Amir ElSaffar’s Alwan Ensemble delivers a lively and transporting performance of well-loved folk, popular, and art music of the Arab world. In Ashwāq, ecstatic works by revered Sufi poet Ibn Al Arabi are set for voice, santur, and string quartet.

The Alwan Ensemble

The Alwan Ensemble delivers a lively and transporting performance of well-loved folk, popular, and art music of the Arab world, highlighting styles and repertoire from Iraq, Palestine, Syria and Egypt. Built around mesmerizing textures of rhythmic and improvisational intensity, the music is based on the maqam modal system, with great emphasis on poetry and highly intricate, interwoven melodies sung by a soloist or chorus, accompanied by the rich bed of sound created by the combination of Middle Eastern instruments.

The Alwan Ensemble’s performance evokes ambiances of Cairo, Baghdad, al-Quds and Aleppo – each cities with great legacies in art and culture, and characteristic and distinct musical repertories – while reflecting the richness and cultural vibrancy of contemporary New York.

The group consists of six members, all of whom sing and play a wide range of Arab musical styles on traditional instruments and display their seasoned sensibilities and technique across a diverse array of musical selections. Based in New York City, the ensemble has developed its sound over the past 12 years at Alwan for the Arts, a hub for Arab and Middle Eastern culture in New York. Alwan’s mission is to foster and promote Middle Eastern culture, and to build a community around the arts that celebrates engagement, participation, and dialogue.

Participating musicians:

George Ziadeh – voice and oud
Amir ElSaffar – santur, trumpet, and voice
Zafer Tawil – qanun
Naseem Al-Atrash — cello
Tareq Abboushi — buzuq
Dena ElSaffar — violin, viola, jowza
Carlo DeRosa — upright bass
Tim Moore — percussion

Ashwāq, for string quartet, santur, and voice
Based on Ibn Arabi’s Turjuman al-Ashwāq

Muhyiddin ibn Arabi (1165-1240) is among the most revered spiritual leaders and Sufi masters in Muslim history. His Turjuman al-Ashwāq (Interpreter of Desires), a collection of 61 poems addressed to a young woman named Nizam, is an embodiment of the ideals of love and transcendence, and an exploration of the divine and ecstatic nature of unity in the variety of the manifest world.

Selections from Ibn Al Arabi’s work are set for voice and string quartet, using the sonorities of the instruments to interpret and reflect upon the inner meanings of Ibn Al Arabi’s text within the resonance of the maqam (musical mode). Inspired by tarab, or ecstasy, the timbres evoke the overtones of the Arab takht (chamber ensemble) and rhythmic pulsations that conjure folk instruments and dance, while combining with string techniques and affectations of contemporary music.

The string quartet, a creation of the European enlightenment, occupies a central role in the Western classical canon. More intimate than symphonic works, and with an interaction not found in solo repertoire, the quartet is a place of philosophical enquiry, where ideas and arguments are worked out in a dialectical framework with harmonic progression, counterpoint, and form as the aesthetic currency.

Ashwāq’s harmonies emanate from the sustained microtonal resonance inherent to the maqam. Exploring heterophony – simultaneous renderings of a single melodic phrase with variation – as an alternative to counterpoint, string and vocal melodies are woven around one another in expressions of unity in multiple forms As such, it is a pertinent musical creation to Ibn Al Arabi’s words that are expressed through the language of maqam, which, in addition to its musical meaning, refers to stations on the Sufi’s spiritual path to unity and transcendence.

“An imaginative bandleader, expanding the vocabulary of the trumpet and at the same time the modern jazz ensemble.”
—All About Jazz


Trumpeter, santur player, vocalist, and composer Amir ElSaffar has distinguished himself with a mastery of diverse musical traditions and a singular approach to combining Middle Eastern musical languages with jazz and other styles of contemporary music. A recipient of the 2013 Doris Duke Performing Artist Award, ElSaffar has been described as one of the most promising figures in jazz today. ElSaffar is an expert trumpeter with a classical background; conversant in the language of contemporary jazz, he has also created techniques to play microtones and ornaments idiomatic to Arabic music that are not typically heard on the trumpet. Additionally, he is a purveyor of the centuries old (and now endangered) Iraqi maqam tradition, which he performs actively as a vocalist and santur player. As a composer, ElSaffar has used the microtones found in Iraqi maqam music to create an innovative approach to harmony and melody. ElSaffar is an important voice in an age of cross-cultural music making.

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