Amir ElSaffar Receives 2013 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award

I’m thrilled to announce that I am one of 20 recipients of the 2013 Doris Duke Performing Artist Awards! This is the second year of the program, and I am extremely honored by the recognition and humbled to be in the company of such great artists in the fields of jazz, theater, contemporary dance, and interdisciplinary art. I am grateful to God and to the Universe, and I thank the people at Doris Duke, as well as my family, friends, teachers, and colleagues (some of whom are on this list) for the support throughout the years!

Iraqi Maqam Class #4

Hello Friends,

After a brief hiatus for Easter, the Iraqi Maqam class will return tomorrow (of course tomorrow is Easter for our Eastern Orthodox friends, so those of you who are unable to make it will be missed). There are three exciting things to note about tomorrow’s class: 1) The Iraqi television station Al-Hurra will be coming in to film the class—for those of you who have always dreamed of it, this is your chance to appear on Iraqi television! 2) in addition to reviewing the past two maqams we learned, Awj and Hwaizawi, we will be focusing on three songs from the Pesteh (popular song) repertoire: Foug il-Nakhl, l-efendi, and Win Ya Galub, each dealing with a different rhythm, hence I am dubbing tomorrow “Pesteh Sunday,” 3) Class time will be at 11:30 am. The reason for the time change is something that I’m excited about, namely that I will be performing with the Alwan Ensemble at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the Grace Rainey Rogers Auditorium as part of the Sundays at the Met series. It is a free event starting at 2pm, so if you feel so inclined, come join me as I make the trip uptown (unless, of course, you are enrolled in the Womens’ Choir which meets after my class).

The last two Maqams that we learned were Maqam Awj, which is a fara‘ (branch) of Maqam Segah (info on this maqam is available in the previous post) and Maqam Hwayzawi. The latter maqam is attributed to the renowned singer, Mohammed al-Gubbenchi, who originally recorded it in 1929. Its name comes from an area called Haweza, located in the south of Iraq and home to many Marsh Arabs. This Maqam is in the Hijaz mode:

Hijaz G

Even though singers would normally choose a new poem to set to the maqam melodies, the poem sung by Gubbenchi in his original recording was considered such a perfect match to the maqam melodies that many following singers have sung the same poem to the point that Maqam Hwayzawi is often referred to as referred to as “Lema Anakhoo,” “ya rahib el-dayr” or some other line from the poem.

Here is a translation of the poem:

In the small hours of dawn, they loaded their camels and the caravan departed
O, Hadi*, halt! So that I may bid my love farewell
for in their leaving is my death
I was always faithful, my love unwavering
if they only knew what their departure has caused me
I discovered that they had left as the monk at the monastery was ringing the bell
I cried out to him, “in the name of the Bible, tell me
What happened to the full moons** that alighted here?”
I clasped my hands over my head and asked him
”Did the caravan pass you by?”
He wept, broke into tears, and told me
“Your chances have passed/the moons that you seek
yesterday they were here
but today they have gone”

*Hadi refers to the person who leads the caravan, often through singing poetry to the rhythm of the camel’s footsteps.
**full moons are a typical metaphor for beautiful faces. In this case, the speaker is ostensibly referring to just one.

Here is a recording of me singing Hwayzawi in the last class:

Please try to make tomorrow’s class – I guarantee you will be happy you made it! And don’t forget to wear your Sunday best; you may appear on people’s televisions all over Iraq!

Yours truly,

Iraqi Maqam Class #3 – Maqam Mansuri

Happy Spring! I hope that everyone is enjoying the gorgeous weather on this vernal equinox. March 20 is a special date for me, because it was on this day in 2002 that I arrived to Baghdad to begin studying the Iraqi Maqam (it was also the vernal equinox, which occurred during my one-hour flight from Amman). I’ll never forget the feeling of seeing 15 of my relatives waiting for me at the airport as tears streamed down my face. The passport control people made fun of me and told me to quit crying, but it was too emotional, this homecoming to a home that I barely knew (my only other visit was nine years prior). I arrived speaking only a few words in Arabic, and having some idea of Arabic music but knowing nothing about the Iraqi Maqam. I had intended to stay for three weeks, but it took that long just to make the rounds to every relative’s house for lunch. Once I did start studying the maqam and learning to speak Arabic, I was completely enthralled and couldn’t tear myself away. I ended up staying in Iraq for three months, and returning for another three months later that year. With the threat of war looming, I left Iraq at the end of 2002, and the following March 20 marked the beginning of the US-led invasion of Iraq, and the ensuing violence and strife that has plagued every Iraqi family since. My thoughts and prayers go to all the victims of this war. May things again become stable and peaceful in the wonderful, magical place that is Iraq.

As far as our class…last Sunday was very productive. We continued with Maqam Mansuri, this time managing to get through the entire maqam, which is no small matter! Mansuri has one of the longest, and complex forms in the Iraqi Maqam repertoire and goes through the modes of Saba, Bayat (on G and D), Rast, and Hijaz—don’t ask me why I chose to subject the students to this difficult maqam at the second class! Well, I did have my reasons, and fortunately, everyone was game and did a great job following all that was going on.

Saba G

Bayat G

Hijaz G

Rast C

Sengeen SamaiiIn addition to learning to sing the vocal melodies, we also addressed the rhythmic sections that occur in the ensemble between vocal passages, and the mutheltha at the end where the vocalist joins the rhythm played by the ensemble—this phrase has no parallels in the rest of the Maqam repertoire. Speaking of rhythm, the class had a much easier time dealing with the poetry and linking it to the melody when we tapped out the poetic meter while singing. Arabic poetry is organized into 16 meters, comprised of long and short syllables. Since the vocal parts are rhythmically free, finding the pulse and meter within the words provides a way of organizing/dividing up the melody. At the end of the class, we learned Win Ya Galub (“Weep, my heart”) which is in maqam Hijaz over the 6/4 rhythm, sengeen samaii.

Preview to Class #4 – Maqam Awj

Next class, we will move on to one of my favorites, Maqam Awj. This maqam has a much easier form than Mansuri, and a highly spiritual quality. It is particularly special to me as it was one of the first maqamat I that I learned on my trip to Baghdad. I recall sitting on the rooftop late at nights after everyone went to sleep, surrounded by palm trees and quiet streets, gazing at the stars while listening to Nadhum Al-Ghazali’s recording of this maqam.

Awj is in the Segah family, usually with B half-flat as its tonic. Unlike Mansuri and Rast, which have fixed structures, Awj has an open form, meaning that the performer determines the form according to his/her own taste, drawing from a pool of six different qita’ (secondary melodies). The intonation varies considerably throughout, but this the basic pitch set of Maqam Awj:

Maqam Awj

Here’s a recording of Maqam Awj by Yusuf Omar:

For this week’s pesteh (folk song) we will learn to sing Lefendi, an energetic song in the highly-infectious 10/16 rhythm known as Jourjina. Jourjina is by far the most common rhythm in Iraqi music, and is found in Turkey, Armenia, and parts of Iran, but not in any other Arab countries. I have seen many a percussionist crash and burn on this rhythm, which is second nature to Iraqis. I will make sure that every student leaves class able to play and sing along to Jourjina:
JourjinaSound like fun? Come join us! Registration information is available here. If you have not attended any classes but are intending to come this week, please let me know, and I will send you one of the information packets with detailed information on Awj.

Many thanks, and I hope to see you soon!