New York City’s East Village is known for it vibrant culture, but a performance by Amir ElSaffar is not one found anywhere else in the city or even in many places outside the Middle East. Celebrating thousands of years of heritage, the New York-based ElSaffar can be often be found in the neighborhood playing music from his Two Rivers album, relying on his trumpet and santoor (the Iraqi hammer dulcimer) to conjure visions of an Iraq that has ceased to exist. Bolstered by traditional instruments that include the joze (spike fiddle), riqq (tambourine) and tabla (drum), his music ranges from haunting and moody tones to Arabic rhythms straight from the souk—all of it combined with sizzling and wide-open percussive jazz.
ElSaffar draws his inspiration from maqam—the urban classical vocal tradition of Iraq, and one of the most sophisticated and complex traditional music forms of the Middle East there are as many as 56 melodies underpinning the maqam form. Each maqam is a semi-improvised musical recitation of poetry, performed within a formal structure that governs the melody, progression and rhythm. The repertoire draws upon the musical styles of Iraq’s melting pot, which includes the Bedouins, rural Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen, as well as neighboring Persians, Turks and others who have passed through the region over the centuries.
ElSaffar’s Two Rivers, released in late September 2007 on Pi Recordings, signifies the rivers Tigris and Euphrates (which join together in Iraq), but it’s also a gesture toward the fusion of both the old world and the new—specifically, traditional Iraqi maqam and contemporary jazz. And the music delivers just that, shuttling between Middle Eastern tones and rhythms, Iraqi blues (captured by the wailing cry of the maqam singer), and intricate layers of trumpet, santoor, violin, oud, dumbek, and buzuq. “Our biggest challenge in achieving peace is the understanding of other cultures,” ElSaffar observes. “I hope to take a small step forward to realize that dream.”
Until the 20th century, maqam was widely practiced in mosques, homes, and coffeehouses throughout Iraq. In religious contexts, maqam melodies were used in the call to prayer, during mawlud rituals (celebrations of the birth of the prophet Mohammed), and in Qur’anic recitation. Maqam was also sung in the zurkhanes (sports clubs) to energize athletes during their exercises, and was even sung by street vendors advertising their products. Formal maqam concerts were also held in private homes during celebrations.
Yet it was in the gahawi (coffeehouses), the center of social activity in Iraqi culture, where maqam truly fl ourished. Experts, amateurs, and novices—known collectively as ushshaaq almaqam, or lovers of the maqam—would sit for hours, philosophizing about the inner meanings of a melody, debating who was a more skilled singer, or critiquing a recent performance. Every evening in these gahawi, a maqam concert would take place that, when performed in its complete sequence, would last about nine hours. Not many old masters of maqam survive there are only a handful spread throughout Europe, and a few in Baghdad.
Growing up in Chicago’s sizeable Iraqi community, ElSaffar studied jazz and majored in classical trumpet, making his name on the local jazz scene but always remaining aware of maqam music. “When I was growing up, my father brought me to family or community events and I always heard maqam,” he says. “Back then, as now, no one played it full-time. They had regular jobs and played at family gatherings on the weekends.”
Around 2001, ElSaffar was playing nothing but jazz, but he had begun to consider incorporating Arabic styles into his music. The teaching of maqam is an oral tradition, passed from master to student, so ElSaffar’s first efforts to learn and experiment with the tradition began in Egypt. Shortly after winning an international jazz trumpet competi