The chain that connects the pedal to the wheel

Ganzeer, a recent artist-in-residence at Shangri La, participated in POW! Wow! Hawaii’s week-long art festival this past February.

Ganzeer, meaning bicycle chain in Arabic, is the pseudonym of choice for this dynamic Egyptian artist. To be clear: he is not an author, comic book artist, installation artist, painter, speaker, street artist, or videographer, though he has assumed these roles in a number of places around the world. Rather, he is the chain that connects the pedals to the wheels–the mechanism that allows the bike to move. In the face of Egypt’s consecutive revolutions, he is a connector of ideas, a conduit of the energy generated on the street.

There are several ways you can keep an eye on Ganzeer in the upcoming months:

A special thanks to our interviewer, Maida Besic; our cameraman, Josh Lee; and video editor, Fritz De Guzman. The song in the clip is “More Love” by Rebelution.

An interview with Amir ElSaffar

Amir ElSaffar in the dining room at Shangri La.
Amir ElSaffar in the dining room at Shangri La.

Doris Duke was a woman of many interests and pursuits, which ranged across cultures and included exploring art, music, and architecture. Shangri La offers events and programs that reflect the eclectic nature of Doris Duke’s taste by providing live musical and dance performances, lectures, presentations, art installations, and more, all in a very inviting and comfortable atmosphere. The artists and guests that visit Shangri La are so diverse in their fields and backgrounds that I thought it would be a good idea to get to know them a little bit better. I interviewed our most recent artist in residence, Amir ElSaffar, an award-winning trumpeter/composer.

Amir embodies the very distinctive nature of Shangri La’s performances. He is recognized for incorporating traditional Iraqi Maqam with jazz and other contemporary music—an unlikely combination. He has created his own artistic style by exploring this new musical territory. A recent recipient of the Doris Duke Artist Award, he is also director of a few ensembles at Columbia University, curator of Alwan for the Arts, an Arab cultural center in New York, and is working on new commissions and collaborations. As of next month, Amir will be recording a new piece from his 2013 album, Two Rivers, that will be released in the summer of next year. Below is our interview:

Maida Besic: I read that the first instrument you learned to play was the ‘ukulele, is that right?

Amir ElSaffar: Yes, the first instrument I played was ‘ukulele, a local Hawaiian instrument. My mother played ‘ukulele and flute. We had this baritone ‘uke in the house that was my grandmother’s; I learned to play on that. Eventually I went to play guitar. I played folk music, Beatles songs, and then I moved to the electric guitar and was playing rock music. This was all between the ages of nine and thirteen. That was my earliest musical education.

Your father emigrated from Iraq, but Iraqi music wasn’t a large part of your upbringing. How come?

When my dad left Iraq…in 1953, I think he was trying to leave a lot behind him and move on to living in the West and being part of society in the States…. He didn’t seem to put much effort into maintaining the connection with his Iraqi roots. So speaking the Arabic language, [Iraqi] music, and Islam were not much a part of our upbringing. He didn’t try to make an active attempt to instill that in us, but there were Iraqi families in the neighborhood that we used to have dinners with and maintain some kind of connection with.

Iraqi music is a large part of your music now. You traveled to Iraq and Europe—trips spanning five years—to learn how to play the Maqam from traditional Iraqi musicians. What inspired that trip?

It was a gradual process, wanting to connect to the music of my ancestry, music of the Arab world…. I think when I was around twenty years old or so, [my sister] played a recording of an Egyptian trumpet player. I had to listen to it three or four times before I even recognized the instrument because he was playing it in such a different way and such an authentic way [with regard] to the tradition that it didn’t even sound like a trumpet at all. I never imagined that the trumpet could work in this music. So that was when I got my first inkling to start studying, and at the time I was getting a degree in classical trumpet and studying jazz. But after graduating college I decided to start understanding more of this tradition. I went to Egypt, met with this trumpet player a couple of times—didn’t really get a lesson but just heard him play up close, and got to talk to him a little bit…. When I moved to New York, that’s when I decided to study the music in a more serious and disciplined way, as a way of having something to offer.

What is the Maqam tradition?

Maqam is a general term that describes the modal system and melodic system of the Islamic world. In Iraq, Maqam has a more specific meaning: it is a composition, and has a beginning, middle, and end. It’s very, very strict in a way, but once you learn all of the rules, you can have all kinds of freedom and variation. So when you say “Maqam,” it has a much more general meaning, and “Maqam Iraqi” is a particular genre.

And what was it about the Maqam tradition specifically that drew you to the music?

I started studying different traditions—Egyptian, Tunisian, Lebanese, Syrian—but as soon as I heard the Iraqi Maqam I was like, what is this? I had to understand. I went to Baghdad, [where] I had a couple of really good teachers. I had a good entryway. It’s very composed but improvised at the same time. There is a very blurred line between composition and improvisation that was really interesting to me. The emotional content of it was so powerful, so strong, and really spoke to me on a lot of levels. Every time, I would learn a little bit. I wanted to understand more and more, so it blossomed in that way.

You also learned the Arabic language as a result of your trips. Did learning the language help you connect with the music on a deeper level? Is that something you purposely wanted to do?

The music is primarily vocal. It really depends so much on the poetry. The Arab culture is so much enamored with poetry and the spoken word—even the Quran. The power of the Quran is just the words themselves, the sound of the word, the way the grammar is used, which is why the translations of the Quran are never really successful in translating the deeper meaning, other than just the literal sense. So definitely that was an important element, and I don’t think I could have learned Maqam without having learned the language as well. Once I started to understand the poetry, the music came to life in this other way.

What are some of the common themes in the Arabic music/poetry of Maqam?

They are mostly love songs or love poetry. There are two genres in poetry. One is the qasida, which is the classical form throughout the Arab world; the other is the called zuheiri, and it’s a seven-line form that is in dialect. The qasida is universal in the Arab-speaking world. The main subjects that find themselves in the Maqam are those that deal with love and longing and sometimes a sense of loss, but always striving for or trying to reach the beloved. It can have this very literal reading or interpretation, or there’s always this divine, Sufi [element]—a much larger longing—so that often the poems can read in two different ways.

Why did you name your most recent album Alchemy?

Alchemy had to do with introducing the microtones, these quarter tones that don’t exist in western classical music. It was taking the quarter tones and putting them into the harmonic system of western music because all of the chords of western music are based on using the twelve notes. So I was introducing these other microtones into elements of western music, and a lot of other possibilities started to open up—new chords and new harmonies. That’s where the idea started. It was less about bridging Maqam and jazz, and more about something very musical, in that sense. It also connects to my name, which means coppersmith. Copper is an alloy:, it’s always a combination of two or three different metals…so that was something else I had been thinking about as well.

What are you currently working on?

I have a new piece that I composed for Two Rivers in 2013. It was a Newport Jazz Festival commission also funded by the Doris Duke Foundation that I’m going to be recording next month for summer release and [going on tour to support]. The next big composition is called Rivers of Sound. That’s with a large ensemble, a seventeen-piece group that’s going to perform at Lincoln Center Atrium in New York, and we have some future gigs in 2015 and 2016 already planned. I’m going to spend the first three months of the year writing for that project. It’s the largest-scale work I have composed until now.

What has your experience at Shangri La been like?

It’s been incredible—the combination of environment, being in Hawai‘i, this incredible ocean view and the sun in the morning…being in a warm place in November, that goes without saying. But of course this home that Doris Duke has so tastefully and remarkably put together and getting to explore the different rooms has been incredibly inspiring. Especially when going to places like Syria and Baghdad is not possible. It’s not the same, but practicing in the Syrian and Damascus rooms has been really inspirational…. Maybe, sometime in the 1800s, there was a group playing music in this room. What was that music like? Even if it’s just my imagination, it gives me a lot of ideas and inspiration. It’s been really wonderful, and I don’t know in what sense exactly…there’s a feeling of Doris Duke’s presence. And it could be just what she left behind and how she intended for her legacy to continue, but I really have a deep sense of gratitude to her and to everybody here, the whole staff and interns. Everyone has been so lovely and wonderful.

I’m not sure if Doris Duke could have envisioned all that Shangri La has become, but I find that Shangri La, as a space for the community, accomplishes something similar to what Amir has done with his music. What on the surface appears to be odd and out of place—an estate dedicated to an Islamic art collection in the middle of the Pacific Ocean—is somehow very much at home in the Islands. Here at Shangri La, the faraway and foreign become familiar, offering visitors the opportunity to see life from a different perspective through music, art, and history. I feel a similar sense of gratitude to Doris Duke and what she has managed to create during her life, which continues to enrich the lives of so many others, from interns to artists and guests that visit from all walks of life and from all parts of the world. Showcasing how different elements can be combined, here is a video of Amir’s music.



We’d love to hear what you think. Please share any thoughts or comments below.

_MG_4252 - Copy (2)About the Guest Author: Maida Besic was an intern in Shangri La’s Programs Department during the fall 2014 semester. She received her undergraduate degree in psychology with minor in Islamic studies, and worked with the El-Hibri Charitable Foundation in supporting Unity Productions Foundation’s efforts in showcasing Islamic culture. She is currently a graduate student at the University of Hawai’i, majoring in higher education administration with a focus on international education. While at Shangri La, Maida assisted the Programs Department with evaluating programs and the visitor experience, and with conceptualizing, planning, and launching public programs.

The View to an Expanding Horizon

The following is a guest post by Shangri La artist-in-residence Dr. Anita Vallabh.

As I sat on the lanai of the Playhouse, looking at the majesty of the ocean, its constant conversations with the shoreline, I imagined the romance of their nature. Yet each assumes a role true to itself, living its purpose. Having read Kahlil Gibran and Jalaluddin Rumi, I began to visualize the ocean as the lover seemingly seeking the beloved, somehow aware through its tireless efforts that the truth and power it seeks lie in its own depths, where silence reigns.

Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai'i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)
Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai’i. (Photo: David Franzen, 2011.)

In the presence of such magnificence and enchanting beauty, how can one not be conscious of being within a space whose very description captures its ethereal beauty in the words itself? How can one not be true to oneself and create the most honest work of art? How can one not hold a mirror to one’s life? How can one not put their egoist considerations aside, consider their past mistakes and seize the present opportunity to rectify them? How far can the tears be, given the wonders and blessings of our lives? And of the many hardships and pains that taught us the most valuable lessons? How can we not infuse movements that transform everyday gestures and familiar behavior with aesthetic delight?

Going back and forth between art and life…like the resounding waves holding within their depths the silence of life………such is the enchantment of Shangri La.

Shangri La is a much-revered destination for scholars, artists and tourists. In opening its doors to research and researchers in diverse fields, they have built a body of work that enriches not only our understanding of the artifacts housed therein but also recreates the story of times bygone.

When I read Wheeler Thackston’s (scholar in residence, December 3–8, 2010) translations of verses inscribed on some of the artifacts, they suggested to me the spiritual discipline of the artists, and the aesthetic experience that allowed for such exquisite workmanship. These translations and the music of Ghulam Farid Nizami  (who performed at Shangri La in March 2012) provided me with the material for a new choreographic piece in dance. So many resources, so many opportunities made possible because of the dedication, fortitude and single-mindedness to serve the arts. To me, Shangri La represents an enduring legacy of learning.

Anita Vallabh, Vicky Holt Takamine, and Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima rehearse in the Playhouse. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.
Anita Vallabh, Vicky Holt Takamine, and Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima rehearse in the Playhouse. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

It is in this magical space that I was invited to perform. I am deeply humbled by this invitation to create and perform Suzani: A Weaving of Traditions along with my revered kumu, Vicky Holt Takamine, and her very creative son, Jeff Takamine. Vicky truly represents the beauty, grace and dignity of Hawaiian culture. As two artists respectful of each other’s legacies of inherited culture and tradition, we worked for ten days, weaving together, with an unwavering commitment, patterned sequences of movements—sometimes complimentary sometimes opposing—allowing the movements to communicate and flow into one another. There was only the desire to flow with the music and allow our trained bodies to seek the rhythmic patterns, sometimes following the rhythms of the music, sometimes finding the silent space between the rhythms and sometimes chanting over the music.

Each of us looked forward to the process and to the rigors of practice and more practice, and the many ideas and input from every dancer. We shared our cultures, our approaches to learning, and the unique teacher/student relationship. For me, the most memorable moment was watching Jeff choreograph to Indian/Sufi music—the shift in orientation that was required of him. His brilliant mind weaved together movements both graceful and powerful to seamlessly bring together the music and dance. Another unforgettable experience was learning to make a lei. In the short time that I had between practice sessions I tried my hand at slicing through the ti leaves. I was charmed by the aloha spirit that the dancers infused into the lei making process. Later Jeff told me that each dancer was required to make her lei with “good and happy thoughts.”

As the performance date approached, we became more relaxed and confident. The vagaries of the weather caused some anxiety, but time and again Kumu Vicky assured us that the weather Gods would bless the evening and the performance by providing us with the perfect backdrop and lighting.

She could not have been more accurate in her prediction.

Anita Vallabh, Vicky Holt Takamine, and Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima performing Suzani: A Weaving of Traditions. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.
Anita Vallabh, Vicky Holt Takamine, and Pua Ali‘i ‘Ilima performing Suzani: A Weaving of Traditions. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

Based on this experience, it is my opinion that if two artists from significantly different backgrounds communicate well with each other and practice together they can weave the various elements of their individual artistic traditions around each other. What then evolves is a seamless weave of various threads into a cogent pattern, creating a tapestry of extraordinary cohesiveness.

I take back with me wonderful memories of time shared, of wonderful and inspiring people whose generosity continues to enrich and sustain my artistic life.

Thank you forever.


Making ti leaf lei. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.
Making ti leaf lei. Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic Art, Honolulu, Hawai‘i.

About the Guest Author: Dr. Anita Vallabh is a Bharatanatyam dancer,
choreographer and teacher from Chennai, India. She was trained in the classical
traditions by Smt. Shanta and Sri. V.P. Dhananjayan. She was the recipient of
the National Award for the Best Dancer (1992-1993) from the National Hindi
Academy, Calcutta, and was conferred the title of “Kala Bharati”. Vallabh
received a Ph.D. from the University of Madras in 2002 and has performed
internationally throughout Asia, Europe and the United States. She is the
Creative Director the Chennai-based Aeka Academy, a holistic performing arts
school established under the auspices of Vaels’ Group Of Institutions.