Tags for: Hamid Al-Saadi with Safaafir
  • Performance
Hamid Al-Saadi with Amir ElSaffar (of Safaafir). Photo courtesy of the artists

Photo courtesy of the artists

Hamid Al-Saadi with Safaafir

Wednesday, January 29, 2020, 7:30–9:00 p.m.
Location:  Gartner Auditorium
Gartner Auditorium

About The Event

Journey to the Heart of the Iraqi Maqam

The Iraqi maqam (melodic mode), one of Iraq’s richest cultural offerings, features sophisticated melodies, infectious rhythms, and eloquent poetry. Hamid Al-Saadi, Iraq’s foremost purveyor of this centuries-old tradition, is renowned for his powerful voice and highly ornamented style, as well as his comprehensive knowledge of the intricate details of the music and poetry of Iraq. He studied with the legendary Yusuf Omar, who named Al-Saadi as his succcessor. Muhammed Al-Gubbenchi, who taught Omar and was probably the most influential maqam reciter in history, said that he considered Al-Saadi to be the “ideal link to pass on the maqam to future generations.” Al-Saadi is the only person from his generation to have memorized and mastered all 56 maqamat from the Baghdad repertoire, and is one of the few vocalists to keep this maqam alive today. He is joined by Safaafir, the only US-based ensemble dedicated to performing the Iraqi maqam in its traditional format. The group is led by Amir ElSaffar (santur—zither) and Dena El Saffar (joza—bowed stringed instrument, violin) of Iraqi descent and features Tim Moore on percussion and George Ziadeh on ‘oud.

$33–45, CMA members $30–40

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Journey to the Heart of the Iraqi Maqam

Tonight’s program is approximately 90 minutes in duration and will be announced from the stage and presented without intermission

Tonight’s performance is being filmed for a documentary. By attending this concert, you consent to be filmed in general audience footage. If you have any concerns, please see the house manager.

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Program Notes

About the Iraqi Maqam
by Amir ElSaffar

Inscribed by UNESCO on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, the maqam is the classical vocal tradition of Iraq and one of the most refined of the many maqam traditions found throughout the Arab and Muslim world. In Iraq, the term maqam refers to highly-structured, semiimprovised, compositions that take years of disciplined study under a master to learn fully. Often rhythmically free and meditative, they are sung to Classical Arabic and colloquial Iraqi poetry, and are followed by lighthearted, rhythmic songs, known as pestaat.

Maqam is the urban classical vocal tradition of Iraq. Found primarily in the cities of Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk, and Basra, the maqam repertoire draws upon musical styles of the many populations in Iraq, such as the Bedouins, rural Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen as well as neighboring Persians, Turks, and other populations that have had extensive contact with Iraq throughout history. The use of the word maqam in Iraq is distinct from its use in the rest of the Arab world and Turkey, where the term refers to a musical mode on which compositions and improvisations are based. In Iraq, maqam refers to the composition itself.


The exact beginning of the maqam tradition in Iraq is unknown, and is a subject of debate among maqam musicians and connoisseurs. Some believe that the maqam is a several hundred years old tradition, brought in by the conquering Ottoman Empire in the 16th century. Others postulate that it began during the Abbasid period (8th–13th century A.D.), when Baghdad was the seat of the Islamic caliphate and was a great center of art, learning, and technological achievement. Still others believe that the maqam may reach to a much further past, to Iraq’s ancient civilizations, the Babylonian or perhaps the Sumerian.

Until the 20th century, the maqam was ubiquitous in the urban centers of modern-day Iraq, its melodies heard in various settings. In religious contexts, maqam melodies were used in the call to prayer, during mawlid rituals (celebrations of the birth of the prophet Mohammed and/or other Holy persons), as well as in Qur’anic recitation. Maqam was also sung in the zurkhanes (athletic houses), to energize the participants performing physical activity. It was even sung by street vendors advertising their products. Tradition often dictated which types of vendors would sing what melodies. Formal maqam concerts took place in private homes during celebrations and in gahawi (coffeehouses), which were the primary venues for maqam performance.

There were several coffeehouses in Baghdad that specialized in maqam. Among these were Gahwat Shaabander, Gahwat al-Qaysariya, and Gahwat ‘Azzawi. These places functioned both as performance spaces as well as institutions wherein the maqam was transmitted. During the day, experts, amateurs, and novices, known collectively as ushshaaq al-maqam, or lovers of the maqam, would sit for hours, philosophizing about the inner meanings of a maqam melody, discussing a particular maqam’s possibilities, debating who was a more skilled singer, or critiquing a recent performance. Every evening in these gahawi, a maqam concert would take place that, when performed in its complete sequence, would last about nine hours.


The main performer was the qari’ (pl. qurra’), or reciter. The word qari’, which is the same word used for a Qur’an reciter, was used, as opposed to mughenni, or singer, to emphasize the spiritual nature of the maqam and to elevate the maqam to a status higher than other, lighter vocal genres, which were not held in such esteem. These qurra’ were usually craftsmen or merchants, coming from the lower strata of Baghdadi society, for whom singing was a not a full-time profession. Most did not have a formal education, and some were even illiterate, yet they were masters of a highly intellectual, complex vocal form, which could be perfected only after years of disciplined, concentrated work. They also possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of Arabic poetry, from which they would choose lines to recite to a maqam. When performing a maqam, the qari’ would enter a state of deep spiritual exaltation, which would spread to the listeners in the room, who would often let out expressions of joy and ecstasy, engaging in an interplay and exchange of emotion with the performers.

In performance, the qari’ was accompanied by a four-piece ensemble, known as a chalghi baghdadi, which consisted of a joza (a four-stringed spike-fiddle with a coconut shell resonator), a santur (a box-zither with steel strings, played with wooden sticks), a dumbug (goblet-shaped drum), a riqq (tambourine), and naqqarat (two small kettle drums played with sticks).

Musical Elements of the Baghdadi Iraqi Maqam Tradition


The Baghdadi maqam system consists of some 100 melodies, each of which has a unique name, and to which is often ascribed some other attribute: an association with a geographical region, a tribe, a historical event or person, or some other aspect of Iraqi society. These melodies are performed in a rhythmically free and semi-improvised manner, with ample room for interpretation, ornamentation, and variation, such that every performance is unique. Each singer is expected to develop a personal approach to performing these melodies. What must remain in any interpretation is the ruhiyya (spirit or spiritual essence) of each given melody. Totally free improvisation does not exist in maqam performance.


Each melody in a maqam composition functions as one of six structural components that make up the maqam’s form. These components are the tahrir, which is the opening melody/main theme that is repeated throughout the maqam; qita‘ (sing. qita‘a) and awsal (sing. wusla), or secondary melodies, which form the building blocks of the composition; the meyana, or climax, which is usually a qita‘a or a wusla sung in the high register; a small cadence known as a jelsa, which precedes the meyana; a qarar, or a descent into the lower register; and the teslim, which is the final, closing cadence that signals the end of the maqam and the coming pesteh (defined later). Each maqam begins with a tahrir and concludes with a teslim, and contains one or more of the rest of the structural components. Some maqamat follow a predetermined sequence of melodies that each performer is expected to adhere to, whereas others contain a relatively free form.


Poetic tradition and the maqam are closely intertwined in Baghdadi culture. Most maqam listeners are also avid readers of poetry, and pay as much attention, if not more, to the words of the poem as they do to the musical aspects of a maqam performance. At its essence, maqam singing is a form of poetic recitation.

The rules of performance practice dictate which genre of poetry is sung with each maqam, although the choice of the specific poem is left to the singer. Almost all of the maqamat use one of two genres of poetry. The first, known as the qasida (pl. qasa’id), is an ode written in Classical Arabic and is found throughout the Arab world. The second genre of poetry, called zuheiri, is a native Iraqi form that is sung in Iraqi dialect. It consists of seven lines, arranged according to the rhyme scheme AAA BBB A, where the final word of each line is homophonous, but yields a different meaning in each repetition. Several maqamat were traditionally sung with Turkish or Persian poems, though in recent years, these poems have been replaced by qasa’id.


Although maqam singing is rhythmically free, many maqamat contain a rhythm, or iqa‘ (pl. iqa‘at), which is performed by the accompanying instruments. In the Baghdadi maqam repertoire, eight iqa‘at are used. Each iqa‘ is performed on the percussion instruments as a pattern of “dums” (sustained, low-pitched strokes) and “teks” (short, high-pitched strokes) and silences that fit into a meter of a fixed number of beats. The iqa‘ and the melodies exist concurrently, converging and diverging spontaneously, creating a polyrhythmic effect.

Classification Of Iraqi Maqam by Mode

In Baghdad, there are approximately 56 maqamat (this number varies according to different sources). From each maqam can be extracted a seven-note mode, or scale, on which the tahrir and other melodies are based. Maqamat are classified based on their mode, which results in eight families, which are Rast, Bayat, Hijaz, Segah, Nawa, Hussaini, Ajam, and Saba. Almost all maqamat fit into one of these families.

Each family has a primary maqam, which bears the name of the mode, and several secondary maqamat. The primary maqamat tend to have a fixed sequence and long, elaborate structures, whereas the secondary maqamat are often of a lighter and simpler nature, though there are exceptions.

Additional Musical Pieces: Muqaddimah And Pesteh

In performance, each maqam is preceded by a rhythmic instrumental piece, known as a muqaddimah, and is followed by one or more pestat (sing. pesteh). Pestat are rhythmic songs with repetitive melodies that often contain simple, humorous, texts dealing with day-to-day life and various aspects of society. The light-hearted nature of the pesteh serves to counterbalance the heavy, complex, introspective nature of the maqam. Members of the instrumental ensemble and the audience usually join in singing these songs. Unlike the maqamat, these songs have remained popular in Iraq to the present day.

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About the Artists

Hamid Al-Saadi

Through his powerful and highly ornamented voice, and in his comprehensive knowledge of the intricate details of the music and poetry of Iraq, generations and layers of the maqam tradition resonate through Hamid al-Saadi’s magnificent presence on stage. The only person in his generation to have memorized and mastered all 56 maqamat from the Baghdadi repertoire, Al-Saadi is one of the few vocalists who is keeping the maqam alive today, at a time when so many elements of this profound tradition are in danger of extinction.

Born in Iraq in 1958, Hamid Al-Saadi’s artistic, musical and scholarly journey with the Iraqi maqam began from childhood, inspired by his avid love of the Iraqi and Baghdadi culture, the Arabic language, music and poetry. He studied, practiced, and performed the maqam until he became one of the more renowned and highly acclaimed musicians and scholars in this subject. He learned the art of singing and performing the Iraqi maqam from the legendary Yusuf Omar (1918–1987), who pronounced Al-Saadi as his successor. Muhammed Al-Gubbenchi (1901–1989) who taught Omar and was probably the most influential maqam reciter in history, said that he considered Al-Saadi to be the “ideal link to pass on the maqam to future generations.”

Al-Saadi immigrated to Great Britain in 1999, where he lived and was active for six years as a maqam scholar, singer, artist and writer, and returned to Baghdad in 2004 where he currently resides. He authored a book on the maqam entitled,”al-maqam wo buhoor al-angham,” which is one of the most comprehensive texts on the Iraqi Maqam and its poetry that has ever been published.

Hamid Al-Saadi is now in the United States as an Artist Protection Fund Fellow, in residence at Rutgers University and Sarah Lawrence College. He has also performed at Duke University, The Wexner in Columbus, the Kennedy Center Jazz Club, Old Town School of Folk Music, Princeton University, the Freer and Sackler Museum, the Metropolitan Museum, David Rubenstein Atrium at Lincoln Center, in addition to a number of lectures and private performances at Rutgers, Princeton, and other universities.


Safaafir is the only US-based ensemble dedicated to performing the Iraqi maqam. The group is led by Amir ElSaffar and his sister, Dena, two American-born siblings of Iraqi descent, who trained 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. For more than 14 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.

Amir ElSaffar has been described as “uniquely poised to reconcile jazz and Arabic music,” (Wire) and “one of the most promising figures in jazz today” (Chicago Tribune). A recipient of the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award and United States Artists Fellowship, ElSaffar is an expert trumpeter with a classical background and is conversant in the language of contemporary jazz, while creating techniques to play microtones and ornaments idiomatic to Arabic music that are not typically heard on the trumpet. Additionally, he is a purveyor of the centuries-old Iraqi maqam tradition, which he performs actively as a vocalist and santur player.

Born near Chicago in 1977 to an Iraqi immigrant father and an American mother, ElSaffar earned a bachelor’s degree in classical trumpet from DePaul University, while playing actively on Chicago’s jazz scene. He moved to New York in 2000 and played in the ensembles of Cecil Taylor, Vijay Iyer, and Rudresh Mahanthappa. In 2002, he embarked on a journey to Baghdad and throughout the Middle East to study the Iraqi Maqam. Upon returning to New York five years later, ElSaffar established himself with his work combining jazz and Middle Eastern music, in particular his microtonal harmonic and melodic approaches.

Amir ElSaffar has released seven critically acclaimed albums and leads five ensembles, in addition to collaborating with musicians in the US, Europe, and the Middle East. He has composed for jazz ensembles, Middle Eastern ensembles, chamber orchestras, string quartets, and contemporary ensembles, in addition to dance and theater projects, receiving commissions from the Berlin Jazz Festival, Newport Jazz Festival, the Flamenco Biennale (Netherlands), Metropolitan Museum of Art, MAP Fund, and Chamber Music America. ElSaffar was composer in residence of the transcultural program at the Royaumont Foundation in France where he created three new works between 2017 and 2019.

Dena El Saffar is a multi-instrumentalist, composer, teacher and recording artist who has performed throughout the US as well as in the Middle East and Latin America. Born and raised in a musical family in Chicago, she learned about her Iraqi heritage through stories, music and recipes. She began violin lessons at the age of 6. At the age of 17, after winning several concerto competitions and touring Europe with a youth orchestra, she travelled to Iraq and became inspired to learn the Iraqi music traditions. After completing a Viola Performance degree at the Indiana University Jacobs School of Music, and made Bloomington her home. While still a student, she founded the Middle Eastern music group Salaam (www.SalaamBand.com), which focuses on music of the Arab World. Salaam has recorded 7 albums, and has been featured on NPR, including an interview on All Things Considered with Guy Raz. El Saffar plays several traditional Middle Eastern instruments—‘oud, joza, kemanche—as well as violin and viola. She has a long list of recording projects with well-known American musicians such as Krista Detor, Slats Klug, Moira Smiley, and Michael White. She has toured and performed with countless ensembles including Youssou N’Dour, Rivers of Sound Orchestra, the National Arab Orchestra, and Iraqi Maqam ensemble Safaafir. When she is not busy performing or teaching, Dena enjoys hiking in the woods and spending time with her family.

Tim Moore grew up in the Midwest, and began playing drums at the age of 11. A natural percussionist, he began performing with different groups early on, gaining experience in a variety of genres including jazz, blues, salsa, and rock. After earning a computer science degree from Indiana University in 1989, he worked on the East and West Coasts as a computer programmer, but in 1993 he left that world in order to devote himself to music. In his quest to become a better, more diverse musician, he began learning rhythms and instruments from around the world, eventually bringing his focus to Middle Eastern percussion. He has studied Arabic percussion with Wessam Ayoub, Sattar Al Saadi, Lateef Al ‘Abeedi, N. Scott Robinson, and Mohammed Khalil Salih. Tim plays the dumbek, riqq, naqqarat, bendir, tabl, and zanbur, as well as drum set, bass, and guitar. Tim is married to Dena El Saffar, and enjoys spending his free time with their two children, Jamil and Layla.

George Ziadeh was born and raised in Birzeit, Palestine, and pursued music from a young age. In 1986 he moved to the United States, where he studied ‘oud with Simon Shaheen and classical singing and voice with Youssef Kassab, with whom he has toured extensively across the country. George has performed and lectured with such ensembles and institutions as the University of Chicago’s Middle East Music Ensemble with Issa Boulos, the University of Colorado (Boulder), Alwan for the Arts, the United Nations (invited by Kofi Annan), and annually at the Columbia University Department of Ethnomusicology. In 2008, George was a featured solo and ensemble performer in the “Brooklyn Maqam” Festival of Arab Music. From 1995 to 1997 George taught at the Edward Said National Conservatory of Music in Ramallah and at Birzeit University. George is considered an authority in maqam and Arab classical repertoire.



Hamid Al-Saadi is in the United States as an Artist Protection Fund Fellow, in residence at Rutgers University and Sarah Lawrence College.

Institute of International Education • Artist Protection Fund

    These programs made possible in part by the Ernest L. and Louise M. Gartner Fund, the P. J. McMyler Musical Endowment Fund, and the Anton and Rose Zverina Music Fund.

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