Wednesday, April 21, 2010

A journey to Azerbaijan

Have you a moment for a story about Azerbaijan? If that suggestion sounds unlikely, particularly as I haven't been away, remember the many surprising aspects of London. Whilst each area is a village unto itself, by the same token you can travel a mile up the road and find yourself, quite unexpectedly, as far afield as Azerbaijan.
You're feeling a little doubtful? Well, listen to what happened to me!

I won't go into all the details (I don't think I fully follow them myself), sufficient to say that a friend of mine became involved in the public reading of an Azerbaijani play. The play was
being sponsored by The Embassy of The Republic of Azerbaijan who were generously providing the ornate costumes. A multi-national cast was participating, one of whom, I gathered was a trifle temperamental. The question my friend wanted to ask me was: should this temperamental performer fail to appear on the night, would I be willing to be sitting in the audience, a copy of the script in my bag, ready to leap to the rescue? It was vitally important, she told me, that the evening should be a success. Representatives of the Embassy would be present. The play was going on to Oxford, and then to Paris . . . a hitch of any kind was out of the question.

Not surprisingly, I was a little taken aback. There was no need to learn the part, my friend reassured me, and it was highly unlikely that my services would be needed.
In the face of this persuasive argument it seemed churlish to refuse. Hoping hard that I wouldn't regret the decision, I agreed.
I was given a script, together with an invitation, and a few nights later found myself - slightly apprehensive and very curious - clambering aboard a bus bound for Acton.

After some searching, I ended up in a large room on the second floor of an Arts Council building in Turnham Green. The room was dark and rather shabby, not that this seemed to worry the throng of highly-animated, smartly-dressed young people all speaking an unfamiliar language and eagerly filling the seats. The large flag draped above the platform was equally
unfamiliar. Had I really arrived here by bus from Notting Hill? It felt as though I had been whisked to the Caucasus on a flying carpet. Nothing in these surroundings spoke of the London I knew. Was I really the solitary European in a crowd of youthful Azerbaijanis?

Feeling highly conspicuous, I sat down and looked cautiously around. The front row of the audience was taken up by a group of powerful men with short-cropped hair and padded shoulders. They made me think of the KGB, but must have been the delegation from the Embassy.
Didn't they take their wives with them to cultural occasions? Apparently not.

The start of the play was delayed as it took some time for the happy chatter to die down. Then came a lengthy introduction. This was the first time that the Azerbaijani playwright, M.F. Akhundov, had had his work translated into English. It was, we were given to understand by both the director and the translator, an historic occasion. We were, they assured us, very fortunate to be there.

Whether or not I was fortunate wasn't to be made clear until after the cast had appeared on stage. I waited apprehensively.
At last, one by one, they filed into sight. Had the temperamental actress decided to come . . . ?
I gave a sigh of relief . . . she had!
Relaxing in my seat, I prepared to enjoy myself.

After two acts - given over to a convoluted plot that was a little free in its interpretation of the history of the Caucasus - the play reached its dramatic conclusion. The actors stepped forward to rapturous applause. By this time, as the two acts had been separated by a generous interval, I was thinking a little wistfully of home and bed.

But, no! In Azerbaijan, or so it appears, you get your money's worth! The actors had barely left the stage when it was occupied by a pale young man in jeans. In his hands he grasped a small drum. Carefully, he placed long, slim fingers on the surface of the drum . . . closed his eyes . . . and proceeded to
produce such electrifying music as to stun his audience. It was mesmerising . . . incredible . . . and totally unexpected. Such was his skill that he even tossed the drum in the air whilst playing without in any way stemming the torrent of drum beats. The audience who, prior to this had been relaxing, taking photos and whispering amongst themselves, froze into a stunned, appreciative silence.

As suddenly as the drummer had started, so he stopped . . . opened his eyes . . . rose to his feet and left the stage. It had been as bewildering but magnificent finale to the evening. Reaching for my bag, I prepared to leave.

But, what was this? The evening had not ended. Another young man was taking to the stage who, judging by his appearance, could well have been a City banker. Without the guitar-like instrument that he was carrying, I would never have taken him for a musician. He, too, sat down and faced his audience.

What happened next was strange. The young man couldn't really sing. He had no discernible talent for playing his instrument. His voice was soft and occasionally off-key, his music a little discordant. But what he was attempting to play was a selection of songs that went straight to the hearts of his Azerbaijani audience.

Were they the folk songs of Azerbaijan? Were they nationalistic melodies, conjuring up memories and strong emotions? I'll never know. All that was certain was that they galvanised his audience. One by one, the people began to hum, sway, and sing softly to the music. It didn't matter that the young man couldn't sing, it didn't matter that he couldn't really play, what mattered was this upsurge of emotion. Dispelling all memory of the drab and shabby surroundings, it filled the room with colour and vibrancy. Even though I couldn't understand a word of what those around me were singing, I, too, was caught up in the communal spirit . . . and there was no denying the power of the message.

All thoughts of home and bed had been banished. Instead, I was filled with gratitude. Gratitude for such an extraordinary experience. Gratitude for having made an unexpected, magical journey to Azerbaijan . . . via Turnham Green.

Was there, I wondered, a magic carpet to take me home? Or at the very least a camel? This was no occasion for a London bus!