ElSaffar reinvents Iraqi maqam music at Abode of the Message


NEW LEBANON, N.Y. -- Amir ElSaffar has made a living out of weaving together a variety of musical traditions. He grew up in Chicago listening to the blues, trained to be a classical trumpeter, performs in a variety of jazz arrangements, and has spent years studying and mastering the Iraqi maqam tradition of song and performance.

In that ancient Middle Eastern tradition, he will perform Saturday, June 28, at the Abode of the Message in New Lebanon. He will play the santur, a kind of hammered dulcimer central to music in Iraq, Persia and northern India.

"The santur has been played in Iraq for about 3,000 years," he said. "The sound has been part of Iraqi culture since antiquity."

The santur has 96 strings over a trapezoidal wooden frame. The musician taps the strings with a hammer, and the santur has an enormous range of sounds and rhythms. For the Abode performance, ElSaffar will join Omar Dewachi, who plays the oud, a Middle Eastern lute.

They have prepared a mostly traditional program, but with a twist in the arrangement ElSaffar describes as "a different format within the culture and tradition."

Iraqi maqam music includes one tradition that focuses on vocals accompanied by a santur and a joza, or spike fiddle. The oud, which is more versatile and widespread through the region, stars in a separate line of maqam, and musicians do not usually play the two styles together.

Fusing these traditional ideas is a regular part of ElSaffar's approach. The son of an Iraqi father and American mother, he said they always had a lot of music in his house -- he remembers Louis Armstrong, BB King and James Brown. He only heard traditional Iraqi music at family gatherings or at restaurants.

He went on to study classical trumpet at DePaul University, where as a student he played anywhere and any way he could.

"I literally took every gig I could get," he said, performing not only classical music but in salsa bands, jazz ensembles and in wedding bands.

He later moved to New York, and his interest in Iraqi music grew. In 2002, he spent several months in Baghdad and absorbed the maqam tradition by taking classes at a music school there and attending concerts around the city.

After the war began, in 2003, he continued searching for masters to study with abroad. That led to a long stay in London learning from revered vocalist Hamid Al-Saadi, who may know more of the Iraqi maqam repertoire than anyone else alive, and who was living in exile there at the time.

ElSaffar describes the experience as close to the traditional master and apprentice model by which the music had been passed for centuries.

"It wasn't about just having a lesson," he said. "It was spending time with him, having meals together and taking walks and talking about the music."

It was about "all the details and information that emerges spontaneously by being in the presence of a master."

Today, ElSaffar fuses the many threads he has studied, distilling and expanding his own sound, developing a "personal vocabulary" that blends maqam's melodic sensibilities with his background in jazz and classical music.

The concert comes as part of a series at the Abode, the headquarters of the North American branch of the Sufi Order International, which hosts retreats, workshops and events throughout the year. The group's variation of Sufism stems from the Indian mystic Hazrat Inayat Khan in the early 20th century, and followers of his teachings founded the Abode in 1975.

The Abode will hold the Divine Music series of concerts and classes over the summer, presenting music from India, Turkey, Iran and the Middle East.

"This is our first year doing this," said Noorunisa Smallen, director of the Abode of the Message. "It's a beginning for us."

Smallen said the idea for the series emerged from a Sufi festival the organization held in February 2013.

"It gave us a taste of doing something involving the arts of the Middle East," she said. "We wanted to create a whole beautiful presentation of music to bring to this part of the world."

Smallen said that is part of their faith tradition.

"Sufis have always, especially our particular branch, considered music a spiritual experience in itself," she said. "Music and the arts in general are for this group of Sufis an important way to manifest devotion, ecstasy, and joy."

If you go ...

What: Amir ElSaffar performs a blend of Iraqi music and American jazz

When: 7 p.m. Saturday, June 28

Where: Abode of the Message, New Lebanon, N.Y.

Admission: $20

Information: (518) 794-8095, theabode.org

The series will continue on July 12, when Ishwari Keller and Sruti Ram of SRI Kirtan will lead a call and response chant workshop. On Aug. 28, Fanna-Fi-Allah will perform traditional qawwali songs from Pakistan.


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