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A Bridge to Iraq

Amir ElSaffar forges a singular fusion of jazz and Iraqi classical music—and reconciles his roots in the process.

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Amir ElSaffar didn't want to leave Baghdad when the war started. The Oak Park native, a jazz trumpeter who was 25 in 2002, had been there studying the urban classical music maqam, but he was getting more than just a musical education. "When I got there, it was like, 'This is home. This is where I want to be.' When I think of those first couple of months it's like when you first fall in love with somebody. Everything is rosy. It was good the way it felt. The thought of ever leaving it or going away was kind of unbearable for me."

But ultimately he didn't have a choice. "I had New Year's at the Jordanian border," he says. "No champagne." With the threat of an American invasion intensifying every day, ElSaffar started running into problems. One of his teachers began canceling lessons; ElSaffar surmises he was afraid to be associated with him. "A half-Iraqi, half-American in Iraq months before this big invasion's going to happen, and I'm studying music? It's not a very plausible story."

He watched the occupation unfold from Jordan and then Syria. "It was a real kind of identity crisis," he says. "When I would say I was Iraqi, people would kiss me, they wouldn't take cab fare from me, and my Arabic was good enough that I could sort of fake it. They were so nice. As soon as I mentioned America, it was like, 'Oh, screw America!' Also, inside of me, I was feeling so much more connected to Iraq at that time."

Eventually he was overwhelmed by trying to navigate the political and cultural tension. "I started to break down. There were two weeks where I couldn't eat anything. I would eat lentil soup and I would throw up. I didn't have any friends or anyone to talk to. I was trying to talk to my teachers [in Syria] and they were like, 'Aren't you American anyway? What's your problem?'"

By the time ElSaffar returned to the U.S. in the fall of 2003 he wasn't feeling particularly patriotic, and musically his blossoming love for maqam was overtaking his longtime interest in jazz. In most Middle Eastern traditions maqam is a set of musical modes, a kind of tuning system, in which compositions are written, but in Iraq maqam is the song itself—a loose melodic and structural kernel performers use as a basis for improvisation. When the Painted Bride Art Center in Philadelphia asked him in 2005 to write a piece combining jazz and maqam, he only accepted because the money was good. "I wasn't really into it," he says. "For a long time I was struggling, and then I was like, 'OK, I'm going to do sets—the first will be maqam and the second set will be jazz.' But it started to come together."

The result, a suite he titled Two Rivers, set him on a new path. (A dazzling recording of the work was released last fall on Pi Recordings.) Two Rivers has established him as a singular artist, fusing two disparate traditions with striking sophistication. Thursday, August 7, he presents the Chicago premiere of the piece in Millennium Park with a lineup that expands his working sextet with nine local musicians.

As a kid ElSaffar felt no particular pull toward traditional Iraqi music. His father was a retired physicist who met his mother, an army brat born in New York, on a ship from the UK to the U.S. in 1964. In 1967, after the Six Day War, the couple moved with their first child, Ali, from Baghdad to the Chicago area. As a kid ElSaffar enjoyed rock and blues, and though he started learning the trumpet at school when he was nine, he was ambivalent about the instrument, preferring to teach himself guitar. "I didn't know much about jazz," ElSaffar says, "and the trumpet wasn't very interesting to me because of the context in public school. It's no wonder so many kids quit. They show up and there's this disinterested band instructor playing very hokey music."

When he was in eighth grade he heard Haydn's Trumpet Concerto and was intrigued. His mother approached an instructor at the school, a violist, who gave him some private lessons; ElSaffar learned the concerto's first movement, but he didn't find the music compelling enough to want to stick with it.

ElSaffar was 13 when he read that Jimi Hendrix was influenced by Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, and not long afterward he found the album in his mother's slim music collection. "It was the first time the trumpet was really cool," he says. He threw himself into the music, attending several jazz summer camps during high school and eventually enrolling in the music program at DePaul, where he studied both classical music and jazz. In 1997 he joined the Chicago Civic Orchestra, spending many nights gigging around town with bandleaders like legendary swing drummer Barrett Deems. He graduated from DePaul in 1999.

Although he'd started listening to music from Iraq, it didn't fit into his plans as a musician. In 1990 his sister Dena had traveled to Iraq with their father, and ElSaffar says it was a life-changing experience for her. "She came back and started learning to play Arabic music, wanting to learn the language," he says. She eventually studied ethnomusicology at the University of Indiana and started her own Arabic group, Salaam. ElSaffar took his own trip to Iraq with his father when he was a teenager, and in college he occasionally listened to maqam, but he didn't think about performing it himself, mainly because the trumpet can't play the quarter tones that are such an integral part of the music. But then Dena played him some music by the Egyptian trumpeter Samy El Bably, and he heard that it was possible to adapt the instrument to the demands of Arabic scales.

Through Cliff Colnot, the conductor of the Civic Orchestra of Chicago and a professor at DePaul, ElSaffar was asked to play on a Duke Ellington tribute recording by Daniel Barenboim, and that led to an invitation, the summer after he graduated, to participate in the West-Eastern Divan Workshop—an annual event started by Barenboim and Edward Said that brings together Jewish and Arabic musicians. While in Germany for the workshop ElSaffar met a number of Egyptian musicians who encouraged him to visit Cairo, so he detoured there and ended up meeting El Bably.

Back in the States ElSaffar continued to play some classical gigs, but he'd decided to focus on jazz, and in early 2000 he moved to New York. Eventually a workshop with Cecil Taylor led to a series of gigs with the pianist, and in 2001 he won the Carmine Caruso International Jazz Trumpet Solo Competition, a prestigious award for young players. He put the $10,000 prize toward a rigorous study of maqam in the Middle East and Europe, arriving in Baghdad in March 2002, a year before the invasion.

ElSaffar spent several months trying to learn maqam on the trumpet before deciding to start from the ground up with the santoor, a hammer dulcimer. A few months later he traveled to Jordan, then continued his study of maqam in Syria, Germany, and England. "Informationwise, in terms of really learning the repertoire, it was mostly in England," he says. "But if I had just gone to England without being in Iraq I wouldn't have known [how] to relate to the music. It was like soaking in the culture."

ElSaffar found himself at a crossroads after he returned to New York at the end of 2003. "I had never intended to perform Iraqi maqam in its really true state because I didn't think I would be capable of it," he says. But an Arabic instructor and an Arabic musician convinced him he'd mastered the language, so when he was approached that winter about a gig at an Arabic cultural center he accepted.

"It was an incredible experience. I never sang in public except when I had a rock band as a kid, and it was like being high. It's such a direct connection with the audience when you sing, as opposed to when you play the trumpet or any other instrument, because then it's like you're meeting in some other realm, like a third world. When you're singing, especially in Arabic music, because the words are so important, you really make eye contact with people. It's like speaking, but you're expressing something so much more powerful."

By 2005 he and Dena had started Safaafir, a group focusing on traditional Iraqi maqam. They kept busy with gigs around the country, including a performance at the 2006 World Music Festival in Chicago, and aside from an occasional jazz gig ElSaffar wasn't playing the trumpet much—in Safaafir he sticks to singing and the santoor. "I just didn't have any motivation for it at the time," he says. That's when he received the Painted Bride commission. "Once I accepted the idea it got more and more interesting," he says. "This rhythm, if you play it a little differently, it sounds like funk, but it's actually an old Iraqi rhythm. And this melody, it really works well with that bass line. The ideas started flowing."

Even before the piece premiered ElSaffar was approached by Dave Douglas. The acclaimed trumpeter didn't know about the Painted Bride performance, but he wanted ElSaffar to come up with something similar for his Festival of New Trumpet Music in the fall of 2006. That gig led to a Pi Recordings record deal.

The Two Rivers recording captures a seamless and seemingly natural fusion of traditions, the spirit and language of jazz improvisation integrated carefully with the structures of maqam. ElSaffar finds elements of each—a rhythm, a melody—that can fit together. Sometimes his compositions lean more on jazz, sometimes more on maqam. ElSaffar, who sings and plays both santoor and trumpet, is joined in the front line of the group by alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa, an Indian-American he met at DePaul, while Zafer Tawil plays counterpoint on both violin and oud. The acclaimed drummer Nasheet Waits plays a standard kit while Tareq Abboushi plays the traditional frame drum (as well as the buzuq, a traditional lute). Bassist Carlo De Rosa plays meditative ostinato patterns—repeated figures—which give the music hypnotic power.

ElSaffar says he might include some new pieces in the Millennium Park concert, but it will primarily feature tunes from Two Rivers heavily rearranged for the expanded ensemble performing with him. It will be the first time he's played with such a large group, and he spent several days here in July getting the new musicians acquainted with the work. Some of them, like guitarist Jeff Parker and vibist Jason Adasiewicz, are seasoned jazz players, while musicians like Syrian ney player Naeif Rafeh and ElSaffar's sister Dena, who plays violin and jowza, are fluent in Arabic music but not jazz. "I want to see how each person relates to the material," he says, noting that a particular challenge is finding roles for so many melodic voices in a monophonic music with no use of harmony. "Most attempts I've heard using harmony with Arabic music or any kind of modal music takes away from the melody."

No doubt he'll figure it out: inhabiting two musical worlds simultaneously is what he's been working toward for years. "I think it ties together my cultural roots," he says. "I didn't consciously do it, but looking back it goes back and forth between these poles and it lets me feel both American and Iraqi at the same time.v

Care to comment? Find this story at chicagoreader.com. And for more by Peter Margasak, see his blog, Post No Bills.

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