Safaafir – Iraqi Maqam


Safaafir is a name that evokes the ancient art of coppersmithing in Iraq .  Soug al-Safaafir, or the coppersmiths’ market, is a well-known market in Baghdad , memorable for the din of hammers on copper and the glowing beauty of each creation.  The sound of the Iraqi Maqam has often been likened to the Soug al-Safaafir for the metallic timbre of the instruments and the percussive hammering of the ancient rhythms.  Amir and Dena ElSaffar, brother and sister, come from a family of Safaafir (sing. Saffar), or coppersmiths, and it is from their ancestors’ legacy that the name of the ensemble was born.  Since its inception in late 2005, Safaafir has performed throughout the US in concert halls, museums, universities, and private parties.   


In 2002, Amir set out on a journey to learn the Iraqi Maqam, an intricate and highly developed vocal tradition.  In his travels, which took him to Iraq , as well as other countries in the Middle East and Europe , he learned to sing Maqam and to play santoor, a 96-stringed hammered-dulcimer that is used in Maqam performance.  This was a departure from the jazz and classical trumpet playing for which he was already garnering a reputation, having performed with Daniel Barenboim and Cecil Taylor, and winning two international jazz trumpet competitions.  He was set on a new course.  When he returned to the U.S. , he brought a djoze (spike fiddle made from coconut) for Dena, and a pair of naqaraat (small kettle drums) for his brother-in-law, Tim Moore.  Dena and Tim have performed together for more than a decade with Salaam, a Middle Eastern music ensemble which Dena started in 1993.  They, too, became inspired by the Maqam of Iraq and began to learn the repertoire from Amir.  This ensemble has an undeniable chemistry and harkens back to the old ensembles, which often consisted of members of the same family.


It is interesting and surprising to many to encounter a group of musicians living in the U.S. who are dedicating themselves to the centuries-old traditions of Iraqi music, particularly because there are few masters remaining to keep the tradition alive, either in Baghdad or abroad.  Fuad Mishu, an esteemed Iraqi musician who lives in the U.S. remarked that Amir and his group were “a miracle.” The gift of this intricate vocal tradition from Iraq is being brought to the ears of Americans, Iraqis, and others, as Safaafir continues breathing new life into the music of old, against the backdrop of the 21st century.


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