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.