AlSaadi
  • AlSaadi

The Iraqi Maqam

Composer, trumpeter, santur player, and vocalist Amir ElSaffar is equally well known in the worlds of American jazz and classical music and Middle Eastern musical traditions. ElSaffar returns to Cleveland with Safaafir, his ensemble supporting the extraordinary Iraqi singer Hamid Al-Saadi, on Wednesday, January 29, for a rare performance of the musical form called maqam, the urban, classical vocal tradition of Iraq. Found primarily in Baghdad, Mosul, Kirkuk, and Basra, the maqam repertoire draws on the musical styles of the country’s many populations, including the Bedouins, rural Arabs, Kurds, and Turkmen, as well as the neighboring Persians, Turks, and other populations. Below, ElSaffar offers an overview of the maqam tradition. —Tom Welsh, Director of Performing Arts

Celebrating the Maqam Singer Hamid Al-Saadi (left) performs with the author.

Celebrating the Maqam Singer Hamid Al-Saadi (left) performs with the author.


Amir ElSaffar Musician

In Iraq the term maqam refers to highly structured, semi-improvised compositions learned through years of disciplined study under a master. Often rhythmically free and meditative, they are sung to classical Arabic and colloquial Iraqi poetry.


The exact beginning of the maqam tradition in Iraq is unknown. Some believe it was brought in by the Ottoman Empire in the 16th century; others postulate that it dates to the Abbasid period (8th–13th century); and still others believe that it may reach to a much more distant past: to Iraq’s ancient civilizations, the Babylonians or the Sumerians. Until the 20th century, the maqam was ubiquitous in urban centers, its melodies heard in various settings: in religious contexts, in sports clubs to energize athletes, and even in the streets by vendors.


Formal maqam concerts took place in private homes during celebrations and in coffeehouses, which were the primary venues for these performances. Several coffeehouses in Baghdad specialized in maqam. During the day, aficionados sat for hours philosophizing about the inner meanings of a melody, discussing a particular composition’s possibilities, debating who was a more skilled singer, or critiquing a recent performance. Every evening, a maqam concert took place that, if performed in its complete sequence, lasted about nine hours.


The main performer was the reciter, who was usually a craftsman or a merchant, for whom singing was 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 work. They also possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of Arabic poetry, from which they chose lines to recite to a maqam. Poetic tradition and the maqam are intertwined in Baghdadi culture. Most listeners are also avid readers of poetry; during a performance they pay as much, if not more, attention to the words as to the music.


The reciter was accompanied by an ensemble consisting of a jowza (a four-stringed spike fiddle with a coconut-shell resonator), santur (a box zither with steel strings, played with wooden sticks), dumbug (goblet-shaped drum), riqq (tambourine), and naqqarat (two small kettle drums played with sticks).


The Baghdadi maqam system encompasses some 100 melodies, performed in a semi-improvised manner with ample room for interpretation, ornamentation, and variation. Although the singing is rhythmically free, many maqamat contain a rhythm performed by the accompanying instruments that constitutes a pattern of dums (sustained, low-pitched strokes), teks (short, high-pitched strokes), and silences that fit into a meter of a fixed number of beats. The elements exist concurrently, converging and diverging spontaneously, creating a polyrhythmic effect.
In performance, each maqam is preceded by a rhythmic instrumental arrangement and followed by one or more rhythmic songs that often contain simple, humorous texts dealing with daily life and various aspects of society. The lighthearted nature serves to counterbalance the introspective nature of the maqam.

 

poetic inspiration  Animals, Precious Stones, Coins, and  Musical Instruments (recto), from a Mu’nis al- Ahrar fi Daqa’iq al-Ash’ar (The Free Men’s Companion to the Subtleties of Poems) of Muhammad Ibn Badr al-Din Jajarmi (active 1340s), c. 1341. Iran, Sh

Animals, Precious Stones, Coins, and Musical Instruments (recto), from a Mu’nis al-Ahrar fi Daqa’iq al-Ash’ar (The Free Men’s Companion to the Subtleties of Poems) of Muhammad Ibn Badr al-Din Jajarmi (active 1340s), c. 1341. Iran, Shiraz. Opaque watercolor, ink, and gold on paper; 19.7 x 13.5 cm. Purchase from the J. H. Wade Fund, 1945.385. Light-sensitive object; currently in storage

 


Cleveland Art, January/February 2020