Hamid Al-Saadi embodies still waters that run deep

Iraqi maqam vocalist Hamid Al-Saadi usually refrains from dramatic expressions when he performs. While his voice flows across different registers, he remains seated and focuses forward. This outward calm also hardly reveals how much effort he has put into preserving his music's legacy.

Maqam is one of the oldest and most influential classical Arabic genres. Its melodies are based on complex 24-note scales, so imagine extra notes in between black and white piano keys. The Iraqi version may be the most venerated. That's because the 400-year-old song cycles that developed in Baghdad are rooted in a cosmopolitan history, according to Al-Saadi.

"When Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid Empire from the 700s to 1200s, it became a cultural center," Al-Saadi said from his home in Iraq's capital. "People came from Arab countries, Persia and Azerbaijan, so the music that existed in Iraq absorbed from these traditions, and it gave to their traditions as well. Whether it's a Persian or Uzbek melody, it will be transformed by an Iraqi musician."

This tradition follows a set repertoire and format, which Al-Saadi learned as a teenager and young adult in Baghdad. Islamic and secular poetry form the basis of the maqam lyrics, and vocalists are often called "reciters" rather than "singers."

Still, neither word describes Al-Saadi's uplifting way of unfurling long vocal lines that sound like calls to prayer, even when the words are not necessarily religious. Sometimes he'll pause for breath and allow for short flourishes of instrumental improvisation. That's why small, quick responding groups are the rule: Usually just a stringed santour (zither) and jawzah (spike fiddle), with one or two hand drummers keeping the understated rhythms moving. Usually, a young reciter will not directly seek out a mentor but quietly observe established masters.



Hamed al-Saadi and al-Chalghi al-Baghdadi
Maqam Huwaizawi
Cathedral of St. John the Divine
New York City
March 16, 2013

Vocals: Haj Hamed al-Saadi
Joza: Dakhil Ahmed Arran
Santur: Amir Elsaffar
Dumbuk: Sabah Kadhim


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