Iraqi maqam vocalist Hamid Al-Saadi usually refrains from dramatic expressions when he performs. While his voice flows across different registers, he remains seated and focuses forward. This outward calm also hardly reveals how much effort he has put into preserving his music's legacy.
Maqam is one of the oldest and most influential classical Arabic genres. Its melodies are based on complex 24-note scales, so imagine extra notes in between black and white piano keys. The Iraqi version may be the most venerated. That's because the 400-year-old song cycles that developed in Baghdad are rooted in a cosmopolitan history, according to Al-Saadi.
"When Baghdad was the capital of the Abbasid Empire from the 700s to 1200s, it became a cultural center," Al-Saadi said from his home in Iraq's capital. "People came from Arab countries, Persia and Azerbaijan, so the music that existed in Iraq absorbed from these traditions, and it gave to their traditions as well. Whether it's a Persian or Uzbek melody, it will be transformed by an Iraqi musician."
This tradition follows a set repertoire and format, which Al-Saadi learned as a teenager and young adult in Baghdad. Islamic and secular poetry form the basis of the maqam lyrics, and vocalists are often called "reciters" rather than "singers."
Still, neither word describes Al-Saadi's uplifting way of unfurling long vocal lines that sound like calls to prayer, even when the words are not necessarily religious. Sometimes he'll pause for breath and allow for short flourishes of instrumental improvisation. That's why small, quick responding groups are the rule: Usually just a stringed santour (zither) and jawzah (spike fiddle), with one or two hand drummers keeping the understated rhythms moving. Usually, a young reciter will not directly seek out a mentor but quietly observe established masters.
Al-Saadi secretly watched these vocalists initially and did not perform publicly until he had memorized the entire repertoire at age 24. He then received guidance from prominent reciters Yusuf Omar and Mohammed Al-Gubbenchi. But this was also during a particularly brutal period. In the 1980s, Iraq was engaged in a devastating war with Iran, and music was seen only for its value as propaganda.
"Because of the war with Iran, the music that was encouraged praised Saddam Hussein and the army," Al-Saadi said. "It was political, and the maqam is very far from that."
Even with such hardships in Iraq, including international sanctions in the '90s, its maqam persevered. The sense of national honor and dignity among Iraqis that journalist Anthony Shadid described in his 2005 book, "Night Draws Near," undoubtedly contributed to the music's endurance. Al-Saadi mentions his performance opportunities then as underground, mostly in people's homes, but occasionally in Baghdad's National Museum. He left for England in 1999 and lived as an exile until returning home in 2005.
A different kind of musician approached Al-Saadi while he lived in London. Iraqi-American trumpeter (and Oak Park native) Amir ElSaffar began an intensive study of maqam in Baghdad in 2002 to find his own voice in jazz. He learned to play the santour and appreciates what he calls "its magical sound with a long sustained echo." Then ElSaffar sought out Al-Saadi.
"When I was in Iraq, people were asking me, 'What are you doing here? You can go to England and meet with the best reciter,'" ElSaffar said. "Hamid had the most effective teaching method and was the most concerned that I would learn the material."
ElSaffar is organizing Al-Saadi's first tour of the United States, playing santour in his group and serving as the ensemble's translator. This visit coincides with the 10-year anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Rather than discuss the war, Al-Saadi emphasizes that the arts are essential for mutual understanding. His ancient heritage is a key part of that bridge.
"Maqam goes back to old Mesopotamia, which connects all of us," Al-Saadi said. "This civilization is the root of modern Western culture."
When: 8 p.m. Friday
Where: Old Town School of Folk Music, 4544 N. Lincoln Ave.
Tickets: $25; 773-728-6000 or oldtownschool.org