Playlist #21: Trumpeters from the East | Curated by Amir ElSaffar

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This playlist is curated by Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar.The trumpet is not an instrument that comes to mind when we think about Arabic music. Typical Arabic instruments include the oud (lute), qanun (zither), ney (reed flute), violin, and various hand percussion instruments like the darbuka (goblet drum), riqq (tambourine), and other frame drums. In the modern era, the “org” or electronic keyboard, has become ubiquitous, dominating the Arabic music scene in weddings, night clubs, and on popular music recordings.

But the trumpet does have an interesting history in the Arab world, since it was introduced by occupying European empires during the colonial era of the 19th and early 20th centuries. Trumpet came to be used in the context of military brass bands, as it still is to this day in the Arab world. Subsequently, the trumpet was used in wedding bands, replacing the mizmar, the very loud double reed instrument typically heard in festive occasions. The most famous of the brass ensembles is Firqat Hasab Allah from Egypt, featured in many videos and television series throughout the years. This type of ensemble roughly approximates the mizmar and drum ensembles heard throughout the Middle East.

In the second half of the 20th century, a number of trumpeters emerged from the Arab world who took the trumpet into new contexts, accompanying popular singers, playing in nightclub ensembles, and becoming soloists in their own right.

The grandmaster of Arabic trumpet was Sami ElBably, who came from Al-Fayoum, an oasis town 100 km southwest of Cairo. His sound was heard all over the Arab world on recordings for the legendary Egyptian vocalist, Ahmed Adawiyya. Not only does ElBably play the microtones characteristic to Arabic music, but he has a silky smooth sound, and glides seamlessly between the notes. He was also a master of the maqamat, or Arabic modes, and was able to modulate freely between the microtonal modes in any key, which is extremely difficult on a three valve trumpet.

There were a few other trumpeters who had great influence in the 20th century from the region. Ergün Senlerendici was a Turkish trumpeter who was also brilliant in his use of Maqam and created his own style with the instrument, similar to that of ElBably’s, but with more virtuosity and a wilder flare to his improvisations. He was featured on several recordings by the Turkish percussionist, Okay Temiz, and is the father of superstar clarinetist Hüsnü Senlerendici.

Bellamou Massoud from Algeria, who is considered to be one of the founders of Rai Music is also on this playlist. He plays in a very different style, more about rhythm and articulation than Maqam, but very beautiful and innovative as well.

In the 1970s, a classical trumpeter from Lebanon named Nassim Maalouf invented a four valve trumpet, which facilitated the execution of quarter tones, normally very difficult to achieve on the trumpet. This innovation would have a tremendous impact, and was adopted by American jazz trumpeter Don Ellis in the 1970s and more recently by Nassim’s son, Ibrahim Maalouf.

Over the past decade, Ibrahim Maalouf has achieved great commercial success playing his own blend of Arabic, Jazz, Rock, and Classical music. The most traditional Arabic of his albums is one called Kalthoum, in which he arranges Um Kalthoum’s legendary song, Alf Layla wa Layla (A Thousand and One Nights).

Other trumpeters from the Arab world include Damascene trumpeter Nezar Omran who played with Fayrouz and Ziad Rahbani. Milad Khawan, also from Syria, but from the younger generation emigrated to Berlin several years ago, and created a unique style that draws on the complexities of jazz, infused with an authentic Arabic trumpet and a full, expressive sound.

Yazz Ahmed is a British-Bahraini trumpeter based in the UK, who has done some interesting and far reaching work connecting to her Bahraini heritage, while also employing electronics and sound design. She uses a four valve Flugelhorn to achieve quarter tones, but she approaches her improvisation with a highly developed jazz sensibility.

And it wouldn’t be a complete list of Arabic trumpet if I didn’t include something of my own work! Included on this playlist is a taqsim (improvisation) in the mode of Saba followed by a composition called El-Sha’ab, from my 2015 release, Crisis.


Many thanks for reading and listening!

Amir ElSaffar

What are MARSM Playlists?

Marsm’s bi-weekly playlists take on the musical history, trends and upcoming productions from the music scene in the Arabic-speaking countries. Each playlist focuses on a new theme, showcasing both underground and established artists – from the more dance-able to the most experimental – and everything in between.