Arts, Culture & Media

Celebrating the Music of Maqam, From Spain to Western China

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SSAHHA play gnawa at Maqam Fest. From left to right: Amino Belyamani on sintir, Sam Minaie on bass, guest Hassan Ben Jaafar on percussion and vocals, Shelley Thomas on vocals, Qasim Naqvi on drums, and Brahim Fribgane on vocals.

What, exactly, is a maqam?

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"They're basically seven note scales similar to western scales, except that some of them have uncommon intervals. In particular intervals that use quarter tones—notes that sort of would lie somewhere in between the white keys and the black keys on the piano," explains Iraqi-American musician and Alwan for the Arts Maqam Fest curator Amir ElSaffar.

ElSaffar says the festival explores how maqam has crossed all sorts of national and regional boundaries. "It's just fascinating to me that this musical language has existed throughout the centuries and has traversed this incredible distance. It sort of tells a history—and maybe an alternative history–of humanity."

One group playing Maqam Fest, New Andalucia, takes the historical connections between Spain and North Africa as a jumping-off point. They began with an oud and a nylon-string guitar trading improvisation–a classic way of settling into a maqam.

Sevillan singer Alfonso Mugaburo Cid sings lines of poetry about a beautiful woman wearing a cross.

Tunisian musician Taoufiq Ben Amor answers with lines from an old Arabic poem. The lines are by a Muslim poet; he's also admiring a woman wearing a cross on a necklace.

"He doesn't have an issue with the difference of religion," Ben Amor explained in an interview a few days later. "It's just he's jealous of where the cross sits. And so it binds both. And then all of a sudden we both are singing these two really beautiful poems that are about a beloved woman wearing a cross."

European and Arabic traditions combined again in the piano of Amino Belyamani, whose group SSAHHA closed Maqam Fest. After studying western classical and jazz music, Belyamani started digging into the music—and maqam—of his native Morocco. In SSAHHA, he plays a piano that's been re-tuned to accommodate different maqam. He says the retuning opened up new vistas in his playing.

"I saw this…all these possibilities with the sound. And the piano's such a beautiful sound, that when you add that to it, it just sounds even better. It sounds more natural actually, it almost sounds like the piano is made for those kind of intervals."

And while delving into African and Arabic music has opened up new possibilities, the re-tuned piano creates certain logistical limitations. He had to go to L.A. to record SSAHHA's new album because he couldn't convince any studios in New York to re-tune their instruments. And he'd like to tour with the group, but it's hard to find venues with pianos, let alone ones that will re-tune them.

People have suggested playing with keyboards instead.

"But that way I will never impose this new paradigm," Belyamani says. "I think I just need to be stubborn about it until it happens. Just like anything at some point people accept this change. And I know that at some point festivals will have on their tech rider 'What tuning on your piano?' instead of just like 'Come to the soundcheck.'"

Until then, the good people at Maqam Fest are always up for re-tuning.

  • NewAndalucia.jpg

    New Andalucia, from left to right: Maya de Silva, Arturo Martinez, Alfonso Mugaburo Cid, Taoufiq Ben Amor, Zafer Tawil, and Ramzi Edlibi. (Photo: Bruce Wallace)

  • AminoSintir.jpg

    SSAHHA at Maqam Fest. From left to right: impromptu guest Hassan Ben Jaafar, Sam Minaie on bass, Amino Belyamani on sintir, Qasim Naqvi on drums, Shelley Thomas on vocals and percussion, and Brahim Fribgane on oud and vocals. Present but out of the frame: