Iraqi-American musician Amir ElSaffar to bring the best of both worlds to Abu Dhabi
Fifteen years ago, New York City jazz trumpeter Amir ElSaffar won US$10,000 (Dh36,729) in an improvisation competition. He packed his bags and set off to the Middle East on a personal quest to unlock the forgotten music of his ancestors.
Five years later, he returned to the United States, where he became America’s only “authentic” performer of Iraqi maqam, and embarked on a compelling 10-year artistic journey merging Middle Eastern musical traditions with contemporary jazz.
During his time in the Middle East, ElSaffar travelled through Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt before arriving in Baghdad. His goal was to track down the surviving practitioners of Iraqi maqam, a 400-year-old improvisational tradition that presents poetry alongside a santur (hammered dulcimer), jawza (a rebab variant) and percussion.
He lived with relatives for six months in 2002 – an American citizen in Iraq on the eve of the US-led invasion.
“Things were rather tense,” says the 38-year-old. “At first, I was greeted as a long-lost cousin but at some point, after it became clear there was going to be a war, I noticed things. One of my teachers kept cancelling lessons and would not show up. People seemed a little bit afraid of being seen with me. The neighbours started to talk.
“The idea that I had come to study this forgotten music was completely implausible for them.” Fearing for his family’s safety, ElSaffar left Iraq. But that was not the end of his quest. He spent the next three years tracking down expatriate Iraqi musicians in Munich, Amsterdam and London, where he studied extensively under renowned vocalist Hamid Al Saadi.
“The years went by and that $10,000 was long gone, but I had such a hunger for this knowledge and tradition,” he says. “I was completely captivated – maqam was a jewel – and there were very few people left who knew about it.”
Growing up in Chicago, ElSaffar’s musical education was strictly western – he played in the city’s Civic Orchestra and never even learnt Arabic. But during his five-year travels, he learnt the santur, the maqam singing style and the language. He also developed a revolutionary way of using the slide to play quarter-tones – which sit between the 12-tones found in western music – on a conventional three-valve trumpet.
After his return to the US in 2006, he founded Safaafir, one of the five groups he leads, and “the only ensemble in the US performing Iraqi maqam in its traditional format”.
This was followed by a commission to compose the suite Two Rivers, which evolved into an ensemble of the same name – it frames Iraqi musical traditions in an improvisational modern jazz setting.
Blending scales, approaches, instruments and textures, his latest project is Rivers of Sound, a 17-piece ensemble that combines santur, jowza and oud with traditional jazz instruments and vocals.
This brave outfit will make its fourth public performance – and the first outside the US – at New York University Abu Dhabi on Saturday. The project will also be featured in an upcoming seventh album.
ElSaffar also leads the originals-orientated “microtonal” jazz ensemble Amir ElSaffar Quintet, and the Alwan Ensemble, a six-to-eight-piece group that specialises in reviving the classical music of Iraq, Palestine, Syria and Egypt.
The latter will perform at ElSaffar’s second NYUAD concert on Tuesday, as will Ashwaq, a “string quartet” composed by ElSaffar that also utilises the santur and vocals to frame the work of 12th-century Sufi poet Ibn Arabi.
“Two Rivers started off really being about merging two pre-existing traditions,” says ElSaffar.
“Now it’s evolved to the point where I’m not so clear where the jazz starts and maqam ends – to me, it has become a singular musical language.”
• Amir ElSaffar’s Rivers of Sound Large Ensemble perform outdoors at NYUAD’s East Plaza on Saturday; the Alwan Ensemble and Ashwaq Ensemble perform indoors at The Arts Center’s Black Box on Tuesday. Both performances start at 8pm. For limited free tickets, visit www.nyuad-artscenter.org