امير الصفار - مقام البيات

Amir Elsaffar and Two Rivers Ensemble
Maqam Bayat "Menba"



يعزف الفنان الأمريكي-العراقي أمير الصفار على آلة الترومبيت وآلة السنطور، ويقدم موسيقى الجاز إلى جانب الموسيقى العربية التقليدية، فضلا عن موسيقى من تأليفه هي مزيج بين الجاز والموسيقى العربية التقليدية. شهرة الصفار تكمن بالأساس في قدرته على هذا المزج الفريد بين الموسيقى التقليدية وموسيقى الجاز، ليخرج بمؤلفات موسيقية مبدعة. كما يتقن الصفار أداء فن المقام العراقي كونه درَس بالأساس على أيد أحد أفضل أساتذة فن المقام حامد السعدي. وصفت صحيفة شيكاغو تريبيون أمير الصفار بأنه “واحد من أهم المؤلفين الواعدين في عالم الجاز اليوم”.


يقود أمير الصفار أربع فرق موسيقية لها مكانتها، الأولى هي فرقة (النهران)، وهي فرقة تقدم المقام العراقي ممزوجا بموسيقى الجاز. وفرقة (رباعي أمير الصفار) التي تقدم موسيقى جازخالصة بآلات جاز معيارية. الفرقة الثالثة هي (صفافير) وهي الفرقة الوحيدة في أمريكا التي تقدم فن المقام العراقي. وأخيرا فرقة (ألوان) والتي تقدم موسيقى تقليدية من مصر والعراق وبلاد الشام. للصفار عدة تسجيلات موسيقية منها ست أسطوانات نالت شعبية واهتماما، حملت عناوين: مقامات بغداد (2005)، و النهران (2007)، و جناح رديف (2010)، و إنانا (2011)، و الكيمياء (2013)، و أزمة (2015). يشغل أمير الصفار منصب مدير فرقة موسيقى الشرق الأوسط بجامعة كولومبيا بنيويورك، والتي يعمل فيها أيضا كأستاذ لموسيقى الجاز.

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A Bridge to Iraq
Amir ElSaffar forges a singular fusion of jazz and Iraqi classical music—and reconciles his roots in the process.

Peter Margasak

Amir ElSaffar didn't want to leave Baghdad when the war started. The Oak Park native, a jazz trumpeter who was 25 in 2002, had been there studying the urban classical music maqam, but he was getting more than just a musical education. "When I got there, it was like, 'This is home. This is where I want to be.' When I think of those first couple of months it's like when you first fall in love with somebody. Everything is rosy. It was good the way it felt. The thought of ever leaving it or going away was kind of unbearable for me."

But ultimately he didn't have a choice. "I had New Year's at the Jordanian border," he says. "No champagne." With the threat of an American invasion intensifying every day, ElSaffar started running into problems. One of his teachers began canceling lessons; ElSaffar surmises he was afraid to be associated with him. "A half-Iraqi, half-American in Iraq months before this big invasion's going to happen, and I'm studying music? It's not a very plausible story."

He watched the occupation unfold from Jordan and then Syria. "It was a real kind of identity crisis," he says. "When I would say I was Iraqi, people would kiss me, they wouldn't take cab fare from me, and my Arabic was good enough that I could sort of fake it. They were so nice. As soon as I mentioned America, it was like, 'Oh, screw America!' Also, inside of me, I was feeling so much more connected to Iraq at that time."

Eventually he was overwhelmed by trying to navigate the political and cultural tension. "I started to break down. There were two weeks where I couldn't eat anything. I would eat lentil soup and I would throw up. I didn't have any friends or anyone to talk to. I was trying to talk to my teachers [in Syria] and they were like, 'Aren't you American anyway? What's your problem?'"

By the time ElSaffar returned to the U.S. in the fall of 2003 he wasn't feeling particularly patriotic, and musically his blossoming love for maqam was overtaking his longtime interest in jazz. In most Middle Eastern traditions maqam is a set of musical modes, a kind of tuning system, in which compositions are written, but in Iraq maqam is the song itself—a loose melodic and structural kernel performers use as a basis for improvisation. When the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia asked him in 2005 to write a piece combining jazz and maqam, he only accepted because the money was good. "I wasn't really into it," he says. "For a long time I was struggling, and then I was like, 'OK, I'm going to do sets—the first will be maqam and the second set will be jazz.' But it started to come together."

The result, a suite he titled Two Rivers, set him on a new path. (A dazzling recording of the work was released last fall on Pi Recordings.) Two Rivers has established him as a singular artist, fusing two disparate traditions with striking sophistication. Thursday, August 7, he presents the Chicago premiere of the piece in Millennium Park with a lineup that expands his working sextet with nine local musicians.

As a kid ElSaffar felt no particular pull toward traditional Iraqi music. His father was a retired physicist who met his mother, an army brat born in New York, on a ship from the UK to the U.S. in 1964. In 1967, after the Six Day War, the couple moved with their first child, Ali, from Baghdad to the Chicago area. As a kid ElSaffar enjoyed rock and blues, and though he started learning the trumpet at school when he was nine, he was ambivalent about the instrument, preferring to teach himself guitar. "I didn't know much about jazz," ElSaffar says, "and the trumpet wasn't very interesting to me because of the context in public school. It's no wonder so many kids quit. They show up and there's this disinterested band instructor playing very hokey music."

When he was in eighth grade he heard Haydn's Trumpet Concerto and was intrigued. His mother approached an instructor at the school, a violist, who gave him some private lessons; ElSaffar learned the concerto's first movement, but he didn't find the music compelling enough to want to stick with it.

ElSaffar was 13 when he read that Jimi Hendrix was influenced by Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, and not long afterward he found the album in his mother's slim music collection. "It was the first time the trumpet was really cool," he says. He threw himself into the music, attending several jazz summer camps during high school and eventually enrolling in the music program at DePaul, where he studied both classical music and jazz. In 1997 he joined the Chicago Civic Orchestra, spending many nights gigging around town with bandleaders like legendary swing drummer Barrett Deems. He graduated from DePaul in 1999.

Although he'd started listening to music from Iraq, it didn't fit into his plans as a musician. In 1990 his sister Dena had traveled to Iraq with their father, and ElSaffar says it was a life-changing experience for her. "She came back and started learning to play Arabic music, wanting to learn the language," he says. She eventually studied ethnomusicology at the University of Indiana and started her own Arabic group, Salaam. ElSaffar took his own trip to Iraq with his father when he was a teenager, and in college he occasionally listened to maqam, but he didn't think about performing it himself, mainly because the trumpet can't play the quarter tones that are such an integral part of the music. But then Dena played him some music by the Egyptian trumpeter Samy El Bably, and he heard that it was possible to adapt the instrument to the demands of Arabic scales.

Through Cliff Colnot, the conductor of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and a professor at DePaul, ElSaffar was asked to play on a Duke Ellington tribute recording by Daniel Barenboim, and that led to an invitation, the summer after he graduated, to participate in the West-Eastern Divan Workshop—an annual event started by Barenboim and Edward Said that brings together Jewish and Arabic musicians. While in Germany for the workshop ElSaffar met a number of Egyptian musicians who encouraged him to visit Cairo, so he detoured there and ended up meeting El Bably.

Back in the States ElSaffar continued to play some classical gigs, but he'd decided to focus on jazz, and in early 2000 he moved to New York. Eventually a workshop with Cecil Taylor led to a series of gigs with the pianist, and in 2001 he won the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition, a prestigious award for young players. He put the $10,000 prize toward a rigorous study of maqam in the Middle East and Europe, arriving in Baghdad in March 2002, a year before the invasion.

ElSaffar spent several months trying to learn maqam on the trumpet before deciding to start from the ground up with the santoor, a hammer dulcimer. A few months later he traveled to Jordan, then continued his study of maqam in Syria, Germany, and England. "Informationwise, in terms of really learning the repertoire, it was mostly in England," he says. "But if I had just gone to England without being in Iraq I wouldn't have known [how] to relate to the music. It was like soaking in the culture."

ElSaffar found himself at a crossroads after he returned to New York at the end of 2003. "I had never intended to perform Iraqi maqam in its really true state because I didn't think I would be capable of it," he says. But an Arabic instructor and an Arabic musician convinced him he'd mastered the language, so when he was approached that winter about a gig at an Arabic cultural center he accepted.

"It was an incredible experience. I never sang in public except when I had a rock band as a kid, and it was like being high. It's such a direct connection with the audience when you sing, as opposed to when you play the trumpet or any other instrument, because then it's like you're meeting in some other realm, like a third world. When you're singing, especially in Arabic music, because the words are so important, you really make eye contact with people. It's like speaking, but you're expressing something so much more powerful."

By 2005 he and Dena had started Safaafir, a group focusing on traditional Iraqi maqam. They kept busy with gigs around the country, including a performance at the 2006 World Music Festival in Chicago, and aside from an occasional jazz gig ElSaffar wasn't playing the trumpet much—in Safaafir he sticks to singing and the santoor. "I just didn't have any motivation for it at the time," he says. That's when he received the Painted Bride commission. "Once I accepted the idea it got more and more interesting," he says. "This rhythm, if you play it a little differently, it sounds like funk, but it's actually an old Iraqi rhythm. And this melody, it really works well with that bass line. The ideas started flowing."

Even before the piece premiered ElSaffar was approached by Dave Douglas. The acclaimed trumpeter didn't know about the Painted Bride performance, but he wanted ElSaffar to come up with something similar for his Festival of New Trumpet Music in the fall of 2006. That gig led to a Pi Recordings record deal.

The Two Rivers recording captures a seamless and seemingly natural fusion of traditions, the spirit and language of jazz improvisation integrated carefully with the structures of maqam. ElSaffar finds elements of each—a rhythm, a melody—that can fit together. Sometimes his compositions lean more on jazz, sometimes more on maqam. ElSaffar, who sings and plays both santoor and trumpet, is joined in the front line of the group by alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, an Indian-American he met at DePaul, while Zafer Tawil plays counterpoint on both violin and oud. The acclaimed drummer Nasheet Waits plays a standard kit while Tareq Abboushi plays the traditional frame drum (as well as the buzuq, a traditional lute). Bassist Carlo De Rosa plays meditative ostinato patterns—repeated figures—which give the music hypnotic power.

ElSaffar says he might include some new pieces in the Millennium Park concert, but it will primarily feature tunes from Two Rivers heavily rearranged for the expanded ensemble performing with him. It will be the first time he's played with such a large group, and he spent several days here in July getting the new musicians acquainted with the work. Some of them, like guitarist Jeff Parker and vibist Jason Adasiewicz, are seasoned jazz players, while musicians like Syrian ney player Naeif Rafeh and ElSaffar's sister Dena, who plays violin and jowza, are fluent in Arabic music but not jazz. "I want to see how each person relates to the material," he says, noting that a particular challenge is finding roles for so many melodic voices in a monophonic music with no use of harmony. "Most attempts I've heard using harmony with Arabic music or any kind of modal music takes away from the melody."

No doubt he'll figure it out: inhabiting two musical worlds simultaneously is what he's been working toward for years. "I think it ties together my cultural roots," he says. "I didn't consciously do it, but looking back it goes back and forth between these poles and it lets me feel both American and Iraqi at the same time

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Amir ElSaffar expands the definition of jazz
Howard Reich
Chicago Tribune

Jazz always has embraced the sounds of far-flung cultures, from the French and Spanish influences in music of Jelly Roll Morton to the Afro-Caribbean experiments of Dizzy Gillespie and Chano Pozo to more contemporary ventures.

During the past couple of decades, pianist Vijay Iyer and saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa have brought aspects of their Indian heritage into their music, and saxophonists Miguel Zenon and David Sanchez similarly have merged Puerto Rican musical techniques and repertories with the syntax of jazz.

Some of the most daring, cross-cultural work along these lines has come from the horn, the voice and the imagination of Amir ElSaffar, who has been at the forefront of intertwining the musical culture of his Iraqi ancestry with the sound of jazz.

He’ll bring his boldest project along these lines to Orchestra Hall in Symphony Center on Friday evening, when ElSaffar leads his Rivers of Sound Orchestra in music from his majestic recent album, “Not Two.” As in ElSaffar’s previous recordings, this music combines the rhythms and maqam — or note sequences — of Arabic music with the spirit and harmonies of jazz improvisation.

But elements of Western classical music and other traditions also bubble up in the “Not Two” suite, which helps explain its name.

“The main idea of ‘Not Two’ was going beyond the dualities,” says trumpeter ElSaffar, who also plays santur and sings in the project.

“I’m really at a point of not thinking in terms of combining influences of this culture and that culture — going beyond the binaries and dichotomies and finding that fundamental unity that exists.”

Meaning that ElSaffar, after having spent so many years studying and researching Middle Eastern music and jazz, has come to feel that they — and other musical languages — hold a great deal in common. So although he began this cross-cultural journey intending to combine the two idioms, he came to realize that he needed to dig much more deeply.

“In 2001, I went to the Middle East and was planning to spend just a few months, just to get some ideas,” explains ElSaffar, who grew up in the Oak Park-River Forest area, received a bachelor of music degree in trumpet performance from DePaul University in 1999 and moved to New York in 2000.

“After about a month, I realized that this was a much bigger project. I spent 2001 to 2012 traveling and researching and finding teachers and listening constantly to old, archival recordings.”

This pan-cultural immersion gave rise to music at once original, provocative and sensuously alluring, as can be heard in his “Two Rivers” album (2007), “Inana” (2011), “Crisis” (2015) and now, the most sonically sweeping and spacious of them all, “Not Two” (2017).

To hear the 17 musicians of the Rivers of Sound Orchestra articulate microtonal pitches, extraordinarily complex rhythms, non-Western scales and other intricacies as a single musical organism is to marvel at the scope and audacity of what ElSaffar and friends have undertaken.

Yet ElSaffar says he has been struck by how fellow musicians and audiences have reacted to these challenging scores.

When he first performed the “Two Rivers” suite, in 2006, “I was really sort of taken aback by how warmly received the music was, the way that people responded, and the conversations afterward,” he recalls.

“It encouraged me to continue on the path of finding combinations — or finding the similarities or empathies between these musical traditions, and to continue composing in that way. I think experiencing people’s reactions, and their openness, really gave me a sense that we’re all stemming from a common source.”

ElSaffar, in other words, has concluded that cultures separated by oceans and epochs are linked more tightly than casual observers might have realized.

As he analyzed Iraqi music, for example, “I started to discover these little points of commonality, where a particular maqam could translate as a harmony we know in jazz — like a sharp-nine chord relates to this maqam.”

In effect, “You can express the same emotion through different musical languages,” he has found. “And oftentimes, we find there’s something common in their musical DNA.”

ElSaffar’s work of the past decade-plus proves as much, and especially in “Not Two,” the music at once seemingly exotic to Western ears, yet also remarkably accessible and profoundly expressive.

ElSaffar believes that the groundwork for his culturally expansive approach was established as he was coming of age artistically in Chicago, where so many ethnicities and musical idioms bump up against one another. By playing in everything from the Civic Orchestra of Chicago to the Barrett Deems Big Band in the 1990s, ElSaffar came to understand that no culture or demographic holds a monopoly on potency of expression.

“There were so many seminal experiences that I had working in Chicago, not to mention the R&B bands that I used to play in the horn sections,” says ElSaffar, who will appear at Orchestra Hall on a double-bill with Mike Reed’s “Flesh & Bone.”

“It was so rich and vibrant. I think Rivers of Sound — because it’s such a large group, and there’s such a wide range of sonorities — is able to pick up on some of those threads and some of those connections to different musical worlds that I’ve lived.”

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