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Amir ElSaffar: At Two Rivers' Confluence

By Published: February 21, 2012
"The process had started when my sister played me music by this percussionist named Hossam Ramzy. We were listening to it and at some point I had heard a sound I'd never heard before and I asked what the instrument was. I knew it was a wind instrument but it sounded very foreign to me. She told me it was a trumpet and I was just blown away. It was a trumpet player named Samy El-Bably, an Egyptian musician. I had a chance to meet him once at a workshop in Germany that had Arab musicians and Israeli musicians coming together to play in an orchestra. I got a chance to see him play and conduct the musicians. I wanted to be able to study with him but, unfortunately, he died just a few months later. That was really where it started because the reason I thought I couldn't play Arab music was because I thought you couldn't play quartertones on trumpet. But listening to him, he was playing all of them completely naturally. I realized he was using a combination of slides and alternate fingerings."

After attending Simon Shaheen's Arabic music workshop at mount Holyoke, ElSaffar had promised himself that if he won the Carmine Caruso trumpet competition he would use the prize money to go to the Middle East. However, in the early 2000s, when the War on Terror was at its outset, money was not nearly the only obstacle in traveling to the Middle East.

"I wasn't sure if I was going to make it to Iraq because it was not long after 9/11 and they were talking about a possible invasion. I had a foresight that if I didn't go now I wasn't going to have the opportunity and I was right; I had gone in 2002 and had left the beginning of 2003. Two and a half months later the war had started. I had spent time and learned the language and I was sad to go." As it turned out, however, leaving Iraq was only the first step in his musical journey. When the Middle East was no longer an option, his peers directed him towards Europe. "People in Iraq knew the war was starting and they asked 'Why are you still here? You don't have to be in Iraq to study maqam, you can go to England to study with Hamid al-Saadi.'"

As it turned out, al-Saadi was one of the most accomplished maqam singers in the world. "He was and is only person who knows the entire maqam repertoire," said ElSaffar. "Each region has its own repertory of maqam but the Baghdadi is the most complete one. There are about 60 of them. Learning them is more than just learning the notes; you have to internalize and learn to improvise within it. He knows all of them and different variations that are possible." ElSaffar's participation in al-Saadi's tutelage often went beyond maqam and into facets of daily life. "I spent about six months studying with him. I would sit with him for about six or seven hours a day, talking about music but also other topics, going shopping with him, etc. It had that kind of mentorship feeling that I wasn't conscious of right away. He encouraged me with the santour, too, even though he couldn't teach me it himself."

ElSaffar had approached the santour, a Persian hammered dulcimer instrument, during his time in Iraq and studied it more thoroughly in Europe while he was studying with Farida Mohammad Ali, the only actively performing female maqam singer in the world. "The sound had really made sense to me. It might have made more sense to learn the nay, which is an Arabic flute, but I wanted to delve into the tradition and the nay is used in more modern interpretations of the maqam and more in Egyptian and Lebanese tradition more than Baghdadi. maqam is traditionally accompanied by the joza and santour. I also liked that it was percussive and melodic so I wanted something that dealt with rhythm."

As he anticipated, the maqam system was embedded with its own set of challenges. Delving oneself into the approach is not simply learning to hear half-flats or incorporating scales; it's a much more thoroughly integrated process. It was especially challenging for ElSaffar as an English speaker to accustom himself to the way maqam is typically studied.

"I was studying vocally so there were worries there, as I didn't grow up speaking Arabic. So having to learn poetry in a language where I didn't understand 90% of the words, it was a lot all at once. Learning these things, as a singer is different than that as an instrumentalist; it's a different process entirely. If I tried to learn some of these songs on the trumpet or santour first would be almost impossible. Once I would sing it and couple the words with the music the melody would fall into place."

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