The musical form, which resonated for hundreds of years in Iraq, is now on the edge of a precipice but Hamid al Saadi has taken a journey to save it from extinction.
Hamid al Saadi performs the Iraqi Maqam with the chivalry tradition in mind as if he was a knight in a battle. He captures its splendour with his thunderous and warm voice, giving goosebumps to his listeners, while narrating the stories of Iraqis in what is considered to be a spiritual and mystical singing.
Born in Iraq in 1958, Al Saadi started practising Maqam on his own for several years until he mastered the musical form. Instead of starting with the easy notes, he told TRT World, he started learning the difficult ones. Then one fine day in his mid-20s he showed up at one of the Maqam practising places in Baghdad, where he stunned everyone, including senior Maqam masters, with his impeccable hold on the genre.
From his formative years to the day he left Iraq, he said he was 'neither rich nor poor'. But the country's traditional music was devastated by the two wars — Gulf War I in 1991 and the US invasion in 2003 — pushing thousands of musicians to the brink.
Before the wars ruined Iraq's music scene, the Maqam, which in Arabic means “a place”, could be heard indoors at people’s homes, in coffee houses, during parties and informal social gatherings.
It has now become almost impossible to hear it in the capital.
The future of Maqam
Political unrest has made it incredibly challenging for younger people “to attain the training and depth of knowledge of melody, composition, poetry, rhythmic nuance, improvisational skill, and vocal technique that Hamid al Saadi is able to weave together as a captivating and world-renowned performer of Iraqi Maqam,” explains New York-based ethnomusicologist George Murer.
Al Saadi is currently the only performer of his generation who knows all the 56 Maqamat of the Baghdad repertoire. To ensure that the musical form survives, he has been travelling around the world, taking it to the people in countries like France, the UK, Switzerland, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Azerbaijan, Tunisia and Jordan. He has also written a book on the Maqam (“Al Maqam and Bahr al-Melodies”), which he believes is the most sophisticated art that emerged from the Iraqi culture.
"The Maqam represents the history of Iraq, musically and poetry wise," Al Saadi told TRT World.
"It also translates to society’s events by narrating them. Since the dawn of history, Iraqi people have always cared for music and creativity and art.”
Al Saadi is optimistic about the future of the Maqam in America “because of loyal students who are dedicated to learning and preserving it”.
At the peak of his career in Iraq, Al Saadi was mentored by Yusuf Omar, a renowned Maqam singer who died in 1987 after naming him as his successor.
Iraq's legendary Maqam performer Muhammed Al-Gubbenchi (1901-1989), who had mentored Omar, made a prediction about Al Saadi, saying the young and rising Maqam star will become the “ideal link to pass on the maqam to future generations.”
Al Saadi believes that the Maqam will continue to be performed and taught in the US, “as long as there is an appreciative and cultured audience”.
After his first visit to America in 2013, Al Saadi moved to New York in 2018. He has felt welcomed and supported in the country.
“I have felt the liberty to perform my art to an audience that appreciated it. With the support and encouragement of my friends and students here, especially musician Amir ElSaffar, with whom I developed an artistic musical partnership and social connection, that made me feel home away from it.”
ElSaffar plays the santur, but he is also a jazz trumpet player.
Al Saadi has performed in more than 30 events with different musicians and bands in several museums, stages and schools around the country, he says.
He now has “more than twenty students in different parts of the world.”
The Maqam, recognized by UNESCO as an “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity,” is passed on from generation to generation.
"It carries a message of peace and love to all of humanity,” Al Saadi says, adding that it is a “highly-structured melodic system which follows strict and fixed scientific rules that guide the reciter through the tonal transitions.”
Like a complex musical form, Al Saadi says, it requires a trained voice with a wide range to move between high and lower octaves while reciting the mode of the Maqam.
The Maqam centres around Iraqi poems sung in Arabic. It is also recited in religious rituals and Sufi chants and in athletic settings where the Maqam is sung to energize the participants performing physical activity in zurkhanes (athletic houses), Al-Saadi explains.
“The Maqam repertoire of Baghdad is very distinctive but is also connected on many levels to music performed in Iran, in Azerbaijan, in Syria,” Murer adds.
The instruments accompanying the reciter (qari’) usually include a joza, santur, tabla or doumbek, riq and naqqarah. And each Iraqi Maqam has its own unique and elaborate structure.
One of his students Zahra AlZubaidi, who is also an actress, explains that by performing the Maqam, she feels she is reconnecting with a part of herself.
Before Al Saadi, she says no one in America had given her that meaningful opportunity. Since she is one of the few female Maqam artists to perform a traditionally male-dominated art form, she said Al Saadi believed in her and gave her the confidence she needed to start embracing the musical genre.
She now finds herself walking in the footsteps of Sideeqa Almulleya, another Iraqi female Maqam performer, who is known for her interpretation of the Maqam entitled “Bherzawi.”
"Al Saadi has a very high standard,” ElSaffar says. “He is innovating inside the tradition by taking the melody from one Maqam and inserting it into another Maqam in a way it has not been done before." Al-Saadi and ElSaffar have also performed a Maqam-Jazz fusion together. But in America, the Maqam has also merged with the classical Indian music Raga.
Al Saadi says Raga-Maqam fusion "attests to the Maqam’s capacity to work with original musical forms from different nations and origins”.
The Lincoln Center commissioned ElSaffar for the development of the new work “Raga Maqam,” which explores connections between the two musical streams, says Jordana Leigh, who is an art director at the Lincoln Center.
Al Saadi doesn't see his return to Iraq will be possible anytime soon. Al Saadi is contemplating on moving to Turkey.
“My country is unstable and affected by the wars that destroyed it,” Al-Saadi says. “Despite its beauty, the good nature of my people and their love for life, there is no security or stability because of those who are in power. I don't feel safe there and I fear for my life if I go back.”