Amir ElSaffar’s Two Rivers Ensemble featuring Maqam vocalist Hamid Al-Saadi
Iraqi-American trumpeter, santur player, vocalist, and composer Amir ElSaffar presents
a concert of his Two Rivers Ensemble at Drom in New York City on the occasion of the
20-year anniversary of the US-led invasion and occupation of Iraq. ElSaffar’s Two
Rivers Ensemble, a sextet combining Iraqi Maqam with American Jazz, will join forces
with the renowned Iraqi Maqam singer from Baghdad, Hamid Al-Saadi.
On March 20, 2003, the United States launched an unprovoked war on Iraq, based on
the false pretense that the Iraqi regime had weapons of mass destruction and was
partially responsible for the 9/11 attacks.
The invasion and occupation of Iraq devastated the country, plunging it into civil war
and cycles of violence that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives and destroyed the
country’s infrastructure. It also had consequences beyond Iraq’s borders, destabilizing
the region, and pushing millions to flee their homes.
Twenty years later, while for many Americans the “Iraq war” is a thing of the past, Iraqis
are still living through the war, whether exiled as a result of violence or living in a country
ravaged by conflict and without a functioning state able to provide basic services.
These concerts mourn and honor the Iraqi lives lost and the hopes and futures that
were broken. They also celebrate the richness, beauty, and resilience of Iraq, its culture, and its people.
Amir ElSaffar: trumpet, santur, vocal
Carlo DeRosa: bass
Ole Mathisen: tenor saxophone
Nasheet Waits: drums
Tareq Abboushi: buzuq, percussion
Zafer Tawil: oud, nay, percussion
Hamid Al-Saadi: Maqam vocal
Amir ElSaffar is an Iraqi-American composer, trumpeter, santur player, and vocalist working at
the intersections between jazz, Western classical, and Maqam music of Iraq and the Middle East.
An expert jazz trumpeter with a classical background, ElSaffar has created techniques to play
microtones and ornaments idiomatic to Arabic music that are not typically heard on the trumpet.
He is also one of the few musicians in his generation to master the centuries-old Iraqi maqam
tradition, in which he performs actively as a vocalist and santur (Iraqi hammered dulcimer) player.
As a composer, ElSaffar has created a unique microtonal harmonic language that merges the
Arabic maqam modal system with contemporary Western harmony.
ElSaffar tours internationally with several ensembles, including his six-piece Two Rivers
Ensemble and 17-piece Rivers of Sound Orchestra, which combine elements of jazz,
contemporary music, and Maqam. ElSaffar has received commissions in the US, Europe, and the
The Arab world, including compositions for symphony orchestras, string quartets, small chamber
ensembles, large and small jazz ensembles, Middle Eastern music ensembles, as well as hybrid
projects with Raga, Flamenco, and Subsaharan African trance music, and was the composer-in-
residence of the Transcultural Music program at the Royaumont Foundation in France (2016-
2019). ElSaffar is a recipient of the Doris Duke Performing Artist Award (2013), United States
Artists Fellowship (2018), and a Hodder Fellowship at Princeton University (2020-2021) where
he is working on his first opera, Ruins of the Encampment.
About Hamid Al-Saadi:
Hamid Al-Saadi, Iraq’s foremost purveyor of this centuries-old tradition, is renowned for
his powerful voice and highly ornamented style, as well as his comprehensive
knowledge of the intricate details of the music and poetry of Iraq. He studied with the
legendary Yusuf Omar, who named Al-Saadi as his successor. Muhammed Al-
Gubbenchi, who taught Omar and was probably the most influential maqam reciter in
history, said that he considered Al-Saadi to be the “ideal link to pass on the maqam to
future generations.” Al-Saadi is the only person from his generation to have memorized
and mastered all 56 maqamat from the Baghdad repertoire and is one of the few
vocalists to keep this maqam alive today.