Cultural reconciliation through healing musical ecstasy


Amir ElSaffar

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It is said to be capable of inducing a healing trance state – Stambeli, a mystical music and dance form related to the Moroccan Gnawa tradition most commonly takes place in the street. Stambeli was first created in Tunisia by enslaved people from Central Africa. They found each other and were influenced by traditions such as Arab Sufism. The frenetic music calls back to a past of oppression, for example in the use of metal castanets – said to refer to the chains worn by enslaved people. The American-Iraqi trumpeter Amir ElSaffar breathes new life into Stambeli, together with musicians from Tunisia, Mali and other countries of the continent. In doing so, he makes a cultural connection between North Africa and sub-Saharan Africa. This project first began in the Tunis medina, and can be seen here both on the streets of Amsterdam Nieuw-West and in the Muziekgebouw concert hall.

background information

Endlessly billowing group singing that sounds like a game of call and answer is alternated with riveting solos. Drumbeats, krakebs (iron castanets), and the sounds of string instruments like the low-tuned,

three-stringed guembri animate the whole. This is Stambali, a healing ritual from Tunis with, according to lore, roots in the south of the Sahara along the route of the slave trade.

Enslaved West Africans arrived in North Africa and brought their culture with them, which included animistic trance rituals, comparable to voodoo in Haiti. In Tunisia, these mixed with Islam, resulting in sessions full of untamed music and dance that went on for hours. Though the similar rituals of North African Muslim brotherhoods such as gnawa in Morroco already made their way to European music stages a long time ago, Stambali remained relatively unknown abroad.

Nevertheless, the jazz trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, born in the United States with an Iraqi background, saw the potential for a special project to temporarily revive Stambeli practice in the streets of the Medina of Tunis and to bring this ritual to the streets of European cities. Upon the invitation of Dream City Festival in Tunis, he gathered twelve musicians from Tunisia (both from Tunis and southern Tunisia) and other countries around the Sahara.

One of them, Salah El Ouerghli (guembri player) is one of the last Maâlem of Stambali in Tunis. even though there are still a handful of gumbri players in Tunis, he is today the unique representative of a musical, cultural, and spiritual knowledge that is in danger of disappearing. Among other instruments, the ngoni and balafon, two musical instruments from Mali, add a characteristic sound to the mix. At the concerts of this diverse group, a collective musical language emerges, and rituals unfold that transcend the cultural differences between the musicians.

ElSaffar plays his richly ornamented melodies over this ritualistic foundation. With Transe, ElSaffar wants to bring attention to slavery as a phenomenon interwoven with human history throughout the world and the unequal distribution of power. Transe is a collective experience in which everybody can participate. It is a unique platform for the exchange of religious beliefs, stories and expressions between people. In this manner, ElSaffar is trying to create conditions for a shared healing process and to once more forge links that were lost in the course of history.



Amir ElSaffar (1977, Chicago) was born to an Iraqi-American family. His father is a physicist and an immigrant from Iraq. After studying classical music at DePaul University in his hometown, ElSaffar

applied himself to jazz and Arabic singing. As a trumpeter, he combines contemporary styles of jazz with elements from Arabic music, such as microtonal intervals and the ornamentation in that tradition. He has performed with renowned jazz musicians, such as Cecil Taylor, Marc Ribot, Henry Grimes and Vijay Iyer.

Since visiting his father’s native country, he has devoted himself to preserving the musical heritage of the Iraqi maqam, a classical genre in which improvisation plays an important part. He performs this music as a singer and on a string instrument played with little hammers, the santur. He incorporates elements from Arabic traditions, jazz, and contemporary music in his compositions.

In 2015, he founded the seventeen-person Rivers of Sound Orchestra in which musicians from widely diverse backgrounds play together. He also performed in the Netherlands with this group. In 2018, he composed Luminescencia for the Flamenco Biennale, in which Arabic and Flamenco styles came together.



music, trumpet
Amir ElSaffar
o.a. Salah el Ouerghli, Yahya Chouchen, Aly Keita, Yacouba Sissoko, Sidy Koumare, Mohamed Hedi El Abaassi, Adel Touaima, Moussa Soudani, Tariq Soltan, Amin Benaaded/Bourhen Chouchen
mentor, consultant
Salah el Ouerghli

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