A Vicarious Western Appreciation of an Epic Iraqi Musical Tradition

by delarue

Amir ElSaffar may be best known for his epically haunting, slowly crescendoing, highly improvisational big band music, but the roots of that paradigm-shifting sound can be found in his smaller group, Safaafir. The Chicago-born trumpeter/multi-instrumentalist went to Iraq to connect with his heritage, where he met singer Hamid Al-Saadi, who would mentor him in the centuries-old Iraqi maqam tradition. Last night at Lincoln Center, Safaafir backed Al-Saadi in a towering, majestic, sold-out performance whose unease and ecstasy transcended linguistic limitations.

“It wasn’t so quiet in the dressing room,” the bandleader joked as the group tuned up. “Thank you for being so respectful.” He began the show playing the rippling santoor, his sister Dena on viola, George Ziadeh on oud, Tim Moore on percussion and a trio of backup singers.

Throughout the night, the melodies fell somewhere in between the traditional western scale and the bracing microtones of Arabic music, sometimes evoking an eerie major-on-minor ambience. There’s also a frequent trancelike quality to this music, evident from the pensive, insistent, straightforward pulse of the night’s opening instrumental intro. Then they launched into a syncopated antiphon, Al-Saadi leading the band in a stark, dramatic call and response. Moments like this are all the more tantalizing when you don’t speak the language: what was it about this music that sent it underground during the Saddam Hussein regime?

Dena ElSaffar delivered jauntily dancing lines, goosebump-inducing microtonal trills and alternately spare and lush washes of sound in contrast with her brother’s slowly rising, rippling crescendos. Ziadeh’s solos and exchanges with the other musicians tended to be more brooding. Al-Saadi would add aching, tremoloing ornamentation, especially as the songs would slowly coalesce out of an improvisation. Often the songs would begin rather somberly and then lighten as the rhythm came in.

There also wasn’t any traditional western verse/chorus dichotomy, the group reliant on each others’ cues as well as Al-Saadi’s carefully modulated dynamic shifts. Sharp-fanged chromatics gave way to sunnier grooves as the songs went along: a drinking tune, an ode to a beautiful woman, Sufi devotional melodies and a song about two speculators bickering over who was to blame for their mutual losses. Plus ca change. It was also extraordinarily catchy: from Egypt to points further east, music that relies on melody rather than harmony tends to be that way.  The night’s most rapturously haunting, gorgeous number was a slowly swaying anthem in a mode close to the Arabic hijaz. The most easygoing were what could have been an acoustic version of an electronic habibi pop hit, and a triumphant anthem over a rat-a-tat groove on which Dena ElSaffar played jowza fiddle.

In an era where artists from predominantly Muslim countries are demonized, it’s encouraging to see the nation’s flagship cultural institution going against the grain. Lincoln Center’s Jordana Leigh, who emceed, spoke of how her organization is home to “Programming really designed to represent New York City, an international city of diversity and immigrants – we celebrate all of that on our stage.” Meera Dugal – during her Lincoln Center tenure – programmed the show in conjunction with the Artistic Freedom Initiative, who to date have provided free legal representation along with help with resettlement and work permits to over 200 international artists at risk.

The next free concert at Lincoln Center’s Broadway atrium space just north of 62nd St. is April 4 at 7:30 PM with popular, rustic Americana songwriter Leyla McCalla – who shifts between oldtimey string band music, blues and Haitian sounds. Early arrival is always a good idea here.

And Al-Saadi and Safaafir are at Pioneer Works on April 8 at 7 PM for $10 in advance.