A picture is worth a thousand words, and a snapshot of a jazz performer harks back to the long, rich history of jazz in Azerbaijan as well as the masterly talents of Guinean musician Sekou Kouyate
Perhaps the biggest challenge when photographing performers, is to reveal that hidden, intangible something that lies beneath. In this photograph, captured by Eldar Aliyev, musician Sekou Kouyate is caught mid-strum, eyes closed. Known as ‘West Africa’s equivalent to Jimi Hendrix’ he was captured here presenting his unique blend of jazz, folk and hip-hop to a packed auditorium at Baku’s popular Jazz Festival in October.
To many, Kouyate’s unorthodox tool-of-trade is alien; he plays the electric kora, which is something of an exotic hybrid of the lute, harp and electric guitar. In fact, Kouyate, who hails from Guinea in West Africa, is widely considered to be one of the 21-stringed instrument’s most accomplished players.
This photograph itself is attention-grabbing for its sultry darkness, violet tint and dramatic, dark backdrop. This use of darkness has an affinity with Baku’s own jazz history, for the American-born art form began to be established in Azerbaijan during the 1950s and 1960s, a time when jazz was outlawed by Soviet authorities. Even before then, Jazz in the USSR was a volatile, often clandestine affair – an underground scene in constant flux between prohibition, censorship and sponsorship.
With this image, for a split second, we are transported back into an era where dark classrooms, hidden basements and abandoned churches were all used to keep Jazz alive. But just as quickly, we return to the present, a time in which the vivid sounds and spirit of jazz are no longer suppressed, instead burning proudly with vibrant energy to old and new fans alike.
Photography by Eldar Aliyev (Instagram: @ealiyevv)
Words by Henry Ludlum-Steinke