By Hanley, Delinda C.
Washington Report on Middle East Affairs , Vol. 26, No. 2
CAPPING THE JAN. 13 opening night of a week-long Iraqi art exhibition at American University's Katzen Arts Center in Washington, DC was a phenomenal performance of Maqam by Amir ElSaffar and his group. Iraq's Ambassador to the United States Samir Sumaida'ie and Cultural Attaché Dr. A. Hadi Al Khalili welcomed guests to the standing-room-only event, which also featured a magnificent oud performance by Iraqi composer and musician Rahim Alhaj.
Prior to ElSaffar's group taking the stage, Prof. Rob Simms of the University of Toronto and Dr. Muwaffaq Al Tikriti, president of Ethix Medical in Montreal, explained the history, social and religious aspects of Maqam music.
ElSaffar, born in 1977 near Chicago, IL to an Iraqi immigrant father and an American mother, is a classical and jazz trumpeter. In 2001, he began to study the music of his ancestral past, the Iraqi Maqam. This classical music is one of the most sophisticated and complex traditional music forms of the Middle East. ElSaffar learned to sing the Maqam in a soaring, melodic voice, and to play the santoor, a hammered dulcimer native to Iraq. He continues to carry on this ancient tradition.
Dena ElSaffar, Amir's big sister, plays the joza and kemanche (as well as the viola and violin), and her husband, Tim Moore, plays the dumbek, riqq, naqqarat, bendir, tabl and zanbur. Johnny Farraj, born and raised in Beirut from a Palestinian family, plays the riq, an Egyptian tambourine, and frame drum.
The Maqam may be an ancient art form, but all the Iraqis in the audience, Shi'i and Sunni alike, knew every word, and joyfully sang along. …