Amir ElSaffar brings traditional Iraqi music to Philly
Amir ElSaffar | photo courtesy of the artist

On their own, there’s nothing traditional about the music made by Amir ElSaffar or Omar Dewachi. An Iraqi-American trumpeter born in Oak Park, Illinois, ElSaffar has integrated Iraqi maqam with jazz in a series of stunning and unique hybrid projects. Dewachi is an Iraqi-born anthropologist and professor at the American University of Beirut who plays the oud in the free-improv and experimental band City of Salt.

But when the two share the stage at the Random Tea Room on Wednesday night on a bill presented by Fire Museum, they’ll be performing repertoire from the Iraqi maqam tradition that dates back hundreds of years and possibly even further. ElSaffar will leave his trumpet at home, instead singing and playing the santur, an instrument akin to the hammered dulcimer which he studied during travels to Iraq shortly before the U.S. invasion in 2003.

Born in 1977 to an Iraqi immigrant father and an American mother, ElSaffar grew up listening to rock and pop music like any other child of the ‘80s until he discovered Miles Davis at the age of 14. It wasn’t until much later that he decided to explore the music of his cultural heritage, using the $10,000 grand prize from the 2001 Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Competition to fund his studies in Iraq, the Middle East, and Europe with some of the maqam’s most revered practitioners. He premiered “Two Rivers,” a suite directly inspired by those travels, at the Painted Bride in 2006 and will return to Philadelphia next April to premiere a new large-ensemble project, “Rivers of Sound,” at the Kimmel Center.

It was around the same time that he began studying maqam that ElSaffar met Dewachi, who had only recently picked up the oud for the first time. “We’ve both taken different directions with our music,” ElSaffar says. “I was getting a chance to work in-depth with a lot of really great teachers, and he was on a more academic path as an anthropologist. But he grew up listening to a lot of this music and a lot of information and insight about the linguistics and the context of the music had, and I would share with him a lot of the specific details that you can only get from a teacher.”

When he began his studies, ElSaffar never imagined he would be playing maqam in its traditional form. He is a contemporary and collaborator with Indian-American jazz innovators Rudresh Mahanthappa and Vijay Iyer, both of whom have melded Indian music and jazz together in fascinating and highly individualistic ways. “I imagined my relationship with the tradition being something like theirs,” he says, “where you have a sensibility and some of the musical materials but don’t really go into the heart of the tradition. But I have to dive into things headfirst, which means I have to be careful what I get into because it’s going to be a big mission for me. So I didn’t expect that I would be able to sing and play santur in a way that was convincing to Iraqi audiences or connoisseurs, but when I reached the point where my teacher was encouraging me to go out and perform I realized that I had something to offer.”

Maqam consists of a repertoire of melodies that are woven together into larger compositions according to strict rules, and pulls together the traditions of various Arabic regions. Traditionally, ElSaffar explains, maqam was central to not only musical but social life in Iraq, sung and performed in private homes during celebrations and in coffeehouses. It has been eclipsed, like most traditional musics around the world, by the incursion of other cultures from the Arabic world and the West, but is kept alive on a smaller scale by contemporary Iraqi pop singers who perform updated versions of the traditional repertoire.

It’s been more than ten years since ElSaffar has returned to Iraq, one of the most tumultuous periods in the country’s history. As ISIS threatens the nation’s stability, his performance of this music has seen its context shifted once again. “During the U.S. invasion I had just been there the year before, and I was performing quite a bit when the civil war was erupting and the U.S. presence was very strong, so it had a particular resonance for me to be half Iraqi and half American. It was a way for me to reconcile internally what was going on and also to stay connected to Iraq when my experiences there were very fresh. Now, more than a decade later, my relationship to Iraq has become something more distant and also more internalized. My connection to the language and the music has become part of my life, but at the same time it’s not as present as when I’d just been there. What’s happening with ISIS is frightening and it’s not very clear where things are going, but the fragmentation of Iraq seems to be the result of what’s happening. I hope I’m wrong about that.”

Tickets and information for the Wednesday, August 13th show can be found here.

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