Can two distinct sounds blend into something new?
When Iraqi heritage meets American jazz you get something “hypnotic and utterly unique.” (TimeOut Chicago) Hamid Al-Saadi is a master of the centuries-old tradition of Iraqi maqam, a system of melodic modes in traditional Arabic instrumental and vocal music. He is the only living performer who has mastered all of the compositions of the maqam repertoire. Due to its intricate details, variations, and highly demanding vocal techniques, very few performers master the entire repertoire.
Amir ElSaffar, an Iraqi-American trumpeter, santur player, vocalist, and composer, has distinguished himself with a mastery of disparate musical styles and a singular approach to combining aspects of Middle Eastern music with American jazz, extending the boundaries of each tradition. In 2002, he put his New York jazz career on hold to immerse himself in the music of his father’s ancestral past, the Iraqi maqam, and has made innovative strides in creating a language that reconciles and combines the aesthetics and techniques of jazz and Middle Eastern music. Two Rivers was commissioned by Vijay Iyer, Cecil Taylor, and Daniel Barenboim as a suite that invokes Iraqi musical traditions framed in a modern jazz setting. The resultant sound is new and fresh, differing considerably from other contemporary cross-cultural musical fusions.
This double-bill performance brings together the traditional and the ever-evolving. As Yo-Yo Ma says, “If we want to preserve a tradition, the best way to preserve it is to let it evolve.”
Program Book [PDF]
Amir ElSaffar website
Hamid al-Saadi is currently one of the leading singers of the Iraqi maqam, and the only living performer who has mastered all of the compositions of the maqam repertoire. The centuries-old maqam tradition is unique to Iraq, and is considered one of the most perfected forms of modal music in the Arab world. Due to its intricate details, variations, and highly demanding vocal techniques, very few performers master the entire repertoire.
At a young age, Hamid, memorized all of the maqam compositions as they were passed down from masters before him and sang them with ease and mastery. Throughout the 1980s and ‘90s, he was a highly in-demand singer, performing regularly in Baghdad’s maqam venues and private parties, as well as the weekly television program, Sahra Ma’a Al-Maqam Al-‘Iraqi (An Evening with the Iraqi Maqam). He also taught at Beit Al-Maqam (House of Maqam) for seven years, influencing many singers in the younger generation.
Muhammad Al-Gubbenchi (1900-1989), who was unquestionably the most influential Iraqi maqam singer in the 20th century, described Al-Saa’di as the “best link in the continuity of the art of the Iraqi maqam over the ages,” and Yusuf Omar (1918-1987), who was Al-Gubbenchi’s best student and himself a very important singer, named Al-Saa’di as his successor.
Hamid lived in London from 1999 until 2004, where he performed on a semi-regular basis, taught private lessons, and gave lectures at SOAS, Kingston University, and the Kufa Gallery. He has performed throughout Europe, as well as in Tunisia, Amman, and Beirut. Al-Saa’di’s 2005 book, Al-Maqam wa Buhoor al-Angham, gives detailed explanations of the Iraqi Maqams and is an invaluable resource to the maqam student. After spending the past several years in Iraq, Hamid has moved to Amman, Jordan, where there is a quickly growing scene of Iraqi musicians and artists. Here, he has found more opportunities to perform in secular and religious settings, and to develop his art with other maqam musicians.
UMS welcomes Hamid al-Saadi for this UMS debut performance.
Winner of the 2001 Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet competition, Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar put his New York career on hold in 2002 to immerse himself in the music of his father’s ancestral past, the Iraqi maqam. Traveling throughout the Middle East and Europe to study with masters of the centuries-old oral traditional form, Mr. ElSaffar mastered maqam and learned to sing and play the santoor (Iraqi hammered dulcimer). Mr. ElSaffar now leads his own own group, Safaafir, the only American group performing Iraqi maqam. He has created new techniques that enable microtones and ornaments not typically heard from the trumpet but which are characteristic of Arabic music. Mr. ElSaffar has collaborated with an array of artists, including Rudresh Mahanthappa, Vijay Iyer, Cecil Taylor, and Daniel Barenboim, and was commissioned to compose Two Rivers, a suite that invokes Iraqi musical traditions framed in a modern jazz setting. The recorded version of Two Rivers (Pi Recordings) was released in 2007, and was performed with a 17-piece ensemble at the 2008 Made In Chicago Festival and at New York’s Lincoln Center Out of Doors Festival in 2009. Mr. ElSaffar has also composed for theater projects and film soundtracks, and appeared in Jonathan Demme’s film Rachel Getting Married.
Amir ElSaffar made his UMS debut in April, 2010, performing alongside with Danilo Perez.