This Wednesday, Iraqi-American trumpeter, vocalist and composer Amir ElSaffar will take the Power Center stage to perform selections from his newest project, Rivers of Sound. With an international, 17 musician ensemble — the largest group he has ever led — ElSaffar is expanding upon a concept that he explored in his preceding album: Combining Iraqi and Arabic maqam music with jazz.
“This project is much more specific in terms of combining these two elements,” ElSaffar said in an interview with The Michigan Daily.
Maqam, an Arabic modal system used in traditional Iraqi music, has had influences and variations all over the world, from the Middle East to Morocco, from Turkey to North Africa, from Central Asia to Europe. In Iraq, however, it is something very specific and special, for it is part of a local Baghdadi tradition that dates back to the medieval era — the glory days of Baghdad.
Similar to jazz, maqam is largely improvisational, yet both styles use notes and musical ideas that do not even exist to the other. ElSaffar’s vision of fusion continues to come into fruition through hands-on discoveries and experiences.
“For instance,” ElSaffar explained, “in jazz you have harmonies and chordal structures called vertical structures that don’t exist in Arabic music, and there are some other pitches in Iraqi and Middle Eastern music that don’t exist in the Western scales. With some research and some digging in, we start to discover pitches and rhythms that are common, and we start to find the universals in music that appear in most, if not all, musical traditions; these universals have to do with the physics of sound, and overtone theories, and how acoustics and sounds behave. These are things that are present in every musical tradition that I’ve encountered.”
Becoming fluent in both jazz and Iraqi music has been a life’s work for ElSaffar. Born in Chicago to an American mother and an Iraqi father, his curiosity and understanding of the importance of exploring his own culture urged him to return to Iraq — his trip, coincidentally, immediately followed September 11th, 2001.
His time in Iraq antedated the U.S. invasion in Iraq and commencement of the war, but only just. His experiences overseas, especially during such a politically charged time, solidified the profundity of music’s transcendental abilities that holds just as much importance today.
“Only after going through that rigorous process of fully engaging with the music language, could I then come to the other side and see where the real shared essences were,” ElSaffar said of his time abroad. “And at that point, it really became clear to me where the universality of music lies, which is in the intention, and the feeling, and the emotion being expressed. It’s in the ideas; the philosophical approach to the world. It’s the universal truths that permeate every religious or philosophical tradition that we encounter. We see that the same truths emerge, but they are cloaked in different garb. But their essences are the same.”
This is ElSaffar’s third time performing with UMS. He performed in 2010 with jazz legend Danilo Perez, and in 2013 with his Two Rivers ensemble.
“I’ve had great experiences with UMS — I love the staff there, as well as the auditorium and the audiences. It’s a special place. Not just me, but all of my musician friends know that UMS is one of the great presenters of music in the country, so it’s always a pleasure to come back,” ElSaffar said.
ElSaffar is also performing on Friday for UMS’s production, Written in Water with the Ragamala Dance Company, of which he is also the musical director and composer.