Hamid Al-Saadi Makes a Transcendent North American Debut
Hamid Al-Saadi and the Iraqi Maqam Ensemble made a transcendent North American debut at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine tonight, one of the highlights of a week of Iraqi cultural events sponsored by downtown hotspot Alwan for the Arts. Al-Saadi is widely considered the world’s foremost singer of Iraqi maqam music, a once-popular style now more widely performed throughout the Iraqi diaspora than where it began. Because there are vastly more Iraqi maqam modes than western musical scales, the repertoire is vast (Al-Saadi is said to have mastered it in its entirety) and so is the emotional terrain it covers. This being a historic event, the crowd was silent and rapt during the beginning of the show, but it wasn’t long before the clapping and singing along began. The choice of St. John the Divine as a venue was brilliant, the natural reverb bringing Al-Saadi’s highly ornamented, minutely nuanced vocals into intensely close focus against the sometimes plaintive, sometimes jaunty backdrop of Dakhil Ahmed’s raw, rustic jowza fiddle, Amir ElSaffar’s precisely rippling santoor and Sabah Kadhum’s hypnotically booming goblet drum.
By and large, outside of the west, cultures don’t invest much energy trying to establish boundaries between classical and so-called popular music. This concert had all the intensity and rigor of a classical performance and the improvisational electricity of a jazz show. Al-Saadi’s melismatic baritone, as he went down the scale, was sometimes aching and haunting, other times mystical and occasionally laced with humor – there were a few lyrics made up on the spot to go with the music. Likewise, Al-Saadi would occasionally turn a verse over to Ahmed, who also turned out to be both a fine singer and a solid percussionist, nonchalantly demonstrating his chops through a long, trance-inducing twin drum solo with Kadhum. Ahmed got most of the instrumental intros, ElSaffar – a student of Al-Saadi and one of the world’s leading advocates for the maqam tradition – finally getting the chance to lead the band on a mysterious tangent into one of the final numbers. As a whole, the show followed a familiar trajectory, beginning serious and viscerally somber in places (these guys are from Iraq – who could possibly blame them?) before picking up with an unexpectedly lighthearted bounce, then moving into more pensive, brooding, often angst-ridden terrain before closing on a fiery, rhythmic note.
When there were vocal harmonies (everybody sang at some point), they added a jarring, almost breathless edge to the music. There was a lot more intricate interplay than straight-up call-and-response between instruments, but the band made the most of those opportunities, whether with a biting, jousting edge, or slowly and meticulously building suspense or intensity when trading bars. The acoustics in the church being what they were, the effect of ElSaffar’s long, sustained, bell-like pedal notes against the almost horn-like resonance of the jowza was otherworldly to the extreme. Maqam music tends to be intimate: this wasn’t, by a long shot, but as the richness of the microtones blended and swirled throughout the vast space, it was sonic heaven. Or as one could say in Arabic, alwan. Al-Saadi has further stops on his debut US tour including March 22 at 8 PM at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago and March 23 at 8 PM at the Hill Auditorium at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. For Illinois and Michigan fans of Iraqi music – or anyone with a fondness for otherworldly, hypnotic, emotionally transporting sounds – these are shows not to be missed.
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