24 hours in Baku with the Elvis of Azerbaijan

Now or Never is a new album of Elvis Presley covers by one of his biggest fans. Produced by David Foster and featuring stars such as Engelbert Humperdinck, the polished offering comes from one of the more famous people you’ve likely never heard of. His name is Emin Agalarov and Archie Brydon met him in Baku before Christmas.

THE ROAD FROM Baku Airport was impossibly clean. For rush hour on a Friday, it seemed quiet, only occasionally did overtake another car or an overcrowded bus, but most striking was how spotless it all was: eight lanes of perfect tarmac lined by pristine walls, free from leaves, debris, litter and colour, other than an endless grey that stretched from the sky to the ground. The whole place had been hand-scrubbed of intrusion. There wasn’t even any noise – only the faint hum of the Mercedes engine and Katy Perry singing quietly over the radio. 

We drove quickly through the silence to Sea Breeze Resort, a sprawling complex on the north shore of the Absheron Peninsula, about an hour from Baku city centre. It is more like a modern seaside town than a tourist resort. There are hotels, apartment blocks, villas to rent, villas to buy, shops, restaurants, bars, swimming pools and all sorts of other amenities, with more still under construction. Yet in the gentle rain of early December, there was nobody else here. The only people in sight were men milling about, sitting by the side of the road, smoking. 

We arrived at an area known as the white villas, consisting of rows and rows of beige bungalows. The handsome Russian driver sorted out a room key and pointed me in the right direction and we said our farewells. In the fresh air, I got the distinct sense that this place wasn’t real. It smelled of clean, fresh clay, as though not only was it abandoned now, but that nobody had ever really lived here and it would all be packaged neatly away once I left. 

Of course, during the height of summer it’s a different story. Thousands of holidaymakers descend on the town of Sea Breeze. It must look wholly different under the scorching sun, gentle breeze coming off the Caspian Sea, blowing through the ever-growing amount of property and wealth that resides here. Nikki Beach, the exclusive beach club, is said to be opening a branch at Sea Breeze in 2024 – adding Azerbaijan to a list of locations that already includes Miami, Saint Tropez, Saint Barth, Ibiza, Monte Carlo and Dubai. That final city in the Persian Gulf, notorious for its rapid development in the last few decades, surely provides the clearest blueprint of what Baku, and a man called Emin Agalarov, is trying to achieve.

I first saw him through a window on my way to lunch. He was the only person standing up in a meeting room with perhaps half a dozen other men. Emin was three days away from his 44th birthday, though he looked younger, faint bags under his eyes the only feature that betrayed his age, or the fact he had been up until 8am, drinking vodka and playing FIFA, the night before. Approaching this milestone, Emin’s life involved many things: a family business empire worth billions, a wildly successful music career, a high-profile personal life and a still higher-profile political scandal that remained what he was best-known for anywhere west of Moscow. His many things involved many people: take the thousands of employees across his businesses, the musicians that make up his band, the organisers of the near year-round tour they embark on, his group of friends, of confidantes, his four children, the thousands who attend his concerts and treat him, as I would soon see, like a deity, his manager, and then that lingering “ex-relationship” with the man likely to again be President of the United States by the time Emin celebrates his 45th birthday. 

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He nonetheless remained one of the handful of people on the planet with the ability, at any given hour on any given day, to do whatever he wanted. Money, power, resources, energy and the adoration of countless fans might not buy happiness, but they do buy an emancipation that is alien to the other 8 billion of us. For most popular musicians, 44 is past their shelf life. For Emin, it seemed more like a crossroads.

Because a bit like Azerbaijan itself, Emin appeared to find himself in the middle of contrasting worlds. Between East and West, between tradition and modernity, between young and old, between freedom and obligation, between Elvis Presley and Muslim Magomayev. Despite both passing away years ago, they remain the two main men in his life. 

Elvis, a Western audience will be familiar with, but Muslim Magomayev, or the Soviet Sinatra, is less of a household name on this side of the Iron Curtain. He was born in Baku in 1942 to an already well-renowned musical family. His grandfather of the same name was a celebrated composer, and a notable figure in early classical Azerbaijani music. Muslim the younger found success in the early 1960s as an opera singer, and after turning down a number of offers to join famous theatres in Russia, pursued popular music instead. 

He made the transition to even greater success. Early albums sold millions of copies, and in 1971 he was awarded the highest artistic title in the Soviet Union, when he was named the People’s Artist of the USSR. At the age of just 31, he was the youngest person to receive the honour, typically reserved for artists over the age of 40. In Baku to this day, there are monuments to him and streets named after him. 

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Credit: Wikimedia

Emin Agalarov was born in Baku in 1979, eight years after Magomayev’s crowning as the people’s artist. He spent his early years living in the centre of the city, but as his father’s wealth grew towards the end of the Soviet Union, the family moved to Moscow. Then, in 1992, Emin was sent to school in Switzerland.  

In a joint interview with Forbes from 2013, Emin and his father, Aras, a pro-Putin property magnate and one of the wealthiest men in Russia, discussed sending him away. 

“It was my own arbitrary decision which was very hard to make. But I had no choice, he was mixing together with a ‘bad company’,” Aras explained, reflecting on his own experiences growing up in Baku. “I had no doubts in his moral and psychological commitment as he had been through a good school on Moscow streets…His school [in Switzerland] played its own role in making him independent and motivated.”

“It was not that bad,” Emin said. “I even did not call home the first three weeks. Father had chosen one of the strictest schools: parents were not allowed to call their children. It was some kind of concentration camp for teens. I stayed there until 15 and studied in the USA from 15 to 21.” 

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Emin Agalarov, Donald Trump and Aras Agalarov attend the red carpet at Miss Universe Pageant Competition 2013 on November 9, 2013 in Moscow, Russia. (Photo by Victor Boyko/Getty Images)

Despite spending his early childhood in the land of Muslim Magomayev and his formative teenage years in the land of Elvis, their influence on Emin seems to be inverted. Elvis was the first love and the reason he started singing. Magomayev was the spiritual forefather, then later his vocal coach, and is now perhaps the clearest example of what Emin hopes to become to his beloved Azerbaijan. Nowadays, he constantly pays homage to both. 

“When I was 10 or 11 years old, my mother gave me a tape. It was a compilation of a young Elvis, 1955 or 1956, and it had ‘Mama’, ‘Blue Suede Shoes’, ‘Jailhouse Rock’. I completely fell in love with the music, with the persona.” Emin’s English is fluent, with an unusual accent. It nevertheless has the unteachable qualities of cadence and emphasis that make you want to listen to his stories. “As I later travelled the United States, I was collecting Elvis cards and tapes. Now, there is old Instagram videos, and the internet, but back in the day you had to go out of your way to go find anything Elvis and I was a big collector..”

The obsession came to shape birthdays and friendships, and soon defined what Emin, this young boy with a strict father and the world at his fingertips, wanted to do with his life. “I started translating Elvis songs into Russian, and this gave me the inspiration to write music. That’s how I actually learned the chords and how to lay the lyrics over the chords. I started writing my own songs in that similar style…Obviously, it was not as good as Leiber and Stoller back in the day,” he chuckled, “but that lived with me throughout my life.”

In 2005, Emin returned to Russia full-time and began working with Muslim Magomayev. His debut album, Still, arrived a year later, with two more in 2007 and 2008. In 2008, aged Magomayev just 66. Emin still pays tribute to him at every show, and the room that he and his friends hang out in at Sea Breeze Resort is called ‘The Muslim Room’. I heard about The Muslim Room numerous times before I realised it was named after Magomayev, whose photo covers the walls.

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AS I TRAVELLED back down the cleanest road in the world to watch Emin perform his traditional winter concert at the Heydar Aliyev Palace that evening, I enquired of Rob Goldstone, Emin’s long-time manager and publicist, why it was all so spotless. “You know, I asked Emin that once,” Goldstone began. “I said: Emin, why is everything so clean? And you know what he told me? He told me that littering simply does not make sense to Azerbaijani people. They are so proud of their country, even the teenagers. They would never litter.” I smiled and nodded and maybe said “Interesting” and Goldstone kept talking. 

Rob Goldstone talked a lot. Silence never settled around him and I spent most of my time in Azerbaijan sitting opposite him in the back of a party bus travelling at over 100 miles an hour. It was a good thing, therefore, that he was such enjoyable company. Almost Falstaffian, as amusing as he was self-deprecating, Goldstone name-dropped shamelessly as he spun an endless supply of yarn, each story bookended with the punchline, ‘And you can read all about it in my worst-selling book’ and then more laughter. (The publication in question, Pop Stars, Pageants & Presidents: How An Email Trumped My Life, is available on Amazon for the cut-price of just £1.73. ) I hope plugging his book makes up for the fact that Goldstone asked me not to put him in this story. I gave him no assurances, however, and it seems disingenuous, if not impossible, to talk about Emin Agalarov and my 24 hours in Baku without acknowledging a few facts, including the identity of his manager and publicist.

The pair were at the centre of the alleged Russian collusion in the 2016 American presidential election. Goldstone sent an email on behalf of Agalarov Jr. to Donald Trump Jr.. It led to a meeting between Trump Jr., Jared Kushner and Paul Manafort, and Goldstone and Natalia Veselnitskayaan, a Russian lawyer. The connection between the Agalarovs and the Trumps dates back to Trump’s Miss Universe days, when they were heavy investors who contributed to bringing the beauty pageant to Moscow for the first time. 

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British publicist Rob Goldstone arrives at a closed door meeting with House Intelligence Committee December 18, 2017 on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC. The committee is meeting with Goldstone for its ongoing investigation into Russian’s interference in the 2016 election. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

After years of investigation from the Mueller report, including Goldstone testifying in front of the United States House Permanent Select Committee, there is still no confirmation about the true nature of that meeting. Goldstone scoffed at any suggestion that he, of all people, was part of this grand plot of global espionage, and I am inclined to agree. Not that the meeting was necessarily innocent in nature, but that strange dealings courting influence behind closed doors is just how the 0.1% remains the 0.1%.

Traffic on the way to the Heydar Aliyev Palace in the heart of Baku reminded me that not all roads here are clean. Horns were blaring as Goldstone gave me an idea of what to expect from an Emin winter show. It was Friday, 8th December, and this show, as much as meeting Emin, was the reason for my visit. It coincided with a single, ‘Blue Christmas’, that Goldstone had just got pressed in vinyl. 

We eventually arrived at the back of the venue a couple of hours before the show began. It’s an imposing Soviet-era concert hall dating back to 1972, standing out somewhat among the city’s unique blend of pre and post USSR architecture. From ancient Islamic towers and mosques, to Imperial Russian palaces, to the influx of 21st century postmodernism and skyscrapers on the coast, Baku’s buildings make it easy to forget that it has spent almost three-quarters of the last century under Soviet rule. The men – moustached, heavyset, austere – remind you. I was whisked past a few groups of them, in military, police and security uniforms, and led towards the stage, where Emin’s band was doing their soundcheck. The auditorium was populated by various people filming, working on lights and flying drones. Goldstone seemed to know everyone by name, greeting them like old friends, and, in turn, introducing me. 

Though this building honoured Vladimir Lenin during the Soviet years, since 2003 it has been named after Heydar Aliyev. This is a rather common theme in modern Azerbaijan, where Aliyev’s name adorns buildings, institutions and streets across the country; for he is, effectively, the father of the nation. He is also (bear with me a moment) Emin Agalarov’s ex-grandfather-in-law. 

heydar aliyev palace
The Heydar Aliyev Palace

After seizing power in a military coup in 1993, Heydar Aliyev served as president until his death. Ilham Aliyev, his son, then assumed the presidency and remains in power to this day. In 2006, Emin Agalarov married Leyla Aliyeva – Aliyev the Younger’s eldest daughter – in what looked like a lavish ceremony. They divorced in 2015, but not before having twin boys and an adopted daughter together. As the grandchildren of the President, Emin’s children are themselves minor celebrities, and have a full security detail whenever they are in public – which they were for their father’s traditional winter show. 

Inside the main hall, the stage is giant and the sea of seats rises steadily towards a wooden roof, with chandeliers dangling down. It gives off the opposite impression to the sudden emergence of Sea Breeze. This place, you somehow sense, has seen thousands and thousands and thousands of people, and you can picture the dignitaries filing in, finding their seats, smoking, clapping, singing along.

Emin was the last person to arrive for the soundcheck. A team of people managed to mic him up mid-stride, as he entered the stage, “Hello hello hello”, before coming over to Goldstone and giving him a hug.

“Emin,” he then said, shaking my hand. 

“Archie, lovely to meet you. Thanks for having me.” 

“What time did you land?” 

“Around 8 I think it was.”

“Ah that’s about when I had my final drink….I’m still struggling.”

“I was telling Archibald here about your fondness for FIFA,” Goldstone said. “You two will have to play later on.”

“Yes, later,” Emin smiled, before turning around and getting to work.

Goldstone and I found a seat in the empty auditorium and for the next 45 minutes watched a man who looked as far away from struggle as possible. He sang, laughed, complimented, criticised and tinkered with the set. I’ve never seen a group of people, there must have been 30-odd in total, look so in synch with each other. Stage directors appeared with Sharpies before Emin had even hinted he might need one. Musicians started and stopped mid-note, somehow able to read Emin’s mood, and vice-versa. When they were content, 15 minutes before the doors opened, everyone disappeared upstairs for hair and make-up and Goldstone and I went to look for a drink.

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In the lobby of the Heydar Aliyev Palace, a crowd had gathered. The room was cloaked in a mist that I couldn’t place the source of. It looked like cigarette smoke but there was no smell. People ranged from small children to young couples to older families, and were all dressed to the nines. There were flashes of cameras everywhere and cries of the Azerbaijani equivalent of ‘Cheeeese’. Never in my life have I witnessed a higher concentration of selfies than at the Heydar Aliyev Palace that night. More than Times Square, Buckingham Palace, or even a K-Pop concert. 

We milled around. Goldstone was recognised by some people, almost like a minor celebrity. He introduced me to one man in a particularly bold suit, supposedly “Azerbaijan’s Stella McCartney”. His name is Haci Nuran and there is a photo of us together out there somewhere in the universe, standing in front of a bright red, Elvis-inspired sign, saying EMIN. Security made me check my coat at the cloakroom and then the show began.

THEY SAY IMITATION is the sincerest form of flattery. Releasing an album, of 12 Elvis covers, indicates a fondness greater than flattery, and it’s clear that Emin has long dreamed of an album like this, though he might say otherwise. “I never wanted to touch Elvis, in the sense of recording him, until my conversation with David Foster,” Emin explained. This is not entirely true, a cursory Google search reveals that Obsession, a 2008 album, consists of a handful of Elvis covers. Yet he seemed sincere in his reverence for Foster. He frequently refers to the 16-time Grammy winner as the greatest piano player in the world, and has long tried to enlist him to produce an album.

The pair first met when they performed at a PBS show in front of the Winter Palace in St Petersburg, a little over 10 years ago now. “It was a beautiful concert, and the friendship with David has lasted since that moment. I always talked to him about producing something for me, and he said, Listen, I don’t produce. My last project was Michael Bublé. Obviously, Michael Bublé is humongous in every sense of the word. But I kept bugging him and bugging him. He said, If I produce anything, it’s not going to be Elvis because I was married to his last girlfriend [Linda Thompson] for many years.

“Then I reached out to him last year and suggested a complete Elvis album, where we choose the songs that really mean something. Some of which can be duos, some of which are well-known hits, and we just give it a shot. He came back and he said, I listened to the songs you picked. I scrapped some of them. But let’s do it. And then we got to work.”

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Emin and David Foster

Even if you ignore everything else going on in his life, his musical output is impressive. Now or Never will be the 18th album of his career in as many years. They are in both Russian and English, and on top of the likes of Foster and Humperdinck, he has performed with Jennifer Lopez, Take That and Nile Rodgers. 

“Last January, I flew out to LA for recording sessions,” Emin explained of Now or Never. “We spent 10 days, a couple of weeks together, and it was a very memorable, unique experience for me…I’ve recorded a lot of albums in my career, but recording with David was different, because he really squeezes out of you. The best vocals I’ve ever done, I’ve done with David. He really put his arse on the line. We were in the studio for 10 hours a day, recording over and over and over. He’d pick the best vocal take, and make me do eight more takes like it. Listen to the timing. Listen to the notes. Listen to the way you deliver.

The resources at Emin’s disposal help enlist the likes of Foster. This is also true of the other features on the album: Nicole Scherzinger, Katherine Foster and, most of all, Engelbert Humperdinck. The two come together on ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’, the album’s lead single, which is out today with a predictably smooth video.

Read More: Disorder! | When a Joy Division gig became a riot

“Covering Elvis, in a way, is always a mix between karaoke and crooning. You need to find that fine line where you’re not just re-singing the same thing and trying to sound like Elvis. I’ve been in the music business for 20 years to get to a point where I actually have my sound and I can cover Elvis with my own version…David has done a tremendous job of delivering it and making me sound like Emin on Elvis’ songs.”

Emin’s performance at the Heydar Aliyev Palace featured a few Elvis covers, but appealed more to his hometown crowd. This came to a head with a rendition of Muslim Magomayev’s ‘Azerbaijan’, after a number of Russian songs that people knew well. Like Magomayev in his day, Emin is genuinely adored by an audience spanning a wider demographic than I can imagine a single Western artist ever being able to achieve. From old women to young men, people worship him, like an Azerbaijani Sinatra, Buble and Bieber. 

Fans in this part of the world make their love known through gifts, as well as the universal shrieking and photos. In a sense, the evening is a physical recreation of the oft-asked question, What do you get the man who has everything? Flowers is the main answer, but children also handed him drawings, gift bags and at one point he even received an Azerbaijan flag with a photo of himself on it. People approached the stage throughout and mid-song, Emin greeted them, shook their hands, and posed for selfies with young children. He walked around the auditorium for one song, mobbed by fans for photos or just to get a touch of him, and still he sang effortlessly. At one point, an old lady with a scarf over head seemed to have a minor exorcism as she bowed down in front of him. The same thing surely happened again in Moscow three days later, when Emin and his band appeared in front of even more people in an even bigger venue, the man at the centre of it all just another year older.

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Emin and Engelbert Humperdinck

THERE IS A tradition in Azerbaijan to have a vodka every time you toast. At dinner after the show that night, there were perhaps 40 people sitting around the long table at Sea Breeze, and Emin seemed to want to toast each and every one of them. Waiters were on hand to refill the shot glasses, and it felt that almost between mouthfuls the table would rise and sink another one. Each time the drinking was optional, but when in Baku…the vodka was also so pure it tasted of almost nothing.  

“Come on come on, what do you want to hear about then?” Emin laughed. We were sat next to each other at this point, his arm around my shoulder, the toasts long since finished.

“What do you want to tell me?” I slurred back. Goldstone was less regimented in his vodka consumption than some of the rest of us and was trying to get Emin to stop. “He’s a journalist, Emin!”

“You want to hear about Trump, don’t you, Mr. Western Media?”

I raised an eyebrow. “Go on then.”

He smiled and took his arm off my shoulder. “Ahh, I’m just joking.”

At 4am or so, I called it a night. Golstone gave me a tour of the city the next day. Emin and company were understandably still sleeping.

EMIN’s new single “Help Me Make It Through The Night” with Engelbert Humperdinck is out now. His album Now or Never is out 9th February.

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