Azerbaijan's Eurovision Hopeful Singer Sees Contest as Chance To 'Open Our Hearts to Europe'
Azerbaijan's Eurovision hopeful believes the world's largest non-sports TV event is an opportunity to "open our hearts to Europe." But Sabina Babayeva seems baffled by the idea that some Europeans believe that they should neither visit nor support a country with an oppressive regime like that of the Aliyevs in Baku.
Manicured nails glide over a block of ice in which flowers are trapped. Snowdrops fall steadily. A shivering girl in a low-cut dress is all alone in a deserted house. The video to "When the Music Dies" is conventionally staged musical theater: The singer's name is Sabina Babayeva and she comes from Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan.
With a strong, raspy, jazz-style voice, the "ballad queen" evokes the end of music ("cold, cold, cold") and her love to an evidently icy man. "It's as if he were made of ice. I try to get through to him but I can't," seems to be the young woman's sentiment. The 32-year-old singer's real life doesn't seem nearly as bleak though: She has a sunny disposition and comes across as an optimist.
"Ever since the first time we took part in Eurovision in 2008, we've dreamt of hosting the contest in Azerbaijan," she says. "I'm really proud that it's finally happening. It gives us the opportunity to open our hearts to all of Europe." This week, she will have the opportunity to do just that as the Eurovision Song Contest comes to Baku.
But the fact that some hearts are not so open in return seems to baffle her. She doesn't understand that some Europeans are of the opinion that one should neither visit nor support an unjust state like Azerbaijan under the Aliyev clan. "To me, the Eurovision Song Contest is about friendship, music and experience. It is totally unimportant where it takes place," she says.
So why should European Eurovision fans make the long journey to Azerbaijan? Babayeva is in her element when answering the question: "First of all, they must see Baku, one of the most beautiful cities in the world, with their own eyes. Second, if they have never before been to Azerbaijan, they don't know what hospitality really is. And thirdly, they couldn't possibly miss my live performance!"
'A Huge Responsibility'
It's true: nobody wants to miss that. In Babayeva's hometown and neighboring states, there is much discussion about the outfit the singer will wear on stage. The dress will be "mostly light, but also very colorful," Babayeva told Ukrainian television. It was in fact in Kiev that she recorded her video and spent weeks preparing for her performance in front of 100 million viewers worldwide as part of the Eurovision Song Contest, the world's largest non-sports TV event. While the singer isn't afraid, she does have considerable respect for the task ahead: "It's a huge responsibility. But I'm over the moon that I am allowed to sing on May 26."
Indeed, the short but successful track record enjoyed by the small country of 9 million at the contest is impressive. Azerbaijan has only competed four times before and has landed in the Top Ten each time. In Belgrade, the country achieved eighth place, in Moscow third, in Oslo fifth and, finally, in Düsseldorf last year, it took the title.
Babayeva has competed to represent Azerbaijan several times before, but this year she finally landed the coveted slot. It is a source of great satisfaction to her that she has finally made it. Born in Baku and the daughter of a pianist, the singer attended a music school and later studied law. She loves jazz and enjoys a long-standing friendship with Anri Jokhadze, who is competing on behalf of neighboring country Georgia, with the catchy feel-good song "I'm a joker." "I really like him. He's my favorite. We've known each other for years and have played at festivals together," says Babayeva. Mind you, the competition is stiff this year.
Not a lot is known about Babayeva's life. She has previously won song competitions in Lithuania and Azerbaijan, and in 2009 she performed at the Slavic Star Contest in Russia. She also recorded the soundtrack "Roya Kimi" ("Like a Dream") for an Azerbaijani TV series. She has about 27,000 Facebook fans.
According to the singer, the very best part of Azerbaijan is its warm-hearted people: "Many Europeans don't really know much about our country and have the wrong impression of our traditions and culture. That's a pity. I'm going to do my best to change that."
Persecution Persists in Azerbaijan
While Sabina Babayeva busies herself with promoting international understanding, authorities in Baku continue to persecute opponents of the regime. One week ago, police in Baku brutally crushed a protest of 200 or so people in front of the town hall. At least three people were injured. Several arrests were made. According to witnesses, demonstrators who were already on the ground were beaten and kicked.
In March, SPIEGEL ONLINE visited Shirinbaji Rzayeva, a critic of the regime, in her house in the center of Baku. Following plans to build lucrative new buildings on the site, the family was issued with orders to move out as quickly as possible. In order to force her out of her home, a huge concrete block was hurled through Rzayeva's bedroom ceiling. She still didn't budge.
On May 11, Rzayeva's son was arrested after the apparent discovery of drugs in his apartment. Representatives of the Institute for Democracy and Human Rights believe that police planted heroin on him in order to make the arrest, apparently a common practice in Azerbaijan.
Meanwhile, blogger and regime opponent Jabbar Savalan was also arrested in this manner and sentenced to three years in prison for possession of drugs. As a result of international pressure, he was freed early. In early May, however, Savalan was conscripted into the army. He is not allowed to schedule appointments with the press.