Musical Performance: Safaafir Presents: Iraqi Maqam

Fri, July 1, 2011 8:00 pm at Alwan for the Arts

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Safaafir makes its first time New York City appearance in over a year, presenting its thoughtful, inspired rendition of the centuries-old Iraqi maqam tradition.
Iraqi maqam ensemble
Amir ElSaffar - Santour, Trumpet and Vocals
Dena ElSaffar - Jowza, Violin and Vocals
Tim Moore - Percussion and Vocals
Zafer Tawil - Oud and Percussion
Carlo DeRosa - Bass

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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 of the many maqam traditions found throughout the Arab and Muslim world. In Iraq, the term maqam refers to highly-structured, semi-improvised, compositions that take years of disciplined study under a master to learn fully. Often rhythmically free and meditative, they are sung to Classical Arabic and colloquial Iraqi poetry, and are followed by light-hearted, rhythmic songs, known as pestaat.

The age of the maqam tradition is unkown, but it in its highly complex system of melodies, rhythms, and poetry can be found aspects of Iraq's history, the sentiments of its people, and the richness of its culture. Until recently, singers, musicians, connoisseurs, and enthusiasts congregated nightly in coffeehouses and salons throughout Baghdad, Mousil, and Kirkuk for maqam performances that often lasted up to nine hours. Knowledge of the maqam was commonplace among Iraqis of all socioeconomic, religious, and ethnic backgrounds. Sadly, as a result of the increasingly difficult conditions in Iraq over the past half century, the state of the maqam has declined to the point that there are very few public performances today in Iraq. However, the maqam is now experiencing renewed interest among Iraqis living in and outside of Iraq's borders.

Safaafir is the only US-based ensemble dedicated to performing the maqam. The group is led by two American-born siblings of Iraqi descent, Dena and Amir ElSaffar, both of whom have backgrounds in western music but eventually found their way into Iraqi music. Dena holds a degree in classical viola performance from Indiana University and Amir is a jazz trumpeter and composer based in New York City, who has a degree in trumpet performance from DePaul University in Chicago. Dena and Amir discovered Arabic and Iraqi music independently of one another, and it wasn't until 2005, at the suggestion of Dena's husband, percussionist Tim Moore, that the three decided to form a maqam trio. Prior to that, Dena and Tim had been been playing together in Salaam, an Arab/Middle Eastern ensemble founded by Dena in 1992 that continues to perform actively today. The three named the group Safaafir, meaning coppersmiths, in homage to Amir and Dena's ancestry and namesake (Saffar=coppersmith). For the past five years, the group has performed actively for Iraqi, Arab and American audiences across the US and internationally.

In addition to presenting the maqam in its traditional format, Safaafir incorporates jazz, classical and other middle eastern styles to create a highly unique and personalized sound. For this debut performance at Alwan for the Arts, they are joined by renowned bassist Carlo DeRosa, and master oudist/percussionist Zafer Tawil.

Check out this profile about Safaafir from Present Music.

And the feature story on Al-Jazeera.

For more information, please visit or

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 santour, 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. He has traveled and performed extensively with this group including to an international competition in Azerbaijan, where he was studying the mugham tradition, parallel to the maqam, for three months with various masters including Alim Qasimov on a Jerome Foundation grant. 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." In addition to his work with the traditionalmaqam, Amir is a jazz trumpeter and composer who has garnered international attention for his work incorporating aspects of the maqam and other Arab and Middle Eastern styles in a jazz context.

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.

Tim Moore
Tim grew up in the Midwest , and began playing drums at the age of 12. A natural percussionist, he began performing with different groups early on, gaining experience in a variety of genres including jazz, blues, salsa and rock. After earning a computer science degree from Indiana University in 1989, he worked on the East and West Coasts as a computer programmer, but in 1993 he left that world in order to devote himself to music. In his quest to become a better, even more diverse musician, he began learning rhythms and instruments from around the world, eventually bringing his focus to Middle Eastern percussion. He has studied Iraqi-style percussion with Wessam Ayoub, Sattar al Saadi and Lateef al 'Abeedi. Tim plays the dumbek, riqq, naqqarat and bendir, tabl and zanbur as well as drum set and guitar.

Zafer Tawil
An accomplished Palestinian musician based in New York City. He is a virtuoso on oud, violin, qanun, and is a master of Arabic percussion. He has performed with numerous musicians ranging from pop star Sting to Arab music virtuosos such as Simone Shaheen, Chab Mami, Bassam Saba, and George Ziadeh; to avant-garde composer/performer Elliot Sharpe, among many others. Zafer has also composed music for a number of films, and has held workshops on Arabic Music at many universities in the US.

Carlo De Rosa
Since moving to New York City Carlo De Rosa has had the opportunity to work with many great artists in the Jazz and Latin World. This has led to diverse musical and cultural experiences and has allowed Carlo to work with a wide variety of artists such as Ray Barretto, Ravi Coltrane, Dave Valentin, John Faddis, Yo-Yo Ma, Jack DeJohnette, Hilton Ruiz, Steve Turre, Bruce Barth, John Scofield, The Chico O’Farrill Afro-Cuban Jazz Orchestra, William Cepeda, Bobby Watson, Ed Thigpen, Nick Brignola, Mickey Roker, Warren Bernhardt, Candido Camero, Miguel Zenon, Jason Moran, Jean Toussaint, Papo Vasquez and the NYC Ballet.

Last updated: 2011-06-25 02:46:39


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