By Julie Pendray
IDYLLWILD, Calif. — The sultry voice and wild, dark, curly hair belong to Zema Bagirova. Sitting next to her, intensely tuned in to her friend, Eliza Kiy accompanies skillfully on guitar. The two exchange looks that show many hours of practice together, getting the timing just right, delivering the perfect nuance, ending wistfully.
“It’s like we know each other’s musical language,” Zema said in a recent interview. “When we play duets, she breathes with me.”
Eliza and Zema are two rising stars from opposite sides of the globe now living in Idyllwild, a tiny, artistic town known for its jazz festival and accomplished musicians. The young women attend Idyllwild Arts Academy, a residential pre-professional high school for gifted students from all over the world. Heads turn when they perform anywhere, including at Cafe Aroma here, which is a magnet for day trippers from Palm Springs, Los Angeles and San Diego.
Zema is from Azerbaijan, which lies between Iran and Russia. She grew up in the capital, Baku.
She said she is very glad to be attending high school in the United States.
“I dreamed about America since childhood,” she said. “All the music I used to listen to was from America.”
Zema will turn 17 this month. Eliza is 18 and will graduate this year. She is from San Diego.
The two girls are part of a combo that has taken top honors among arts schools at the Berklee High School and University of Nevada, Reno jazz festivals in the past two years. One of their instructors, Paul Carman, who took them to Reno, talked about their dedication to their music in this video interview.
Both girls hope to go to Berklee College of Music after graduation. Eliza has been auditioning.
“Working with Eliza has been a blast!” Zema said. “I don’t even know what I am going to do when she graduates. She is a very talented guitarist and I learned a lot from her in terms of how to work with accompaniment. It’s amazing to look back and remember who we were then and who we have become now. I wish her luck and all the best. She is an incredible person and musician.”
Eliza said working with Zema has been great.
“We’ve watched each other grow, both musically and personally. When we came, we both barely knew how to play jazz. We’ve been able to accomplish a lot through hard work and the help of our teachers. Playing with Zema is easy, because we sort of know what the other is going to do. Those special moments of connection happen most often when I play with her.”
Neither girl has specific career plans. They are trying to stay in the moment and not plan too much. Both are enjoying learning and experimenting in various genres. They talked about their dreams and goals in this video interview.
Eliza started playing guitar when she was about 12. Her dad and brother are musicians.
“It was natural for me to fall into music,” she said. “I first got into acoustic fingerstyle guitar. I still love to play with my hands as opposed to using a pick. I eventually started listening to jazz and really wanted to learn how to improvise well. When I came to the academy I learned about a lot of players and my knowledge really expanded. My biggest influence on the guitar is a Brazilian musician named Toninho Horta. I love his compositions and the way he makes the guitar sound.”
Zema came to the United States after studying piano for eight years. She said she “hated practicing” and was “so lazy.” At age 12, she learned she’d rather sing.
“I was in the village singing different songs, and everybody would tell me that I should be a singer,” she said.
Zema’s mother, Naida Osmanova, suggested she take a jazz voice program.
“I didn’t really know much about it and scatting,” Zema said. “But I loved the idea.
She did an Internet search for a U. S. boarding school with a jazz program and found Idyllwild Arts Academy. Osmanova brought her for a visit and Zema fell in love with the school.
Osmanova shared her impressions of her daughter’s development in Idyllwild, via email from Georgia, adjacent to Russia, where she now lives.
“Since Zema has been in Idyllwild Arts Academy her interests and enthusiasm have massively increased. She works very hard on her art, discovers more things she can do and wants to do, and it makes me proud. We are lucky that Zema got a chance to be a part of such a great community like Idyllwild Arts Academy.”
Zema has followed her parents’ interest in listening to a broad selection of music.
“My freshman year I would listen to all the classics: Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan. My sophomore year I got obsessed with Julie London; everything about her was perfect — her tone, phrasings, style. By the end of the sophomore year I went into modern instrumental jazz, like Kneebody, Snarky Puppy, Phronesis. I always got more from instrumentalists than from singers,” she said.
“Right now I get my inspirations from the progressive metal/rock bands like Opeth, Tool, Emerson, Lake and Palmer and Yes. But there’s one band that has influenced me like no band or artist ever has. Dream Theater. My friend back home in Baku introduced me to them last summer, and since then my life has changed. The way I listen to music, hear things, think about music has changed. This band has inspired me to start composing.”
Zema is known for her deeply emotive interpretations. She and Eliza appear in an independent documentary about another one of their instructors, Marshal Hawkins, the founder of the Idyllwild Arts Jazz Department. In Hawkins, Zema said music makes her weep. It’s such a common occurrence that she finds it a bit annoying, according to the movie. It’s most likely to happen when she’s singing, she said.
How can she feel so much and deliver so much, so professionally, at such a young age?
“It’s just who she is,” Hawkins said. “It’s a gift.”
Carman said the two girls have very different personalities. Eliza tends to be more reserved, while Zema is expressive.
“Zema, being a singer, expresses herself vocally and with her body. Eliza, being a guitarist, channels her feelings through her instrument,” Carman said. “But they are both equally intense when it comes to their music.”
The Idyllwild combo was asked to perform, along with some professional groups, on the main stage during the awards assembly at the Reno festival in front of “3,000 to 4,000 screaming high school students,” Carman said.
“It was amazing. It’s a very professional situation, with lighting and cameras. The kids were very excited,” he said.
Zema said she enjoys communicating with an audience and working with the “big family” of students just as much as she enjoys winning an award.
These days, Zema loves to practice music. She has learned how important it is, while studying in Idyllwild.
“It’s my favorite thing to do,” she said. “It’s like meditation for me. And of course feeling the result — improvements that I’ve been making — is the greatest feeling. After every practice, I really feel that I’m working, and not just wanting or dreaming about achieving something.”
Eliza said, “I’ve learned so many things here. One of the most important is that music is so much more than the notes or the technique. The relationships you make with the other musicians you play with are so important and change the way the music feels. It’s important to think about what a song means to you before you play it. Music has so much purpose, and a part of playing well is remembering to play with that purpose.”
She studies privately with Tom Hynes, as well as her academy instructors.
“They are all great mentors and incredible musicians,” she said.
All that practice leaves little time to perform in the community but Zema and Eliza are scheduled to appear at Cafe Aroma from 1 to 3 p.m. on Saturday April 4.
Zema returns to visit her family and friends on the other side of the world twice yearly.
“I really started to appreciate my country after I came to the U.S.,” she said. “In the past I couldn’t wait to leave it, but now I can’t wait every time to go back. Every second in Baku is so precious for me. When I go back, I barely sleep for the first week. I just go out and see all my friends, family, dear streets and places, and still don’t get enough. Baku just barely let’s me go. But I know why I am leaving. I represent my country in other places. It’s so important for me to present myself in the best way I can. It’s the same with any place that I am part of.”
Zema’s father, a doctor, and stepmother live in Baku. Zema hopes they will be able to come to her graduation. Zema’s mother and her new husband in Georgia have a 10-month-old son. Osmanova worked in corporate banking before moving to Georgia, she said.
Azerbaijan is an oil-rich nation on the Caspian Sea which has become a tourist destination.
“Baku is a beautiful city, especially the center with its “old city” of the 12th and 13th centuries,” Osmanova said.
Azerbaijan’s arts are undergoing a rapid growth again now that the country is no longer part of the Soviet Socialist Republic. Zema said freedom of expression and the wealth of opportunities are the reasons she came to the United States.
Carman and other Idyllwild musicians are certain both Eliza and Zema have fabulous professional potential.
Carman should know. His resume includes performing in the Frank Zappa Band in the late 1980s. He and Hawkins — who toured with the Miles Davis Quintet in the late 1960s — continue to perform throughout Southern California.