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"An Iraqi-American Helps to Keep Soulful Music From Baghdad Alive"

An Iraqi-American Helps to Keep Soulful Music From Baghdad Alive

Published: July 27, 2005

When Amir ElSaffar sang his sad, lamenting music at an Arab-American arts center in Lower Manhattan earlier this month, people closed their eyes and mouthed the words. When he stopped, they crowded around and said how he had moved them.

Amir ElSaffar, a jazz and classical trumpeter, singing maqam and playing the santur, a type of dulcimer, at the Alwan for the Arts center.

The audience at an Arab-American arts center in Lower Manhattan listening to maqam, a genre that has been played for centuries in Baghdad.
"I smell the Tigris," one woman at the Alwan for the Arts center said. Others said the music made them smell Iraqi fish, feel Iraqi heat and miss Iraqi family. While his songs took the audience of Iraqi-Americans back to a Baghdad that no longer exists, Mr. ElSaffar is fighting to help make sure that the music does.

The Iraqi maqam - maqam (pronounced ma-KAHM) is the name for a musical genre and also the specific pieces in it - has been played for centuries in Baghdad coffeehouses, homes and mosques. It consists of a repertory of melodies, performed by a singer with an instrumental ensemble, that can be used in improvisations according to specific rules.

But since the 1930's Egyptian and Lebanese radio and later television have weaned Iraqis from homegrown traditions. And during the last 60 years of frequent political turmoil and war, some of the greatest maqam masters, along with other artists, have fled the country. Since the American invasion in March 2003, the fear of violence has kept many remaining musicians from performing and teaching. Today, only one person alive is known to have mastered the full repertory of 56 maqam melodies, Yeheskel Kojaman, an Iraqi musicologist, said in a telephone interview from London. Unesco has identified the Iraqi maqam as an "intangible heritage of humanity" and plans to encourage performances and training.

So when Mr. ElSaffar, an Iraqi-American jazz and classical trumpeter who lives in New York, went to Baghdad in 2002 to learn his ancestral musical tradition, he had trouble finding a maestro who would take him on. For the last two and a half years he has been traveling in Europe, studying with exiled Iraqi masters. Back in New York since May, he has formed an ensemble to perform maqam music and has taught others to play it with him.

Mr. ElSaffar, 27, does not seem like a natural crusader for Iraqi culture. He was raised in Oak Park, Ill., by an American Christian mother, a professor of Spanish literature, and an Iraqi Shiite Muslim father, a physics professor. Mr. ElSaffar, who says he does not subscribe to any particular religion, learned only a smattering of Arabic and while growing up visited Iraq just once, with his father, in 1993.

But when he won a $10,000 prize for jazz trumpet in an international competition, he said, he decided to use the money to go to Iraq and learn its music. He added that only when he began to weep at the Baghdad airport did he realize he had been starved to connect with his father's country. In Mr. ElSaffar's first weeks in Baghdad in March 2002, as he listened to a maqam and heard the pain in the singer's voice, he felt something break open inside him, he said. "It sounded like crying to me," he said, a sobbing that became singing and drew him in. He said that he had also felt an intellectual fascination for the improvisation. He learned to play a maqam on his trumpet, and soon found a teacher of joza, a fiddle made from a coconut shell and the heart tissue of a water buffalo. The other instruments in a maqam ensemble are usually the santur, a kind of dulcimer; an Arabic tabla, a goblet-shaped drum; and a riqq, a tambourine.

By June 2002, when Mr. ElSaffar returned to New York to play trumpet with Cecil Taylor, maqam music was influencing his jazz performance and he said he knew he had become obsessed. That fall, he went back to Iraq to continue studying the maqam, and stayed until the end of the year.

He said that a man in Baghdad had said to him: "Why did you come here? Are you crazy? Why don't you just go to London? The only maqam singer left who knows the entire repertory is in London. Find him." He did. For the next three years he traveled through Europe pursuing three great musicians of the maqam tradition. He took the train with a suitcase packed with a dozen maqam books, some 50 tapes, perhaps 75 CD's.

To make money, he got out his trumpet for occasional jazz gigs, and also tapped an inheritance from his mother, who had died. In Munich he went to Baher al-Regeb, among the first to notate the Iraqi maqam, and the son of the maqam musician Hajj Hashem al-Regeb. In a small city in the Netherlands he studied with a maqam singer known by her first name, Farida. But in London he found his maestro in Hamid al-Saadi, the man said to be the only one to know the entire repertory.

The te - The New York Times

"Musician Strays from Jazz for Iraqi Musical Tradition"

Morning Edition, July 7, 2006

Amir ElSaffar put his New York City jazz club career on hold four years ago. ElSaffar, an Iraqi-American, put down the trumpet to learn the centuries-old singing style known as maqam. He has now released his own CD of maqam and is writing music that blends the form with jazz.

ElSaffar traveled to Baghdad and London to study what some call the classical music of Iraq from the masters. Before that, Iraqi music was not a big part of his life. He grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and jazz was his first love. After studying classical and jazz trumpet in college, he moved to New York City and worked as a sideman for pianist Cecil Taylor and others. He also led a band of his own.

Iraqi maqam is a repertoire of melodies — some of them dating to ancient times — that fit together into larger compositions. Texts range from secular poetry to Sufi mysticism. The complex improvisations and vocal flourishes can take years to master.

ElSaffar was curious enough about Middle Eastern music to attend a workshop in Massachusetts in 2001. "They were talking about Egyptian music or Syrian music or Lebanese music," ElSaffar says. "I was thinking, 'OK, where's the Iraqi tradition?' I learned it was in many ways a vastly different tradition than what is found in the rest of the rest of the Arab world."

Using $10,000 he had won in a trumpet competition, ElSaffar sought musical teaching in Baghdad (he left a few months before the U.S. invasion in 2003) and Europe. He learned how to play the santur, a traditional hammered dulcimer, and how to sing dozens of maqams.

ElSaffar released his first CD of maqam in June, and has been performing the music in the United States for audiences that include a lot of Iraqi expatriates. ElSaffar says he's been amazed at the emotional response the music can generate.

" I've seen people get teary-eyed," he says. "I've seen people cry at performances. People come up to me and say it's brought them back to Baghdad. They can just feel the energy of the place again."

Now, ElSaffar is trying to combine that energy with his first love. He is writing and performing music that combines elements of maqam and jazz.

Amir ElSaffar and his band played his composition Two Rivers for the first time this spring in Philadelphia. There will be another performance in October during the Festival of New Trumpet Music in New York City. But first, ElSaffar is spending the summer in Europe, continuing his education.

Joel Rose reports from WHYY in Philadelphia. - NPR Morning Edition

"Iraqi Musician in New York"

NEW YORK, NY March 19, 2008 —

Five years after the US invasion of Iraq, an Iraqi-American musician is preserving the classical music of Baghdad here in New York. WNYC’s Siddhartha Mitter reports.

REPORTER: In late 2002, just before the invasion, Amir ElSaffar was in Baghdad on an investigative mission of his own. He was 25 years old and he was there to learn from the masters of Iraqi maqam. That’s the classical music of Baghdad -- centuries old, but these days, practiced by few.

ELSAFFAR: I felt like I absolutely have to go, and if I don’t go now something bad is going to happen. There’s a reason in my life I have to go... I was also aware that a war was very likely.

REPORTER: Growing up in Chicago, ElSaffar had an American childhood and even though there was Arabic music around him, he became a jazz trumpeter. But in Baghdad he took up the delicate stringed instrument called the santoor, and he learned Iraqi classical singing.

REPORTER: ElSaffar tracked down the living masters of maqam, amid the stress of a looming war, until he could no longer stay.

ELSAFFAR: I felt that my presence was putting my relatives in danger. That was basically when I left, when they told me that neighbors were speaking about, who’s this half-Iraqi, half-American cousin of yours here studying music.

REPORTER: Back in the US, ElSaffar was so involved in maqam that he was ready to give up the trumpet and his jazz career. But in the end he chose to do both. His record “Two Rivers” features some of New York’s top jazz and Arab musicians. It’s a project only ElSaffar could have created.

ELSAFFAR: Basically all of my experience, my musical background is culminated in this piece. ... Every piece is exploring a different ruhiya, a different spiritual essence, which triggered a different approach, whether it’s a free jazz feeling, or a 4/4 swing, or a slow funk groove...

REPORTER: The ruhiya is the spirit that gives each maqam its compositional structure, and its emotional character. It’s not something to treat lightly.

ELSAFFAR: At a certain point I kind of
went to the maqam and asked its permission. I went to the ruhiyas of the different pieces that I started to think would make sense. But I felt that I had to get permission – I don’t know, I just asked…

REPORTER: The spirits must have recognized his sincerity. “Two Rivers” is a fascinating record that won critical acclaim. But ElSaffar isn’t just applying maqam to jazz. He’s also playing maqam in the deepest classical tradition with his other group, Safaafir.

ELSAFFAR: I’m not modernizing the maqam. The maqam stays and its develops on its own.

REPORTER: And ElSaffar is simply the messenger. But in both aspects of his work, he’s helping the maqam of Baghdad to not just survive, but contribute to global culture in the new century. Iraq is still in turmoil, but the ruhiyas – those spiritual essences at the heart of the music – can rest easy.

REPORTER: For WNYC, I’m Siddhartha Mitter


"Safaafir @ Busboys & Poets"

MARCH 3, 2008
Safaafir @ Busboys & Poets

There was a time in the not too distant past when Iraq was a hotbed of intellectualism, art, and culture. This national image has all but disappeared over the past three decades, but last night's concert by Safaafir at Busboys & Poets, the group's second, was a celebration of Iraq's traditions and a reminder of how fortunate we are to live in a city that provides access to such rich cultural experiences.

Though the music was unfamiliar to some of us present, the sentiments it evoked were not. The largely Iraqi audience, which included several dignitaries from the Iraqi embassy, reveled in its native music and created a joyous atmosphere that is not often associated with the country.

"This is the real face of what Iraq looks like and what it should be," announced Busboys' owner Andy Shallal at the start of the program. An Iraqi native, Shallal came to the United States as a small child in 1960s.

Safaafir specializes in maqam, a classical form traditionally found in Iraq's urban centers. The driving force behind the group is Amir ElSaffar, an accomplished jazz and European classical trumpeter who was born in Chicago to an Iraqi father and American mother. He heard maqam growing up and in 2002 put his career on hold to spend six months in Baghdad to learn the classical repertoire.

"One hundred years ago, maqam was the music of Baghdad," ElSaffar explained after the concert. "Now the music is in a state of decline," he continued, "and that has been a gradual process over the past 100 years, but it has a lot to do with current politics."

ElSaffar's studies in Baghdad included maqam singing as well as learning to play the santoor, a hammer dulcimer instrument that is found throughout the Middle East and all the way into South Asia. He has also turned his passion for maqam into a family affair, as last night's ensemble included his sister, Dena El Saffar, on vocals, violin, and jowza, a four-stringed spiked fiddle whose sound resembles a sarangi, for those familiar with North Indian classical music. Her husband, Tim Moore, rounded out the trio on doumbek and vocals, the latter of which is impressive given that all of the lyrics were sung in Arabic.

The tonality of maqam is very eastern in the sense that the music is not built on harmonies, but a series of scales. Often the santoor, jowza, and vocal melody were played in unison, but occasionally the santoor would play a counterpoint to the melody. Rhythmically, the songs were often set to odd meters. One song in particular was based on a tricky 10-beat doumbek pattern, deftly played by Moore. Unfortunately, Busboys would be advised to use a different sound design for Safaafir's next concert, because much of the nuance in the santoor and doumbek was lost. A highlight, however, was Dena El Saffar's violin playing. Her resonant tone and strong technique added a powerful element to the group's overall sound.

The structure of most of the songs began with an extended improvisation by the lead vocalist or an instrumentalist. The group would then introduce the song's main melody and lyric, which were often romantic and rooted in classical Arabic poetry. The ensemble seemed on the verge of losing the audience during some of the more esoteric moments, a fact that ElSaffar acknowledged after the concert.

"When we play for an Iraqi audience, they want more of the songs and less of the long tunes," ElSaffar said.

Last night, Safaafir did a fine job of balancing the ensemble's artistic integrity and the wants of the audience. The group never completely lost contact with the listeners, who responded enthusiastically to the more melodic elements of the concert. The native Iraqis spent much of the concert clapping and singing along to the exotic yet entirely hummable melodies. The show culminated with the sold-out room rising to a standing ovation at the end of the second set.

Shallal suspected the audience was mixed in terms of ethnic and religious background. He also noted that Iraqi gatherings have been very segregated since the start of the war. This fact coupled with the excitement of the audience gave the evening a hopeful tone.

"We live as Iraqis in memories," Shallal said, "but this shows that you can cross boundaries with music and that Iraq is salvageable." - DCist (online blog)


Safaafir: Maqams of Baghdad (2006)



Many things have been lost during the war in Iraq. One of Baghdad’s many hearts, the ancient coppersmiths' market, is among them. There, the hammers of skillful craftsmen rang out merrily against the copper trays and other wares they offered for sale. The rich sound texture of this market was often likened to the distinctive sound of Iraqi maqam, a traditional canon of melodies that resonated throughout Iraqi life for centuries, until it began to fade in the 20th century (see "About Maqam" below).

Safaafir, an ensemble whose name echoes both the coppersmiths (safaafir) and the family name of two of its members, is reaching back to the glory days of maqam and breathing new life into this age-old genre. The commitment of Amir ElSaffar (santoor or hammered dulcimer), Dena ElSaffar (jowza or spike-fiddle), and Tim Moore (percussion) to this quintessentially Iraqi music, which began with a gift of instruments from Baghdad, has earned them the affection of Iraqis in the U.S., and growing attention from American audiences at large.

When Chicago-born, Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar put his jazz career in New York on hold in 2002 to travel to Iraq, his plan was to spend a few weeks studying the Iraqi Maqam music to gather inspiration for his jazz composition and improvisation, then return to New York. But after a few experiences of hearing this music in its native land, and a couple of encounters with masters of this tradition, his life would take a different course.

ElSaffar ended up staying six months in Baghdad, and in that period learned the basics of the Maqam form, which is one of the most sophisticated and revered musical styles of the Middle East, but unfortunately, due to recent events, has very few surviving masters. He put the trumpet on hold and began singing and learning to play the santoor, a 96-string hammered dulcimer that was invented in Iraq in the 6th century B.C. ElSaffar left Iraq in early 2003, as the clock was ticking before the US-led invasion, and spent the next couple of years traveling to other Arab countries and throughout Europe in pursuit of the few surviving masters who could impart to him this nearly-extinct tradition.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the globe, Amir's older sister, Dena, and her husband, Tim, were performing regularly throughout the Midwest with their Arabic music ensemble, Salaam. Dena, who holds a degree in classical viola from Indiana University, had taken an interest in Arabic music of during her first trip to Baghdad, in 1990. Three years later, she founded Salaam, which is still active, and is based in Bloomington, IN. Dena and Tim were acquainted with a range of styles, from Arabic music to Turkish to Greek, and, while they had a keen interest in Iraqi music, there were very few recordings available and information regarding its complex structures was scarce, so they did not have a chance to delve into it.

When Amir returned from his travels in 2005, he brought with him a jowza, which is a spike-fiddle made from a coconut, and a pair of naqqarat, traditional Iraqi kettle drums. Along with the santoor, these are the instruments that make up a traditional Maqam ensemble. Tim was the one with the suggestion: "Why don't we all get together and form a band?" So Amir moved to Bloomington for one year, where he, Dena, and Tim, rehearsed together on a daily basis, working on the details and subtle complexities of this ancient musical form, and Safaafir was born. Dena and Tim also went to Europe to study with some of the teachers that Amir had met in his travels. Since then, the group has been performing actively among the Iraqi community throughout the US, as well as to American and other Arab audiences.

Sameer Sumaidaii, the Iraqi Ambassador to the US has called this group a "national treasure," and veteran musician Fuad Misho has referred to them as a "miracle."

About Maqam

Maqam is the urban classical vocal tradition of Iraq. Found primarily in the cities of Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk, and Basra, the maqam repertoire is a tapestry as rich and complex as Iraqi society itself. Within the maqam tradition can be found elements of the musical styles of the many populations in Iraq, such as the Arabs, Bedouins, Kurds, and Turkmen as well as neighboring Persians, Turks, and other populations that have had extensive contact with Iraq throughout history.

The maqam compositions are highly-structured, yet semi-improvised, melodic recitations of Classical Arabic and colloquial Iraqi poetry. The melodies are usually performed by a singer in a rhythmically free manner, with long melismas and highly ornamented vocal passages, and accompanied by the santoor (zither), jowza (spike fiddle), and percussion. Each maqam is said to have a unique ruhiyya, or spiritual essence, that gives its identity. In performance, each Maqam is followed by a Pesteh, or popular song, which, in contrast to the maqam, is highly rhythmic and light-hearted, containing