Musical Performance: Safaafir Presents Iraqi Maqam

Sun, October 14, 2012 5:00 pm at Alwan for the Arts

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Safaafir presents thoughtful, inspired renditions of the centuries-old Iraqi maqam tradition.

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.

Amir ElSaffar - Santour, Trumpet and VocalsDena ElSaffar - Jowza, Violin and VocalsTim Moore - Percussion and VocalsLety ElNaggar - Nay
Tickets: $20 General (*buy now) | $15 for Students, Members and Seniors (*buy now) available at the door or online.

(*A small online fee is applied - use printout as your ticket)Doors open at 4:30pm

About the Ensemble
Safaafir 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. They discovered Arabic and Iraqi music independently of one another, but in 2005 formed a maqam trio along with Dena's husband, Tim Moore.The three named the group Safaafir, meaning coppersmiths, in homage to Amir and Dena's ancestry and namesake (Saffar=coppersmith). For the past seven years, the group has performed actively for Iraqi, Arab and American audiences across the US and internationally.Safaafir is the only US-based ensemble dedicated to performing the maqam.
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.

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.

Check out this profile about Safaafir from Present Music.

And the feature story on Al-Jazeera.
For more information, please visit or
About the Musicians
Amir ElSaffarAmir 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 SaffarDena 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 MooreTim began playing drums at the age of 12. A natural percussionist, he gained 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.

Lety ElNaggar, of Mexican and Egyptian descent, has studied Jazz and Classical music on the saxophone, clarinet, and flute. She became interested in music from other parts of the globe upon moving to New York City to attend Columbia University, where she was afforded the opportunity to study Arab music in-depth through the Kluge Independent Research Fellowship. Among other projects, she has performed and toured with Afro-Colombian alternative rock band M.A.K.U. Soundsystem, multidisciplinary project Bella Gaia, Lebanese group Sukoon, and Middle Eastern ensemble Salaam. She continues to study various musical traditions from the Arab world and was recently awarded the Fulbright grant to study nay performance within the contexts of classical Arab and folkloric music in Egypt. She plans to continue incorporating her studies into composition of jazz and crossover music genres, which she currently performs on nay and soprano saxophone with her group Green Stop Start.

Alwan's music program is made possible, in part, with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in Partnership with the City Council.

Last updated: 2012-10-02 22:50:52

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