Safaafir is the only US-based ensemble dedicated to performing the Iraqi maqam. The group is led by two American-born siblings of Iraqi descent, Dena and Amir ElSaffar, both of whom have backgrounds in Western music but eventually found their way into Iraqi music. Dena holds a degree in classical viola performance from Indiana University, and Amir is a jazz trumpeter and composer based in New York City who has a degree in trumpet performance from DePaul University in Chicago. Dena and Amir discovered Arabic and Iraqi music independently of one another, and it wasn’t until 2005, at the suggestion of Dena’s husband, percussionist Tim Moore, that the three decided to form a maqam trio. Prior to that, Dena and Tim had been performing together in Salaam, an Arab/Middle Eastern ensemble founded by Dena in 1992 that continues to perform actively today. The three named the group Safaafir, meaning coppersmiths, in homage to Amir and Dena’s ancestry and namesake (Saffar translates from Arabic to coppersmith). For the past five years, the group has performed actively for Iraqi, Arab, and American audiences across the United States and internationally. In addition to presenting the maqam in its traditional format, Safaafir incorporates jazz, classical and other Middle Eastern styles to create a highly unique and personalized sound.
“Safaafir […] presented a traditional maqam, lengthy and mesmerizing, its vocal line a melisma-filled ramble through poetic reflection and exuberant pleading. Amir ElSaffar sang as expertly as he played. This trio is an amazing combination of musicians.” – Rick Walters, Express Milwaukee
“Music doesn’t get much more intimate than this. The hypnotic quality of Amir’s singing draws you in. When the song moves on, the rhythm kicks like a bracing splash of cold water. The last such episode inevitably ratchets up the speed and volume just a bit, to big effect.” – Tom Strini, Third Coast Digest