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Interviews

Amir ElSaffar: At Two Rivers' Confluence

By Published: February 21, 2012
"In the '90s to into the early 2000s, the whole world music thing was at its apex with artists like Peter Gabriel, Paul Simon and Sting. Some of their music is actually really good, but what followed wasn't. It was the kind of music where you'd hear a didgeridoo here and some string instrument you've never heard there. There's kind of this novelty of using some exotic string instrument from a native culture that kind of worships it but also looks down on it, too. It's often referred to as 'orientalism' or 'exoticism.' There's a certain naïveté involved and it's also stealing in a way. This is thousands of years of tradition and you're just briefly bringing people into your music to mash these sounds together without any real thought into the history. With Rudresh and Vijay, they get the context of what they're doing. They're conscious of not just the surface but also what it means in its own cultural context, even though they didn't study in the same process I did. I think you have to a firm understanding, which is why I'm not going to do something like an 'Africa project' [laughs]. I listen very closely to these kinds of combinations."

Inana can be seen as a union between the cultural concept of Two Rivers and the harmonic explorations of Radif Suite. Inspired by a goddess of both love and warfare, the album poetically explores the ideas of dichotomy and cultural tradition. ElSaffar's research has provided him with a deep cultural and historical understanding, even if his band mates haven't immersed themselves so thoroughly. For ElSaffar, the input of his fellow musicians is more about their own personalities rather than scholarly knowledge.

"It's funny, we'd been playing this music for a few years and Nasheet had at one point down the road asked me 'So, what is a maqam, anyway?' I actually felt bad; I probably should have explained it better. I probably discussed it more with Rudresh and Carlo because they had to get the melodic aspect of it. It's pretty much on a need-to-know basis. I don't feel the need to explain the cultural context too much because sometimes people feel weird when they're involved with music that they don't feel they're a part of and because they're self-conscious, they might get a bit off center. So I'd rather everybody feel like they're playing their own thing. It'll happen with horn players too; I'll teach them the maqam and after one or two rehearsals, they'll try to sound authentic but it's not going to happen in two days. I want them to use the material but still bring themselves. The notes and the rhythms are just the DNA or the code; it's what you do with it that makes it unique"

ElSaffar did impart one piece of cultural history, though. "I explained the story of 'Blood and Ink,' which is on the first album. It was about the massacre of Baghdad in 1258 and what that story meant. There are two rhythms that are going on, one being a march and one a folk dance, which represents a festival I had observed for the mourning of the grandsons of Mohammad. It was striking to hear these rhythms with two different purposes on the same pulse and this was also only a few days before the invasion of Iraq, so it felt very relevant"

ElSaffar feels that the modern jazz world (and the music world as a whole) is ready for the inclusion of the maqam system and the freedom of pitch. Jazz has had a few examples of musicians approaching intonation in a non-traditional approach, ranging from Jackie McLean
Jackie McLean
Jackie McLean
1932 - 2006
sax, alto
preference for playing slightly sharp to Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
Ornette Coleman
b.1930
sax, alto
's musings on landing on a note differently every time it's played. But ElSaffar contends that there's much more that can be explored. "For as much as has been talked about freedom of intonation in jazz, there hasn't really been a firm, codified approach to it. We're still using equal temperament for the most part. Someone like David Fiuczynski
David Fiuczynski
David Fiuczynski
b.1964
guitar
has delved into microtonal music but there hasn't really been consciously explored that's not just bending a note here or there.


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