Rivers of Sound play at the confluence of two musical traditions: jazz, and Iraqi Maqam. Amir Elsaffar, the founder of the group, grew up in Chicago, immersed in the jazz scene there (fun fact: while he is known as a trumpeter, his first instrument was the ukulele, followed by guitar, at age 9). While his father is an Iraqi immigrant, he did not grow up with the Maqam tradition, and began studying it as an adult; he learned to speak Arabic as he immersed himself in this musical and linguistic tradition. (Read more in this interview with the Shangri La Museum of Islamic Art, Culture & Design.)

Poet Zeina Hashem tells us more about the maqam tradition in her poem “Maqam”:

Where we come from, you and I,
maqam means home, means music; the Qur’an
can only be read as a song; a sheikh recites the Fatiha
as if he has built a house among the lines, the ayas.

You can listen to her read her award winning poem, plus a 10-minute conversation with Zeina Hashem and the editors of Poetry Magazine.

Watch a trailer for Rivers of Sound: "Not Two"

Learn more about Amir ElSaffar, plus more about Rivers of Sound.

Listen to two tracks from Amir ElSaffar and Rivers of Sound’s most recent album, Not Two (and if you want to hear more, Amir recommends that you buy it in vinyl!).

Watch some live performances and interviews with Amir and his previous group, Two Rivers, in NPR’s archives.

Read a story about Amir ElSaffar in the New York Times, and an extended interview with him in All About Jazz.

Ben Ratliff’s Indefinite Article on Rivers of Sound: “ElSaffar’s hybrid musical conception has passed far beyond experiment.”

Office Hours with Amir ElSaffar and Professor Martin Daughtry


Get a glimpse into the artistic process with Amir ElSaffar and Professor Martin Daughtry in this installation of NYU Skirball’s “Office Hours.” ElSaffar gets in-depth about music theory, composition, and his piano tuning skills, and Daughtry reads Langston Hughes’ 1920 poem “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” and proposes that ElSaffar’s musical style is better described as “confluence” than “fusion.”

Martin Daughtry, PhD is Associate Professor of Music, Russian and Slavic Studies, and Associated Faculty of the Hagop Kevorkian Center for Near Eastern Studies at NYU.

Extra Credit

Read Howard Medium Mandel’s article on Amir ElSaffar in the January 2014 issue of Downbeat entitled, “Amir ElSaffar: Exquisite Alchemist

Fusion, confluence, palimpsest: what’s in a term? Read Martin Daughtry (NYU)’s essay “Acoustic Palimpsests and the Politics of Listening.”

Read Professor Kwami Coleman’s (NYU) essay “Everyone’s Creative: George E. Lewis and Ubiquitous Improvisation,” on the potential of creativity in art and everywhere in between.

Want to learn more about the basics of the study of music from a range of cultural perspectives?: The Cultural Study of Music: A Critical Introduction.

Interested in how Arab cultures have been integrated into music in a plethora of ways? Here’s Chapter 2 of The Arab Avant-Garde: Music, Politics, Modernity.

Are you a history buff? Mona Hassan’s Longing for the Lost Caliphate gives a global history of the significance of the the word “caliphate” for Muslims through different eras and in different places. [Intro, Chapter One]

Bonus Track

Take a walk and hear Washington Square Park differently with the Holladay Brothers‘ site-specific composition, commissioned by NYU Skirball and available on your smartphone