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.
TJG: How do you incorporate the microtonal aspects of Arabic scales into the Two Rivers pieces?
AE: I basically am following the way that microtones are used in maqam music. The melodies are very much coming from a maqam sensibility for this particular project, but the rhythms are sometimes coming from Middle Eastern rhythms, but combining rhythm from the Middle East with a jazz rhythmic sensibility. That can mean a lot of different things, but there’s a sense of freedom on the rhythmic plain that comes more from contemporary jazz practices. And then how to make these melodies into chords is the next step; that’s something that I’ve been discovering on my own that I don’t really think had much of a precedent, but I found some really great combinations of tones coming from maqam that work beautifully as harmonic structures. Melodically speaking it’s not traditional, but it’s of that language, of the Middle East, and the context starts to change.
TJG: Could you talk about names? The ensemble is called Two Rivers, and the latest CD is called Crisis—where do those names come from?
AE: Two Rivers, I started this group more than ten years ago, early 2006. The idea behind it was the combination of jazz and maqam, the merging of cultural code and cultural practices of the Middle East and America. It was a particularly powerful idea at the time, because America and Iraq have been at war for most of my life, and between sanctions and between 1990 and 2003 invasions, there’s been a contentious relationship between these countries, and it’s mostly played out through violence, militarily. I was interested in creating an alternate narrative for how these cultures can coexist and create something beautiful, where one informs the other and completes the other, and they kind of become something; both the American and the Iraqi, Middle Eastern sides benefit from the influence of the other. I think that that’s a more interesting model for music, but also for humanity. So that was how Two Rivers started, and it was right at one of the heights of violence in Iraq in 2006, when it was a full-blown civil war, and the American invasions were causing a lot of problems in Iraq.
The other, more personal side of it, was Two Rivers is a bit autobiographical in describing my own mix, in having an Iraqi father and an American mother, and trying to understand that existence. I write about it on the first Two Rivers album; two streams of blood, on a very visceral level, having to do with the cultural merging.
Crisis was more about the contemporary situation of not only Iraq but the Middle East in general and even what we’re seeing happening in Europe, economically—I feel like we’re in uncharted territory and we’re facing the result of hundreds and hundreds of years of oppression, and colonialism, and imperialism, and slavery. And it’s playing out more and more, it’s been heightened in the last few years. The last week or two has been particularly pronounced. At the time, when I wrote the music in 2013, I had been living in Egypt and was witnessing this unraveling of Egyptian society, through the two revolutions. And I was living in Lebanon, and working with musicians from there who had lived through civil war, and with musicians in Syria who were dealing with a horrible civil war there too. It just seemed like this turmoil that was building. Whenever I look at all these situations I don’t know what to say, what’s the answer or the right solution. The only thing I can really do is turn to the music and create something that is at least a reflection, if not some kind of response to a situation.
TJG: How would you describe your compositional process?
AE: It’s different every time. Sometimes I’m playing the santur and I come up with a groove and the melody emerges from there; sometimes I’m on the trumpet and I start with a melody. Sometimes I’m just feeling a very strong emotion, and I don’t have a direct way to express except through the music. Sometimes I’m up against a deadline, and I have to finish a piece in two hours because the band is going to start rehearsing, and so I’m sitting in front of the computer putting notes together in notation software, or writing furiously on a piece of paper without an instrument, because I hear it all in my head. The most difficult thing is that I hear the entire thing in my head, and the idea is there, and it’s very strong, and how to capture it and put it down on paper. I feel like I’m catching a wild animal sometimes, [laughs]. It’s difficult, and the ideas are often effervescent; they come and they float away very quickly if you don’t catch them right away. And sometimes it feels like they don’t quite want to be caught, because I’ll try to catch the idea, and I’ll write it down and it’s not exactly what I was hearing in the first place. There’s this sort of transient nature; the inspiration is no problem, but turning that inspiration into something that looks like a composition, that can be played and taught and arranged.
TJG: With Two Rivers you also sing, and there’s this poetry component; could you talk about that a little bit?
AE: Yeah. I’m often using texts from traditional maqam poetry, but I try to pick a poem that reflects the emotional content of what we’re doing. For instance, the opening of Crisis, the first piece is about having had this beautiful time, it could be with a lover or just a life, a beautiful lifetime, that has been erased and almost forgotten. It’s about the singing dove, who’s singing these beautiful melodies; you get the sense of sunshine and this garden. The next line is “time gave us its beautiful gifts, and then time took away that which it gave us.” There’s this sense of something beautiful that has been lost, and that’s to me what Iraq is, was—I had a little taste of it, and experienced the sweetness, the interactions between people, the familial relationships, the little gestures of kindness and etiquette; the simple things that one doesn’t even think about. You go to the barbershop, and he’ll refuse to take money from you, and you insist and he refuses again. There’s some kind of code. And the musical situations that used to happen in Iraq were phenomenal and extraordinary. Today people are in survival mode, they’re afraid of their neighbors, afraid of who’s a terrorist, who’s cooperating with whom. Society is unraveled, and it’s very quickly turned into something much more basic, about survival. You still meet these people, but they’re usually in an older generation, they’ve lived through a better time. The young generation has only seen sanctions, and hunger, and starvation, and poverty, and war, and violence.
TJG: What led you to start singing?
AE: When I went to start learning maqam music in 2002, I started on the trumpet, and I was really insistent on trying to make the trumpet work in Arabic music, which is a goal I’m still pursuing. [Laughs] At the time, it was a little bit naive of me, and I took a few steps back and said, maybe it’s possible, but if it is possible I have to understand the music on its own terms first. So I started learning to sing, because the basis of all this music is vocal. I really wanted to get into the feeling of the melody in the voice: in the body, in the breath, in the bone, the way my bones resonate to the sound. I wanted it to be completely internalized; I wanted to become one with the sound and really be inside of it, and maybe the sound becomes something bigger than me. That was my goal, to lose myself inside of the sound.
Amir ElSaffar and Two Rivers Ensemble plays at The Jazz Gallery Thursday, July 14th, 2016. The group features Amir El Saffar on trumpet, Ole Mathisen on tenor saxophone Tareq Abboushi on buzuq (long-necked lute), Zafer Tawil on oud, Carlo DeRosa on bass, and Tomas Fujiwara on drums. Sets are 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 admission ($12 for members) for each set. FREE for SummerPass holders. Purchase tickets here.