Iraqi Maqam Class #2 – Maqam Mansuri

Once again, a successful and thoroughly enjoyable class! Also very challenging, as we got into the nitty-gritty of the maqam. In particular, this time I decided to teach the poetry. Poetry occupies a critical role in the Iraqi Maqam, and in Arab music and culture in general, so I feel that the only way to impart an accurate understanding of the maqam tradition is to teach the poems that the melodies are set to. Iraqi maqam singers have the choice of which poem to sing to a maqam, and a successful performance is one in which the meaning and sound of the words is in harmony with the feeling of the maqam. I have done many lectures/demonstrations over the years where I’ve taught maqam melodies to groups using “Ah” or “Aman aman” or “ya dost,” all of which are typical sounds that are repeated in Iraqi Maqam. This is good for an introduction, but now with the continuity afforded by a weekly class, there is a chance to get into the actual words, which are such an important part of the tradition.

None of the students are native Arab speakers, so you can imagine the challenge of learning medieval classical poetry as an introduction to the Arabic language! I went through the poem once slowly with the group, focusing on pronunciation of the unfamiliar sounds, then read a rough translation. Fortunately, everyone learned it pretty quickly and was in good spirits (or at least appeared so—we’ll see how many come back next week). But what’s interesting is that beyond the obvious difficulty of pronouncing new words and unfamiliar sounds, learning the poetry actually does facilitate studying maqam in that the syllables divide up the melody, making it easier to identify and recall melodic details, as opposed to using “Ah” or some repeated sound which someone can easily get lost in (or solfeige, which is something that I try to stay away from!) In this class, we were able to hone in on more intricate melodic movements because we had specific words or syllables to associate them with.

We sang through the tahrir (exposition) and several verses of poetry to the Mansuri melodies, which constantly move between the modes of Saba to Bayat (see previous post). We reached the jelsa (cadence), which is about the midpoint of the maqam, then went back and reviewed the maqam from the beginning. I was ready to move on to the first mayana (high-point or climax), where the maqam really opens up, and next thing I knew it was 3:00! Class was officially over ten minutes ago. So we stopped there. Then, someone’s question spawned another discussion and we began talking about the similarities and relationships between the Arab maqams and the Greek modes, how ancient cultures and civilizations influenced one another, Pythagoras studying in Egypt, and different tuning systems, for another 20 minutes. I was glad to see trumpeter Kenny Warren at the class. We knew each other’s music but never actually met, so it was great to finally connect.

Next class is not to be missed! We will review the first half of Mansuri, then will get into the second half, which includes two mayanas and several modulations to different maqams, and a rhythmic ending. Speaking of rhythm, I promise that this time we will get to the pesteh (popular song) after the Maqam. That’s where the fun is!

For those of you thinking about joining, it’s not too late! Classes meet every Sunday at 1:30 pm. Regular attendance is encouraged, but drop-ins are also welcome. Register at And please let me know if you are planning to come so I can send you the information packet that I am sending to all of the students tonight, that includes the structure, rhythm, poem, and complete transcription of Maqam Mansuri!

Enjoy your day!