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!


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!

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,

Iraqi Maqam Classes at Alwan for the Arts!

Chalghi BaghdadAlwan for the Arts is now offering music lessons! I’ve been curating music at Alwan since 2008, and am thrilled that we now have classes and private lessons in Arab music, which have been organized by my fiancé, Lety ElNaggar. There are four weekend classes this semester, which runs through the end of May, including early 20th cent. Egyptian maqam practices with Sami Shumays, group percussion with Zafer Tawil, a women’s choir led by Gaida, and an Iraqi Maqam class taught by me, in addition to private lessons throughout the week.

My class focuses on the urban art music of Iraq, known as the Iraqi Maqam.

This tradition occupies an important role in the milieu of the maqam traditions of the Near East, North Africa, and Central Asia, and features remnants of medieval Arab musical practices in addition to pieces of Iraq’s vibrant, yet tumultuous history. Distinct from other traditions, where the term “maqam” is often meant to denote mode, Iraqi maqams are semi-improvised compositions that follow predetermined melodic sequences and structures, yet are semi-improvised, rhythmically free, and are of a highly spiritual nature.

In each class, students will learn to sing/play one maqam composition and one pesteh, or popular song. I highly encourage people who are interested in learning about Middle Eastern music to attend this and all other classes that are being offered as a part of this program.

Iraqi Maqam classes meet every Sunday at 1:30 pm. For information on how to register, and on the other courses being offered, please click here.