Musical Performance: NYC Jazz Meets Maqam Festival: Two Rivers

Sat, May 24, 2008 9:00 pm at Alwan for the Arts

(View all musical performances »)

$15 ($10 Students with valid ID)

House opens 8:30PM


Amir ElSaffar (Trumpet and Santoor)
Sam Newsome (Saxophone)
Tyshawn Sorey (Drums)
Carlo DeRosa (Bass)
Zafir Tawil (Oud, Violin and Dumbek)

Amir ElSaffar--Two Rivers
Described by BBC World as "harrowing to absorb; full of as much beauty as pain," Amir ElSaffar's Two Rivers suite is a highly emotional work that combines elements of jazz and Arabic music. Using Iraqi maqam melodies and rhythms as the musical heart of the suite's 12 compositions, and drawing on Iraq's glorious yet tragic history for inspiration, ElSaffar moves seamlessly between seemingly disparate musical worlds.

Two Rivers explores the underlying structures and sentiments that are common to both traditions. Backbeat grooves merge with Iraqi meters as the gasping sigh of the survivors of a long-ago sacking of Baghdad emerges from a free-jazz wail. The sounds of Baghdad's maqam—an age-old canon of melodies, poems, and rhythms that has reverberated throughout Iraqi life—flow together with blues microtones, blurring the line between composition and improvisation, in the fertile, fraught place where the Tigris meets the Euphrates in the heart of Iraq.

For this demanding project, ElSaffar—an Iraqi-American raised in Chicago and living in New York—has brought together five musicians fluent in both jazz and other, non-Western musical idioms: Sam Newsome (saxophone), Tyshawn Sorey (drums), Carlo DeRosa (bass), and Zaafir Tawil (oud, violin and dumbek), while himself contributing trumpet, santoor (Iraqi hammered dulcimer), and vocals.

The tensions between Arabic and American, past and present, freedom and structure are some of the many streams that flow through ElSaffar's Two Rivers. These themes can be felt powerfully on pieces like "Blood and Ink," which reflects upon the 13th-century destruction of Baghdad by Genghis Khan's grandson, Hulago. The memory of this ancient catastrophe still echoes in the maqam ElSaffar uses to close the piece and has particular resonance with today's Iraq.

For ElSaffar, however, the suite is about more than the heart wrenching juxtaposition of creation and destruction, of war laying waste to the Fertile Crescent. It digs into his own personal history, and the difficult history of his two homelands. As he puts it, "Two Rivers flows from the two streams of blood—Iraqi and American—that run through my body. It is the struggle for existence, the illusion of otherness, and finding balance: between separateness and unity, unity and diversity, self and other, borders and openness, chaos and order, harmony and dissonance, equal and non-tempered scales, 'jazz' and maqam. It is the music of this land…all in one stream."

Praise for Two Rivers:
"Amir ElSaffar...demonstrated with his sextet (including an oud and a santoor, the [Iraqi] hammered dulcimer) how hungry jazz still is for sources older than itself."
~New York Times

"fresh, deep, intensely performed organic amalgam"

"a stirring example of the creative possibilities of international jazz in the 21st century,"
~All About Jazz

Last updated: 2008-05-20 22:15:31

Amir ElSaffer
Amir ElSaffer

Alwan for the Arts

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