Rivers of sound
From the October, 2017 issue
Amir ElSaffar grew up in Chicago playing classical trumpet. He shifted over to jazz, became a practicing musician, and traveled to Iraq to master the music of his father's heritage, Baghdadi playing and singing.
ElSaffar went on to explore ways of combining Middle Eastern and Western sounds, focusing mainly on modern jazz. He was not the first to attempt such blending, but previous efforts were mainly explorations of exotica, without the deep commitment that such projects require. While Westerners often consider the music of other lands as esoteric and alien, this was not always the case; there was much intermingling of traditions in earlier times, including the borrowing of instruments. Perhaps the best known are the cases of the lute, which goes back to the Arabic oud, and the violin, possibly descended from the rebab; in turn, the Western violin circled back to the Middle East, where it is widely used today. In the fringes of Europe where cultures intertwined, in Spanish Andalusia, or in the Balkans, Arabic scales became nativized and survive to this day.
ElSaffar has tapped into this ancient eclecticism. Well trained in Western trumpet technique, he's adapted the instrument to play the quarter-tones that are so characteristic of Middle Eastern music. In addition to becoming a proficient singer in the Baghdadi vocal tradition, he learned to play the santur, a form of hammered dulcimer that, together with the jowza, an Iraqi version of the rebab, carries the melodies in traditional Baghdadi ensembles. His first attempts at blending jazz and Middle Eastern music celebrated his Iraqi heritage, but as he continued his experiments, his palette expanded to encompass the music of its neighbors. Reflecting this, the names of his ensembles have evolved, from Two Rivers, referencing the Tigris and Euphrates, to Rivers of Sound, invoking a much broader sonic landscape.
Rivers of Sound, which UMS will bring to the Power Center on October 18, is his most ambitious project to date, involving seventeen
musicians of diverse backgrounds. Saxophones and clarinet, cello and violin play alongside santur and fiddle-like jowza (played by Amir and his sister Dena). The traditional jazz drum set, played by the master Nasheet Waits, combines with percussion instruments of many lands, including the Lebanese/Syrian buzuk and Southern Indian mridanga drums.
The music often develops slowly, each composition exploiting a different mood, from bright exclamations to stately procession-like dirges. ElSaffar takes his time, exploiting the variety of sounds provided by the large ensemble, using repetition to build tension and then slowly winding it down; soloists emerge from the ensemble and then blend back in, with melodies and rhythms passed between instruments. Throughout, the pulse invokes dancing, and it is no surprise that ElSaffar will appear again, in another U-M presentation, performing his own music for the Ragamala Dance Company performance on October 20.
[Originally published in October, 2017.]
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