Penn State College of Arts and Architecture
Center for the Performing Arts at Penn State

Amir ElSaffar weds the music of America and the Middle East

By John Mark Rafacz

Amir ElSaffar was born and raised near Chicago, but his heart and soul are informed as much by Iraq as by Illinois. A multi-instrumentalist, vocalist and composer, ElSaffar marvelously marries Middle Eastern musical traditions with American jazz.

ElSaffar will make his Penn State debut April 4 in an Eisenhower Auditorium concert featuring his Two Rivers Ensemble and Iraqi vocalist Hamid Al-Saadi.

The following interview with ElSaffar has been edited for length. 

Question: You were born in the Chicago area to an American mother and an Iraqi immigrant father. As a child, you were exposed to a variety of musical genres and instruments. Why did you choose the trumpet? 

Answer: “My father had many Iraqi friends and relatives living in the neighborhood, and thanks to them I was exposed to the music, food and culture of Iraq. My mother was a Spanish literature professor, and we often hosted visiting scholars from Spain and Latin America. So Spanish, Arabic and English were spoken in my home.

“In terms of music, my first love was the Beatles, who I discovered when I was 9 years old. I picked up my mother’s baritone ukulele and began learning how to play chords, and when I was 10 started guitar lessons with the goal of learning every Beatles song. I started trumpet around the same time, as part of my school’s band program, but did not take much interest in it until I was 13, and I heard a high school student playing Haydn’s trumpet concerto.” 

Q: At some point jazz overtook classical as the focus of your musical journey. How did that come about?

A: “By the time I was 14, I had equal interest in the trumpet and the guitar. But my guitar playing was leaning toward blues and classic rock of the late ’60s and early ’70s. Hendrix was my idol. One day, my mother brought me a copy of ‘Crosstown Traffic,’ a book about the ’60s revolution with Jimi Hendrix as a focal point. In the appendix, there was a section including records that had influenced Hendrix, including Miles Davis’ ‘Kind of Blue.’ A few days later, I found the CD in my mother’s collection, and once I heard Miles’ solo on ‘So What,’ then Coltrane’s, my life was forever changed. It was the first time that I realized that all of the things that I loved about guitar improvisation in the blues were also possible on the trumpet. 

“That summer, I went to the Berklee School of Music five-week summer session and had a crash course in harmony and rhythm, and for the next 10 years of my life I excelled in classical and jazz trumpet.” 

Q: As a child, you listened to your father’s collection of music, which centered on jazz. When and how did you get interested in music from your father’s homeland?

A: “I said earlier that the Beatles were my first love. Maybe that’s not entirely accurate, because it was Louis Armstrong and the ‘Blues Brothers’ soundtrack that moved me when I was very young. My father used to play ‘Porgy and Bess,’ sung by Louis and Ella Fitzgerald, all the time. I remember when I would hear Armstrong’s trumpet sound, I would see a beam of light breaking through the sky. 

“When I was 2 or 3 years old, I figured out how to use the turntable, and played the ‘Blues Brothers’ soundtrack so many times, and I’m sure I wasn’t very careful with the record because it got so scratched up it would repeat sections over and over and drive my family crazy. But that’s exactly the kind of repetition that would, much later in my life, become essential to me learning jazz solos and maqam compositions.” 

Q: Your music combines contemporary jazz with elements of Arabic music not typically heard on trumpet. You’re also conversant in the Iraqi tradition of maqam, which you perform as a vocalist and a santur (hammered dulcimer) player. What is maqam? 

A: “What’s common to all maqam music is a system of seven note microtonal modes. In Iraq, maqam takes on a very specific meaning, referring to compositions consisting of melodies that are arranged into complex structures. Each melody has nuanced sections to it, and can only be memorized after repeated listening and guidance from a teacher. I was lucky to find the most knowledgeable maqam reciter alive, Hamid Al-Saadi, early in my research. 

“Hamid has memorized every maqam (more than 60), with all of their variations and different poems, as well as the subsidiary compositions and popular songs that are also part of the maqam repertoire. It’s quite an impressive body of knowledge. Since the maqam is not notated, one has to memorize everything.” 

Q: You’ve fronted various musical groups. At Penn State, you’ll perform with Two Rivers Ensemble and Al-Saadi. Describe what the audience will hear. 

“I founded Two Rivers in 2006 as a musical vehicle to merge languages of Iraqi maqam and jazz. The experiment was successful from the beginning, thanks to the instrumentalists all being very open minded and having a diverse range of musical backgrounds and experiences. We no longer feel like we are referencing two distinct traditions, but instead are having a conversation on stage in a musical language that we have collectively created. 

“The composed and improvised trumpet and saxophone lines go between melismatic maqam phrasing and jazz vocabulary of the ’60s avant-garde and beyond. The oud and buzuq (Arabic lutes) sometimes play traditional melodic roles, other times fill the role of a jazz guitar or piano, punctuating and accentuating the rhythmic framework with chords. I am looking for the broadest and most expansive range of expression possible.”

Q: It’s been 20 years since the United States military invaded Iraq. What do some Americans continue to misunderstand about the Iraqi people? What do you hope your music teaches people?

A: “Most Americans only view Iraq from the standpoint of American foreign policy and interests. Twenty years after the invasion, it is now generally recognized (I hope) that the ‘Iraq War,’ which was actually not a war but an invasion and occupation, was unjustified and unprovoked, and was the cause of massive loss of life and catastrophic consequences. Iraq’s 38 million people are still living with these consequences every day. There is still no functioning state, infrastructure is a mess, and people have to rely on themselves for basic services like electricity and running water. 

“Modern day Iraq is the inheritor of thousands of years of civilization. The Iraqi maqam contains bits of all of Iraq’s rich and diverse history and the genius of the Iraqi mind — beautiful melodies, complex structures, incredible poetry and symbolism. I hope I can make people aware of these aspects of Iraqi society and culture. Despite all they have been through, Iraqis are some of the most beautiful, sweet, kind, industrious and resourceful people I have ever met.”

John Mark Rafacz is the editorial manager at the Center for the Performing Arts.