Sultanov’s self-titled new album arrives at our door with some extraordinary credentials. Russian-based but Azerbaijani by birth, he’s a singer, songwriter, instrumentalist visual artist, business executive, scriptwriter, all that and more. Now he follows in the grandest traditions of his family, who’ve created some of the most distinguished art and art directions in former Soviet Union, today Russia and Europe for generations.
His grandfather, Tahir Salakhov, is an internationally celebrated Azerbaijani painter and draughtsman. He was also a friend of Quincy Jones, no less, and one of his grandson’s prize possessions is a photograph of Tahir Salakhov with Quincy and Michael Jackson. A leading light in Russian art for the better part of 50 years, Salakhov was the master who inspired Sultanov’s creative spirit.
Talk about following the family tradition. Sultanov’s mother and grandmother are also artists. His mother Alagez Salakhova, being a painter was also a solo dancer in Azerbaijani State folk ensemble and starred in Soviet Union. His aunt, Aidan Salakhova, being a world known gallerist has her work exhibited far and wide, including at the 2011 Venice Bienniale, where two of her sculptures were controversially censored.
Even that’s not the entire family story. “The only one who’s not artistic, officially, is my father,” says Sultanov. He’s Chief Psychiatrist of the Republic of Azerbaijan capital – Baku. But he’s been playing music all his life, he graduated from the music school in piano and had a rock band, in 60s-70s he was wearing long hair and a moustache like the guys from Led Zeppelin, which of course was forbidden in Soviet times. He loves me playing rock music, but the funniest thing is that he doesn’t know anything about this project. I plan to make it a huge surprise.”
If you want a record with a real tapestry of influences, steeped in a family narrative you just won’t come across anywhere else, ‘Sultanov’ is it. “I have so much music in my head, constantly running through my brain,” says the artist. “From classical, Tchaikovsky and Beethoven, to Metallica and Megadeth, Beatles and Jimi Hendrix through Depeche Mode, Radiohead and of course Michael Jackson.”
Combined with his own vision, that has led to a record that even the artist doesn’t quite know how to describe – and what a refreshing change that is. One thing for certain: it was never going to be contained by the map of Europe.
Sultanov is based in Moscow, where he oversees the marketing division of one of Russia’s biggest oil company. But his origins are in Baku in Azerbaijan, a republic now more than 20 years into independence from the Soviet Union and with a story entirely distinct from its former Soviet neighbours. But neither of those worlds were going to limit what he wanted to achieve, or quite comprehend his daringly diverse musical reference points. That’s why, with this project, Sultanov is going west.
“There are some songs which are very pop,” says the singer-songwriter, acknowledging first single ‘Keep On Running.’ “There’s ‘Television,’ which is very rocky, and ‘Touched’ and “How you Gonna know” which some radio stations in Russia who usually rotate sophisticated arty music wanted to put on air.” Versatility indeed.
But Sultanov’s music has broad international horizons. “I knew that my music was not quite suitable for Russia. Of course there are people in Russia who listen to good styles of music such as British classic and modern rock, American soul and jazz, but they are still in the minority. In general, Russia`s mainstream pop music is very different from the rest of the world.”
And so he grew up with rare access to the artists who became his heroes. “My parents contributed a lot to my raising in terms of taste, and I’m very grateful to that because they never listened to mainstream soviet music” he says firmly. “The first thing I remember seeing on the wall in my father’s room was a huge poster of John Lennon with a Rickenbacker. And you have to understand that was all forbidden in the Soviet Union.”
Encouraged to follow his artistic leanings, Sultanov made his own little commercials and documental movies in the beginning of 90s with a JVC VHS camera that his mother had brought back from the US. He learned English and Arabic, and studied at a diplomatic academy, the Moscow State Institute of International Relations, in the public relations faculty. “Most of the students graduate and go to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, but I chose the Faculty of International Information. I wanted to work with visual material, and that’s why finally I chose advertising.”
Sultanov’s high-flying executive position in Moscow has seen him working in the most creative echelons of marketing, producing and scripting more than 30 commercials for the oil industry. But music was always in his blood. He was playing and strumming by the age of four. As a teenager, he learned jazz saxophone, then became a self-taught guitarist. “I had a band in Moscow. We played in clubs, doing rock music, blues, covers, Stevie Ray Vaughan stuff. I played guitar and I sang.
“But after some time, I told the band I didn’t want to waste my time anymore. I was running an advertising department that took a lot of time, and I said if we want to make music, let’s get serious, find a producer who wants to pick us up. They refused, because they never dreamt of becoming real artists.”
But he did, and he made it happen. Sultanov, the result, a statement of what he’s learned in a life less ordinary, even down to the artwork he designed. “Music was always in my core,” he says. “I will never say goodbye to this desire.”