to be completely different from that of Europe. And it’s not only foreigners that go to listen to jazz, but the locals too. This leads to a powerful flow of musicians and exchange of music.
Taterrium is your debut album, although you have long been performing and composing jazz music. How did you work on this record?
— Back when we were students, Jamala and I recorded our first album together. So much time later I am issuing it into the wide world. I just didn’t have a chance to finish it earlier. I’ve recently found these records, listened to them. Dmytro Korovin, director of Chernihiv Jazz Festival, heard them and asked me what that cool music was. He suggested that I issue it as an album. He insisted that people should hear what had been on the shelf for many years. At the same time, I gathered everything I recorded and played in the past ten years – it would make three full albums. Out of all this, I made one mix tape. Unfortunately, this had some negative effect on the quality of the sound because the records were made at different times and different studios. My first idea for the title was Tatarium. Jamala suggested that I change it a little. That’s how the combination of two words appeared: Tatar and terra for land. “Tatar land” together.
This new album is a collection of folk music and my own compositions, plus those by trumpeters Yevhen Didyk, Maksym Koshelev. It also features the music by Armen Kostandian who plays the duduk. I gathered Crimean Tatar, Armenian and Moldovan tunes in jazz arrangements. The mix is very interesting.
Music folklore of my people of the 20th century builds around the theme of the lost motherland which they grieve. These tragedies don’t disappear. Take Jamala’s 1944 about this – the peninsula was just annexed and Crimean Tatars are once again forced to leave their motherland.
Useyn Bekirov is a Crimean Tatar jazz pianist and composer. He graduated from the Tchaikovsky National Music Academy of Ukraine. He plays with well known jazz musicians in Ukraine, including Bohdan Humeniuk, Dennis Adu, Ihor Zakus, with Ethnovation and Oakmen bands, as well as in his own jazz quintet.
The Ukrainian Week asks American think-tankers and diplomats three questions: 1. Is Ukraine seen as part of Russia’s sphere of influence in the US? 2. Why a part of the American establishment believes that Ukraine should be attributed to Russia’s orbit? 3. What can Ukraine do to counter this approach?