Musical Performance: Safaafir - A Night of Iraqi Maqam

Sat, May 29, 2010 9:00 pm at Alwan for the Arts

(View all musical performances »)


Amir ElSaffar
- Santoor and Vocals
Dena ElSaffar - Jowza and Vocals

and featuring

Zafer Tawil - Oud, Violin
Johnny Farraj - Riqq

Safaafir returns to Alwan for the first time in four years, presenting its thoughtful, inspired rendition of the rich Iraqi maqam tradition.

Tickets: $15, available at the door or online here. (A surcharge applies; use printout as your ticket).

Doors open at 8:30 p.m.

About the Music

Click to listen to Safaafir in Maqams of Baghdad

Inscribed by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the Maqam is the classical vocal tradition of Iraq, and one of the most refined maqam traditions in the Arab and Muslim world. The use of the word "maqam" in Iraq is distinct from its use in neighboring lands, where the term refers to a musical mode on which compositions and improvisations are based. In Iraq, "maqam" refers to the actual compositions, which are highly structured, semi-improvised melodic recitations of Classical Arabic and colloquial Iraqi poetry, that are followed by light-hearted, rhythmic songs, known as pestaat.

Typically, the maqam is performed by a singer ("qari’), who is accompanied by an ensemble, known as the Chalghi, which consists of the santour (96-string hammered dulcimer), jowza (bowed spike fiddle), riqq (tambourine), and dumbek (goblet drum). Found primarily in the cities of Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk, and Basra, the maqam repertoire draws upon musical styles of the many populations in Iraq, such as the Bedouins, rural Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen as well as neighboring Persians, Turks, and other populations that have had extensive contact with Iraq throughout history. Until the 20th century, the maqam was ubiquitous in the urban centers of modern-day Iraq, its melodies heard in various settings, religious and secular. Today, there are very few keeping this musical tradition alive.

Safaafir is the only Chalghi ensemble in the US that is actively performing the maqam, and has performed extensively around the US at Iraqi gatherings as well as for American and Arab audiences. For this performance at Alwan, Safaafir will focus on the urban maqam, as well as some of the folk and rural songs found throughout the rest of the country.


Amir ElSaffar

Amir ElSaffar put his career as a jazz trumpeter on hold in 2002 to travel to Iraq and explore the music of his ancestry, the Iraqi maqam. ElSaffar, who was born in the US in 1977 to an Iraqi father and an American mother, was already an accomplished trumpeter, having performed with many esteemed jazz and classical artists and winning several international competitions. He spent several years traveling in Iraq, throughout the Middle East and in Europe, where he encountered masters of the Iraqi maqam, such as Hamid al-Saadi, Baher al-Rajab, and Farida Mohammed Ali and her ensemble, as well as masters of various other Arabic musical styles. From these teachers, Amir learned to sing the maqam and to play the santoor, a 96-string hammered-dulcimer that is native to Iraq, and quickly mastered a significant portion of the maqam repertoire. In 2005, Amir joined forces with his sister, Dena El Saffar, and her husband, Tim Moore, and formed Safaafir, the only ensemble in the US that performs the maqam in its traditional format. Hamid al-Saadi, Amir's teacher, who is one of the leading maqam singers in Iraq, regards Amir as one of the important carriers of this tradition in his generation, and has said "Amir is a great addition to the maqam…he is preserving the true essence of this music."

Dena El Saffar

Dena El Saffar, of Iraqi and American heritage, was exposed to Arabic music in the suburbs of Chicago , where she grew up attending Iraqi gatherings with her family. She began learning the violin at the age of six. At age 17, completely engaged in classical music, she accompanied her father to Baghdad and became enchanted by the music of Iraq and the Middle East. In 1993, while obtaining a classical music degree from Indiana University , she founded the group Salaam, a Middle Eastern music ensemble which has performed throughout the United States. She has studied with Hamid Al-Saadi, Munis Sharifov, Mohammed Gomar and Anwar Abudragh, and has performed with the Master Musicians of Jajouka and Youssou N'dour. Dena, who plays the viola, violin, joza and kemanche, has also performed with Central Eurasian ensembles, salsa groups, bluegrass, blues and rock bands. She is the older sister of Amir, is married to percussionist Tim Moore, and is the mother of two: Jamil and Layla.

Last updated: 2010-05-18 18:12:09


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