Trumpet player, santur player, composer and singer Amir ElSaffar has been creating a unique combination of jazz and traditional Iraqui maqam with his band, Two Rivers, for over ten years. While ElSaffar has played at The Jazz Gallery several times over the years, Two Rivers will make their Gallery debut on Thursday, with Ole Mathisen (tenor saxophone), Tareq Abboushi (buzuq), Zafer Tawil (oud), Carlo DeRosa (bass), and Tomas Fujiwara (drums). We spoke with ElSaffar about maqam, jazz, and his experiences playing music in and of the Middle East; here are excerpts from that conversation.
The Jazz Gallery: How would you describe your musical background?
Amir ElSaffar: There’s a lot to that question. My main training as a trumpet player was in classical music and in jazz music; I was playing both simultaneously throughout my teens, and I studied classical trumpet in school and played in the Civic Orchestra in Chicago, which was a great training orchestra for the Chicago Symphony. I was very much also interested in improvisation and jazz, and blues, and rhythm and blues, and I played in many different bands in Chicago, my hometown coming from different styles. Basically any situation that the trumpet could be a part of, I was playing in.
Then I moved to New York, and I started to specialize more in finding my own voice, and my own way of jazz improvisation. Eventually that led me to Arabic music, and to maqam music, and then I went to Iraq in 2002 and spent most of that year learning a tradition called the maqam. Just before the war started, I left Iraq and traveled all over the Middle East and Europe, studying with different teachers, learning Iraqi music and Arabic music in general, understanding the modal music of the Middle East. After another five or six years I started to come up with ways of combining jazz and maqam and different musical languages.
TJG: What about jazz and maqam made you feel that they worked together?
AE: I was commissioned to write something, and I wasn’t really sure that they made sense together at the beginning. It felt like two very different words, and I had to find the link between the two. Once I started writing, it began to make sense, and I started to understand how these two musical systems are actually very much related, and coming from one root, one source. I started to later understand Coltrane’s music in terms of, not that he was consciously drawing on maqam music, but there is a sensibility that’s common. Some of Miles’s music as well, his modal music. Duke Ellington was drawing on Middle Eastern influences, Don Cherry, Dave Brubeck, of course, there’s a lot of examples in jazz history, and kind of a fascination and a connection with music of the Middle East. But I think I went a step deeper, in terms of really understanding what Middle Eastern music was about, and then finding ways of combining. I should say deeper on the Middle Eastern side, not necessarily deeper on the jazz side, but yeah.
TJG: How do you see the two as informing each other?
AE: Well, the tonal system of maqam music is based on the Greek modes, which are in fact Babylonian in origin, and it’s the same source, they both draw on the same melodic source; Western music and Western harmony kind of stems from this, and if you go further back, there’s sort of a pentatonic basis that you find in music from Africa as well as east Asia and southeast Asia. So that’s one aspect of it, but there’s also the fact that many of the African slaves that came to the Americas were Muslim. The documentation of musical practices of the slaves, there weren’t many people who were writing down what was going on or documenting activities, but historians are starting to piece it together, ethnomusicologists and anthropologists. It’s now understood that there was a call to prayer, for instance, and there were people reciting Qu’ran, people coming from Africa. So one can surmise that there was maqam, because maqam melodies and these modes are very compatible for Qu’ranic recitation, for call to prayer and other Islamic rituals. So there may have been an historic precedent. Also the instruments that slaves brought and eventually became part of American culture, like the banjo, the tambourine, and other percussion and even string instruments, similar to the violin, also have a basis or connection to the Middle East.