Caspian Region

The Singer of ‘Separation’ Dies of Covid-19

Anar Tabrizli
Yagoub Zoroofchi will be remembered well by Azerbaijanis and music lovers across the globe. Image: Azertag

Last week, the prominent Azerbaijani singer, Yaghoub Zoroofchi (Yaqub Zurufçu), passed away at the age of 67. He was rushed to a Baku hospital on September 9 with critical, Covid-related pneumonia and respiratory failure. By September 14, he had succumbed. Zoroofchi’s highly productive career as a singer and songwriter spanned over half a century. Born in 1956 in Tabriz, the biggest city in Iranian Azerbaijan, he was a child prodigy who first appeared on children’s shows of Radio Tabriz before his teens. Later Zoroofchi became known as a dissident artist championing the Azerbaijani language and questioning the Iranian regime. He left Iran in 1980, eventually becoming a citizen of both the US and the Republic of Azerbaijan, where he was awarded the title of "Honorary Artist” in 2009.


Azerbaijan - A Source of Inspiration

Of all the many excellent recordings that Yaghoub leaves behind him, the most celebrated is a song called Ayriligh. Meaning ‘Separation,’ it decries the division between the two Azerbaijans: the Republic of Azerbaijan and the ethno-linguistically Azerbaijani provinces of northwestern Iran across the River Aras.



Yaghoub’s work spanned a range of styles. There were classical tinged collaborations with the Azerbaijan Symphony Orchestra like Arezoo (Wish). “The Best of Zoroofchi” album, made with Azerbaijan’s State Orchestra of Folk Instruments, had a much more traditional Azerbaijani-folk feel as on numbers like Heydar Baba. And he was also a master of straightforward wedding-style performances like those on the 1996 Caltex Recordings.


Amongst works penned by his own hand were a song about Azerbaijan's Independence Day. Zoroofchi also put to music the words of dissident Azerbaijani - Iranian poets such as Alireza Nabdel (Əlirza Nabdil Oxtay, 1944-1971) like his lament for the death of ‘Little Black Fish’ author Samad Behrangi.


Yagoub Zoroofchi, was probably best know for his song Ayriligh ‘Seperation’ - referring to Azerbaijanis on either side of the Iranian border not being able to see family and friends during the Soviet-era.Image: Kulis

The Prohibition of Azerbaijani Music in Iran

Since the establishment of the Pahlavi dynasty in 1925, cultural production in Azerbaijani and other non-Persian languages had been strictly forbidden in Iran, despite the country’s multi-ethnic fabric. This was part of the dynasty’s policy of assimilation used in nation-building. That meant that there was only one government-approved language for music: Persian.


Nonetheless, as a teenager, he performed regularly with a repertoire inspired by Azerbaijani singers like Reshid Behbudov, Rubaba Muradova and Shovkat Alakbarova. As he remembered in a later interview, it was “difficult to catch the frequencies of Baku radios in Tabriz.” Difficult but not impossible, and indeed, it was partly through such broadcasts that he learned.


Later, he studied economics at Tehran University and continued his musical career in the Tehran Persian Opera Choir. Then, after the unexpected Islamic Revolution of 1979, music was banned altogether in Iran, and some prominent musicians were arrested. As a result, Yaghoub Zoroofchi left Iran after finishing university in 1980     , moving to Hamburg, Germany and later to Florida, where he received a master's degree in vocal art from the University of Miami.


Yaghoub Zoroofchi in The Republic of Azerbaijan

Zoroofchi had always had a love for Azerbaijani music, but in the 1970s and 1980s, his dream to visit the Republic of Azerbaijan seemed far-fetched due to the relatively closed nature of the USSR. At the end of the 1980s, however, things started to change. In 1989, renowned Azerbaijani singer Gulaga Memmedov (Gülağa Məmmədov) came to Germany on a concert tour and happened to see the music video of Zoroofchi’s Ayriligh (Separation). Gulaga made contact and eventually invited him to Azerbaijan while taking a copy of his music to Baku, where it became of great appeal amongst the rapidly growing movements of Azerbaijani nationalists. By the time he arrived, Zoroofchi’s fame had preceded him. “When the plane landed in Baku,” he recalled, “I saw all the well-known Azerbaijani singers - Arif Babayev, Shovkat Alakbarova and others had come to meet me. I was deeply touched.”


It was a remarkable moment to arrive. The Soviet Union was on the verge of collapse, and after a long period of politically contrived separation, Azerbaijanis from both sides of the Aras River would finally get a chance to see each other again. Solidarity amongst Azerbaijanis was at its peak – and there was Yaghoub Zoroofchi, arriving as a representative of Southern Azerbaijan to stand with his northern Azerbaijani fellows in their struggle to regain their independence.



Yaghoub Zooroofchi with Gulaga Memmedov and Shovket Elekberova on the stage.

A few days after his arrival in Baku, Yaghoub Zoroofchi was preparing to give a concert on Lenin (later ‘Freedom’) Square (October 29) when KGB officers intervened, saying that he had no right to perform – the arranging of gatherings like this in the USSR was forbidden. Unphased, Zoroofchi pointed to the people who had already gathered in great numbers at the windows of the Azerbaijan Hotel that towered above the square. "I’ve promised them,” he said, “I will go on and give a concert at any cost. Even if you forbid me, I will do it!”


Yaghoub Zoroofchi on the stage in Baku Concert-1989 

The KGB officers backed down but warned him that the situation was unstable and that there was a possibility that he might be shot at. “We cannot guarantee your security if you proceed,” they cautioned. “Write a letter in your own words to accept that you are responsible for this.” Finally, safety was promised by Elchibey.


The concert took place without disturbance. Zoroofchi shared the stage with many other famous Azerbaijani writers, poets and performers, collecting a sizeable sum of donations from concertgoers for the pro-independence Azerbaijan freedom movement.


The Unfulfilled Wish: Giving a Concert in Tabriz

The combination of his song "Ayriligh” (Separation), and the timing of his arrival in Baku, sealed Yaghoub Zoroofchi as a musical icon of Azerbaijani togetherness. However, despite his life’s many achievements, he would never fulfil his most important wish of recent years – that of returning to give a concert in Tabriz, Iran. Yaghoub Zoroofchi was buried in Baku but will be remembered by Azerbaijanis worldwide.