Iraqi Maqam Class #1- Maqam Rast

In our first Iraqi Maqam class at Alwan for the Arts, we focused on Rast, which is among the seven primary maqams and is foundational to the Iraqi Maqam repertoire. It is based on the Rast mode, which usually starts on C and is similar to the major scale, except that the third degree is lowered by a quarter tone, and the seventh by a quarter or half tone.

Rast C

The structure of the Maqam Rast composition has a certain elegance, logic, and beautiful melodic arch to it, making it a great introduction to the Iraqi Maqam tradition. In fact, Rast is the first maqam that I learned when I traveled to Iraq in 2002, and eventually went on to perform on trumpet, joining the maqam ensemble in accompanying a singer at the Baghdadi Museum. My first time performing maqam in public—truly an experience I will not forget.

Here are three sample recordings of Maqam Rast:

Maqam Rast, sung by Mohammed Al-Gubbenchi at the Cairo Congress in 1932:

Maqam Rast (Yusuf Omar):

Maqam Rast (Amir ElSaffar, santur):

We had six students in the first session, which I consider to be a good start. Some were musicians, others non-musicians, and all were highly engaged, receptive, and committed to learning the material, which was brand new to everyone. After a 10-minute overview on the Maqam, I began teaching the group how to sing Maqam Rast. It is a long maqam of many parts, and we managed to get through about half, which includes the main Rast melody; two qita‘ (secondary melodies): Mansuri and Ibrahimi; and a cadential return to Rast. After one hour, the whole group could sing all of this from start to finish without my assistance. I was very impressed! These melodies are complex and contain many intricate details, so they are not easy to memorize and internalize. We concluded with everyone learning the pesteh, El Leyla Hilwa, while tapping the maqsum rhythm. The melody is simple, catchy, and repetitive, but syncing it with the rhythmic component made it much more challenging—in some ways more so than the maqam itself.

You can watch a video of this piece performed by Al-Chalghi Al-Baghdadi here:

Preview to Class #2—Maqam Mansuri

Next Sunday, we will briefly review this first half of Maqam Rast, both to refresh our memories and to give new students an idea of what we covered in our last session. We will revisit Rast later in the semester and learn the second half, but for our next session, we will focus on a related Maqam, Mansuri. Students from last week will recall that Mansuri appeared in Maqam Rast as a secondary melody.

Maqam Mansuri (Yusuf Omar)

Mansuri is a Maqam that exists only in Iraq, and does not have a direct equivalent in general maqam nomenclature (unlike Rast, which is important in almost all other maqam systems). Mansuri is in the Saba mode, but contains frequent modulations to Bayat.

Saba G

Bayat GThe accompanying ensemble follows the Samah rhythm in the first half, and Yugrug in the second half. Both of these rhythms underwent drastic changes in performance practice in the 20th century. We will learn two versions of each rhythms, in addition to why these changes happened.

Unlike the instrumental parts, the vocal melodies of Mansuri are rhythmically free, as is the case with almost all Maqam melodies with very rare exceptions, one of which is called al-mutheltha, which occurs only in Maqams Saba and Maqam Mansuri. This rhythmic section, marks a very dramatic close to the Maqam, which we will learn in the next class. And of course, after all the hard work we will reward ourselves by learning the pesteh. This week, it will be Ya Dadah Ya Shaalan, which contains a 6/4 rhythm that we will all learn to clap and sing to.

As an extra bonus, in the next class session, I will also speak very briefly about a very mysterious and almost completely forgotten maqam, called Hijaz Shaytani (Satanic Hijaz), that used to be a part of Maqam Rast and the Rast Fasl, but fell out of performance practice in the mid 20th Century, with only one extant recording that was made not in Baghdad, but in Israel. Come to class to learn more about this story!

There is so much beauty and detail in the Iraqi Maqam repertoire, and I am eager to share what I have learned with others. If you’re interested in this class, the good news is that you can join at any point during the semester. The information in my classes is not cumulative, that is, learning the material of one class does not require knowledge from previous classes. We will explore a new maqam and learn to sing a new pesteh in each class. That said, with repeated attendance/exposure, it will become easier as students familiarize themselves with the approach to memorizing the material. Also, melodies from one maqam tend to crop up in others, and I am choosing related maqams so as to maximize the exposure to certain melodies. And most importantly, the more classes you buy, the more you save! Classes are sold in packages of 4, 8, and 12 (can be mixed and matched with the other classes Alwan is offering).

Stay tuned next week for another blog…in the meantime, hope to see you in class!

Best wishes to all,
Amir