Musician Strays from Jazz for Iraqi Musical Tradition Amir ElSaffar put his New York City jazz club career on hold four years ago. ElSaffar, an Iraqi-American, put down the trumpet to learn the centuries-old singing style known as maqam. Having trained in the form, he has now released his own CD of the traditional music.

Musician Strays from Jazz for Iraqi Musical Tradition

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A promising young trumpeter put his career on hold four years ago, abandoning the jazz clubs of New York City. Amir ElSaffar is an Iraqi-American and he put down the trumpet to learn what is sometimes called the classical music of Iraq. He studied the music called maqam in Baghdad and London and just listen to what he's playing now that he's back. Here's Joel Rose of member station WHYY.

JOEL ROSE reporting:

Amir ElSaffar's first love wasn't Iraqi music, it was jazz. Here he is leading his quartet through the John Coltrane standard, Giant Steps.

(Soundbite of song "Giant Steps")

ROSE: ElSaffar studied classical and jazz trumpet in college. After graduation, he moved to New York City, where he worked as a sideman for pianist Cecil Taylor and others, and led a band of his own.

For the first 25 years, ElSaffar says Iraqi music was not a big part of his life.

Mr. AMIR ELSAFFAR (Musician): I had heard the music when I was growing up. I didn't know what it was called. I wasn't really paying much attention to it. It was sort of on in the background in Iraqi parties and stuff when my dad and his friends would get together.

ROSE: ElSaffar grew up in the suburbs outside Chicago. His father was Iraqi. His mother was American. ElSaffar was curious enough about Middle Eastern music to attend a workshop in Massachusetts in 2001.

Mr. ELSAFFAR: They were talking about Egyptian music and Syrian music and Lebanese music and I was thinking, okay, well, where's the Iraqi tradition? And then I learned that it was actually, in many ways, a vastly different tradition than what is found in the rest of the Arab world.

(Soundbite of man singing in foreign language)

Mr. ELSAFFAR: It's quite passionate. I remember when I first really started getting into it. I sometimes couldn't tell if the person was crying or singing. There's an aesthetic of having a certain amount of pain in the singing.

ROSE: Iraqi maqam is a repertoire of melodies, some of them dating to ancient times, that fit together into larger compositions. Texts range from secular poetry to Sufi mysticism. The complex improvisations and vocal flourishes can take years to master says UCLA ethnomusicologist AJ Racy.

Professor AJ RACY (Professor of Ethnomusicology, UCLA): The singers produce a vocal effect that almost like - has a bit of a yodeling kind of touch, and really is considered a trademark of a good singer.

ROSE: One of the best was Mohammed Al-Qubanchi.

(Soundbite of maqam music)

Mr. MOHAMMED AL-QUBANCHI: (Singing in foreign language)

ROSE: That's a recording of Al-Qubanchi from a music conference in 1932 during the so-called golden age of maqam. The music's appeal began to fade in the 1940's and 50's, as radio brought popular music from Egypt and elsewhere into Iraq. Amir ElSaffar says the country's recent political woes pushed the music even further into obscurity.

Mr. ELSAFFAR: Just the political turmoil and the severe conditions in which people are living, and the economic hardships just caused the maqam to dwindle even further.

ROSE: In 2002, ElSaffar took $10,000 he'd won in a trumpet competition and flew to Baghdad, and he started looking around for a teacher.

Mr. ELSAFFAR: And when I was in Baghdad, I was asking people. I said, okay, who do I study with and they were saying, well, if you really want to find the one who knows the entire repertoire, you need to go to London, you know, you shouldn't be spending your time here. But at the same time, I didn't want to leave.

(Soundbite of maqam music)

Mr. ELSAFFAR: There is just something so powerful about being in Iraq and breathing the air there and drinking the water and just living in that environment, really, was probably the most important lesson that I ever took.

ROSE: ElSaffar stayed in Baghdad off and on until January of 2003, a few months before the U.S.-led invasion. He spent most of the next year in Europe, tracking down the masters of maqam in London, Amsterdam and Paris. ElSaffar learned how to play the santur, a traditional hammered dulcimer, and he learned how to sing dozens of maqams.

(Soundbite of maqam music)

ROSE: Ethnomusicologist, AJ Racy, says ElSaffar is the real thing.

Prof. RACY: When I heard that he (unintelligible) playing the santur, and I saw him in London and I said, amazing, I'd like to see what that leads to. And when I heard the CD, I realized the magnitude of the accomplishment.

ROSE: ElSaffar released his first CD of maqam in June and he's been performing the music in the United States for audiences that include lots of Iraqi expatriates. ElSaffar says he's been amazed at the emotional response the music can generate.

Mr. ELSAFFAR: I've seen people get teary-eyed. I've seen people cry at performances. I've seen people - you know, people come up to me and say that it's brought them back to Baghdad; it's brought them back. They can just feel that energy of the place again.

ROSE: Now, ElSaffar is trying to combine that energy with his first love. He's writing and performing music that combines elements of maqam and jazz.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ELSAFFAR: When I first started, I was thinking, okay, I'm just going to learn a little bit about Arabic music and learn what Iraqi music is about so that I can integrate it into my jazz composition. And that was three years -no, four and a half years ago, and I haven't really gone that direction until now.

ROSE: Amir ElSaffar and his band played the composition, Two Rivers, for the first time this spring in Philadelphia. They'll give another performance in October during the Festival of New Trumpet Music in New York City. But first, ElSaffar is spending the summer in Europe continuing his education.

For NPR News, I'm Joel Rose.

INSKEEP: You can hear more examples of maqam played and sung by Amir ElSaffar at

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