Amir ElSaffar: At Two Rivers' Confluence
There was also a whole host of challenges on a microscopic and macroscopic scale. "Sometimes these phrases or entire maqams, which is a six or seven minute piece, might be in the range of about five notes," he explained. 'There are very slight variations in each one, not dealing with equal temperament or even quartertones. There are really fine gradations. You could call some of it sliding, but it's not really about the slide; it's about landing on a very particular note in a certain way. It was hard for me to hear at first. Also, when you have everything in a small range it's sometimes difficult to keep track of where you are. When the phrases all look very similar, you're focused on a much smaller scale of possibilities. Quantifying each note is much different in this Western music versus Iraqi music. In jazz and classical, we sometimes number them in regards to what notes work over what chord, but here it's a lot more fluid. It almost makes each note feel bigger. You feel the note with more resonance and it permeates throughout your body."
ElSaffar has established himself as part of a class of musicians who've zeroed in on different cultural traditions in order to incorporate and pay respect to native traditions. ElSaffar had been in close contact with musicians like Mahanthappa and Vijay Iyer, who had approached Indian Classical music as a means to express themselves. What made their approach so unique and valid, in ElSaffar's opinion, was the level of originality they approached in their studies.
"They were a little further down the road with that kind of stuff, looking into Carnatic music. Rudresh spent some time with Kadri Golpanash, not trying to master the style per se, because he was a master of his own way of playing at that point. When studying with Rudresh, it was mostly about having the courage to do what you want to, almost to an irreverent point, not in a haphazard way but still very thought out. He also gave me encouragement and also gave me a lot of business advice of how to do things practically."
Another big influence on ElSaffar came from his musical peer Hafez Modirzadeh. Modirzadeh is best known for his "chromodal" approach, outlined in an epically proportioned dissertation. In March of 2010, ElSaffar and Modirzadeh released Radif Suite (Pi, 2010). Described by one publication as a "new grammar for composition and improvisation," the suite was separated into two parts: Modrizadeh's "Radif-e Kayhan" and ElSaffar's "Copper Suite." ElSaffar describes the album as a process based work freer of overt cultural influence than other albums they'd released.
"Radif Suite was mostly about not being stuck with any tradition at all. Hafez has melodies that are sort of maqams, but switch in a John Coltrane or George Russell kind of way, where they pivot to other modalities, which is not at all common in traditional music. I used that as a starting point but even deconstructed that so, for example, it might just be an intervallic approach. It was just dealing with sound and letting the sound represent my own thought processes. With Hafez, it was about freeing myself with my use of maqam, really being able to play with the complete freedom of a jazz musician and not sounding overtly Middle Eastern. He can play melodies that sound like Ornette Coleman but they're actually maqams."
maqam has a rich history in several Middle Eastern cultures. For ElSaffar, it has acted as means to recognize traditions and practices stretching across both time and geography. "In the context of a maqam performance, which is mostly secular, especially with instruments because you wouldn't bring those into any religious context, each maqam is its own piece," explains ElSaffar. "Once you go a little deeper, one maqam might have a connection to a religious context. For example, at the end of Ramadan, there's a certain maqam that people recognize and there are others that a read at funerals.
"This is the music of the people of Iraq, whether they're Muslim or Jewish or Christian. They share a lot of the same melodic material. There's one Christian deacon in the North of Iraq who doesn't even know the names of the maqams; he just knows the pieces by rote, but I could identify one as maqam orfa, for example. There are also maqams associated with different merchants like apple sellers and knife sharpeners, almost like they were doing maqam branding. It's something that's integrated into society and into their subconscious, not just in performance."
Given this rich cultural tradition, the absolute last thing ElSaffar wants to be caught doing is appropriating. He explained his disdain for the fusion sounds of pop musicians past and how he strived to avoid it.