Ancient Iraqi Stories, Retold

By Simon Davis-CohenDecember 17, 2015

Ancient Iraqi Stories, Retold

THE ALBUM OPENS with a drum solo. Booming wreckage. Then, as the dust settles and the sun starts to rise, a band begins to play.

Crisis (Pi Recordings, 2015), the third album from Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble, has been called “one of the most beautiful and evocative jazz recordings of the year” (Chicago Tribune). The composition, which melds the ancient Iraqi maqam with American jazz, is as much a great album as it is an act of cultural assertion.

Tracks like “From The Ashes,” “The Great Dictator,” “Flyover Iraq,” and “Aneen (Weeping),” leave you curious, searching for clues. The last two lines of the 19th-century Ottoman Era poem that conclude track one are translated on the CD cover: “Time gave us its gift of many pleasures / Now it is taking back that which it has given”.

An unmistakable message of grief laces the album, As in “Love Poem,” ElSaffar’s doleful rendition of an 800-year-old Sufi poem, a cry for loved ones lost to war.

The loved ones of my heart, where are they?
By God, tell me, where are they?
As you saw their illusion,
Will you show to me their reality?
How long, how long was I seeking them,
and how often did I beg to be united with them,

In this age when loss, on the scale of civilizations — from Baghdad to Damascus — is so palpable, as generations die off and stories become endangered, ElSaffar’s devotion to the semi-dormant Iraqi maqam is homage to memory itself.

Distinct from Central Asian, North African, and other Middle Eastern maqams, the Iraqi maqam is less a genre than it is a cache of stories. There are some 60 distinct compositions that make up the genre, each linked to unique, defining stories from Iraq’s past. One composition is said to refer to the Mongols’ 1258 sacking of Baghdad. “It's a form—instead of just being a scale—it’s a composition,” said ElSaffar in an interview I conducted this past spring.

For ElSaffar, an Iraqi American from the Chicago area, “[practicing the Iraqi maqam] is potentially very powerful as a way of accessing the collective memory of Iraqi society, which is not only being eroded, but brutally destroyed.”

He traveled to Baghdad to study the maqam in 2002. “I stayed there as long as I possibly could,” he says, “until it became too late, too unsafe and it was really clear that I had to get out, a couple months before the invasion.”

He had recently moved to New York City, where he fell in with a circle of jazz musicians that encouraged one another to explore their personal musical heritages. This included the young South Indian Rudresh Mahanthappa. It was at this time that ElSaffar received an invitation to participate in Edward Said and Daniel Barenboim’s West-Eastern Divan Orchestra. Soon, he won a $10,000-prize trumpet contest, and spent the winnings on his journey to Baghdad.

In Baghdad, he stayed with family and studied with Baghdadi musicians like Hamid al-Saadi, who is said to be the only living person to have mastered the entire Iraqi maqam repertory. “There was some kind of yearning that I wasn’t even aware of until I got there,” ElSaffar remembers, “a kind of hole…that I didn’t even realize I was missing.” He stopped playing jazz altogether and devoted himself to the Iraqi maqam. “My life was pretty much all maqam.”

And, ElSaffar says, it was “not only the emotional content,” that fueled his fascination, “but the intellectual content of the music—the way that the music is put together.”

There are rules to be followed, and preserved. The musician is more than an artist; he/she is a transmitter, a storyteller. There are no singers, only reciters (qāri’). “There’s a sequence of events, melodies that have to be done in a particular way, or else it’s not the Iraqi maqam.”

Along with its compositions, the Iraqi maqam holds some 120 distinct — indispensable — melodies. Says ElSaffar, “the essence—the core—of what Iraqi maqam is, is really pitches that have particular relationships—and the melodies that emerge from that.” Persian, Turkish, Syrian, Kurdish, and other colloquial melodies are used, and how they are arranged shapes the story being told. When “you have Turkish and Persian melodies flowing one into the other…historically, the implications of that are: ‘Oh, there are the Ottomans and there are the Persians.’”

The artist enjoys some discretion in choosing which melodies to infuse into a composition, but like the rest of the Iraqi maqam, some rules must be followed: some compositions suggest certain melodies.

The freedom of improvisation is similarly fluid, yet strict.

ElSaffar has devoted untold hours trying to articulate the role of improvisation in the Iraqi maqam. To date, ElSaffar, director of the Columbia Middle Eastern Music Ensemble at Columbia University and music curator at Alwan for the Arts, New York’s hub for Arab and Middle Eastern culture, has transcribed and published 12 Iraqi maqam compositions, though, he says, the transcriptions are more like road maps for when to stay true to the structure, and when the artist can begin to improvise. “It sounds improvised,” he says, “because it’s rhythmically very free with long flowing melodies, but in fact the compositions are all very ruled-based and very strict.”

This challenge of distinguishing between the Iraqi maqam’s rigid organization and its flexible nature has been a central muse for ElSaffar. “That was intriguing to me: ‘where is the improvisation, where is the pre-determined structure?’”

Now, after more than a decade of investigation, ElSaffar has developed a more intimate relationship with the form. “Eventually,” he says, “it’s sort of an intuition — more than what one can explain in direct terms—that tells you when you can improvise and when you can’t.”

This is why, despite his attempts at transcription, he insists the tradition must be orally transmitted, as he received it, and as it has been passed down for centuries.

Yet as Baghdad writhes, and teachers fall out of practice for want of an audience, the tradition is at risk. Says ElSaffar of modern day practitioners: “Many have either quit, or aren’t performing at all, or when they do perform, it’s overseas.”

The genre’s strict structure — the histories embedded in the compositions and melodies — makes it move slowly, buffers it from the day’s fad. And in this century of accelerated change, such reverence and respect for ancestral knowledge is needed as never before. Yet slowness and wisdom can be overlooked, mistaken for Luddism.

With Crisis, ElSaffar may have turned a new leaf. The composition tells a story, an archetypal tale of Baghdad’s contemporary moment. A series of events transpires — a story is told. A dictator (“The Great Dictator”), the people (“El–Sha’ab (the People)”), and a tipping point (“Tipping Point”) are characters in the composition. From the ruins of track one emerge conflicting societal forces — those which today contest for Iraq. The consequences of their interactions laid bare, a crisis is born.

The album seems to embody all the elements of an original Iraqi maqam, allowing the interaction of its characters’ musical traditions. Only rather than Persian, Ottoman, or Kurdish melodies and characters, Crisis folds in American jazz. And this is timely.

One can only speculate who will write the maqam for the Iraq War. And though ElSaffar makes no suggestion that the album should be considered as such, there is something poetic about an Iraqi American — an embodiment of the now-inseparable histories of Iraq and the United States — writing the maqam for the tragic war.

His mixture of samples from ancient maqams and original composition honors the genre’s veneration of the past and the freedom it gives the living artist. He repurposes an 800-year-old poem by Ibn Arabi to tell a modern tale. “Aneen (Weeping), Continued” draws on the Maqam Mukhalif, a composition from the 13th century, “said to be the gasping sigh of the survivors after the fall of Baghdad in 1258.” The ninth and final track repeats the lines from "Love Poem,” and continues (in Arabic):

Until I had no fear of being parted from them,
and yet I feared to be amongst them.
Perhaps my happy star will hinder
their going afar from me,
That my eye may be blest with them,
and that I may not ask, ‘Where are they?’

This 13th-century story fits, it applies. Or so we want to think. Can the Iraqi maqam, much less Baghdad, recover as it did after the 1258 sacking? Is this a similar historical moment? The tradition of the Iraqi maqam is a vocal one. Inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, it depends on a stable society where singers, musicians, and crowds gather regularly. Where kids grow up listening. With Crisis, ElSaffar makes a real contribution to the lineage. Whether it is to endure as a distinct maqam is now up to the Iraqi people.


Simon Davis-Cohen is the grandson of two late Iraqi Jews, whose Baghdadi heritages date back more than 2,500 years.

LARB Contributor

Simon Davis-Cohen is the grandson of two late Iraqi Jews, whose Baghdadi heritages date back more than 2,500 years.


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