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Amir ElSaffar: Two Rivers

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This exploration of Iraqi, American and Arab sensibilities, rooted in the lands and cultures bordering the Tigris and Euphrates rivers—the two flowing sources of the CD's title—is deeply affecting, musically adventurous and provocative.

American-born ElSaffar, a talented New York-based trumpeter/composer, ventured to Iraq six years ago to study the music of his father's country of heritage. He returned to the US with a working knowledge of its centuries-old musical Maqam tradition, rich in emotional and storytelling content as well as unusual technical structures. With the war in Iraq and tensions between American and Arab cultures, it seems the right time for a musical project that aims to cross boundaries and give insight into the historical and current experiences of the Iraqi people.

There is much to hear. Maqam music takes many forms and ElSaffar has done a masterful job incorporating his studies in Iraq and growing up as the son of divergent cultures—American and Iraqi, East and West, ancient and modern—into the Western musical legacy of jazz that he knows so well.

ElSaffar plays the stringed santoor, trumpet and does vocals. He's joined in his journey by exceptional allies, themselves the progeny of diverse cultures and personal and musical legacies: Rudresh Mahanthappa (alto saxophone), Zafer Tawil (violin, oud and dumbek), Tareq Abboushi (buzuk and frame drum), Carlo DeRosa (bass) and drummer Nasheet Waits.

"Flood," marked by tension between bass line and trumpet melody, delves into the creative and destructive capabilities of these "two rivers," which flood annually and "both nurtured and destroyed the world's first cities (as ElSaffar explains in his useful liner notes). The blistering "Blood and Ink memorializes the ransacking of Baghdad in 1258, ending its golden age.

Other compositions have more to relate but let this evocative music, swinging between harmony and dissonance and streaming through unfamiliar tributaries of sound, speak (and sing) for itself.

Track Listing: Menba

Personnel: Amir ElSaffar: santoor, vocals, trumpet; Rudresh Mahanthappa: alto saxophone; Zafer Tawil: violin, oud, dumbek; Tareq Abboushi: buzuk, frame drum; Carlo DeRosa: bass; Nasheet Waits: drums.

Title: Two Rivers | Year Released: 2008 | Record Label: Pi Recordings

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