Artists bring music, stories of Iraqi women to the stage
The Center for the Arts at Virginia Tech, the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences, the College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences Dean’s Advisory Committee on International Initiatives, and the Department of Theatre and Cinema are partnering to bring two free performances of “The Sounds of Desire: An Ensemble Cast Featuring Heather Raffo” to Squires Studio Theatre on Jan. 21 at 8 p.m. and Jan. 22 at 3 p.m.
Author and actress Heather Raffo has teamed up with a group of internationally accomplished musicians to create a concert version of her one-woman show, “9 Parts of Desire,” detailing the lives of nine Iraqi women. The performance combines melodic solos with the spoken word using characters from Raffo’s show.
Raffo is joined by Amir ElSaffar, accomplished jazz trumpeter and Iraqi santoor player; Syrian vocalist Gaida; percussionist Johnny Farraj; and oud player Hadi Eldebek. Akin to slam poetry, Raffo and the musicians present a concert of urban and classical sounds, introducing a new dimension to Raffo’s piece. Both mythical and contemporary, the women’s words weave in and out of the ancient quarter tone scales of the classical santoor and the improvisational heart of jazz, resulting in a melody decidedly Iraqi and American.
Raffo and ElSaffar, both children of Iraqi and American parents, met soon after the war in Iraq began in 2003. The war would prove to be a pivotal point in their work. Both raised in the Midwest with large extended families still living in Baghdad, their recent work reflects a vision of translating an Iraqi cultural experience for an American ear. “The Sounds of Desire” was created as a platform from which Raffo and ElSaffar could expand their work by adding new characters, music, and musicians.
Musicians Gaida, Farraj, and Eldebek have performed in some of New York’s top musical venues and have established themselves as major talents in the contemporary music scene, both individually and as a group. With each musician fully steeped in not only the traditions of their heritage in the Middle East, but with the countries of their travels, studies, and their present homes, their collaboration with “Sounds of Desire” has introduced many more musical influences and textures.
“9 Parts of Desire” was Raffo’s first work as a playwright. Her artistic career began as an actress, having spent the last 10 years performing in off-Broadway, regional theater, and film productions. Raffo first performed “9 Parts of Desire” in August 2003 at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh, Scotland. It was moved later that same year to the Bush Theatre in London. The show was then developed and performed as a reading at The Public Theatre in New York City as part of their New Work Now festival in 2004.
The New York City premiere of “9 Parts of Desire” was at the Manhattan Ensemble Theatre, where the show was sold out for its entire nine-month run. Since then, “9 Parts of Desire” has been produced across the U.S. and is currently being translated for international productions in Brazil, Greece, Sweden, Turkey, and France. Raffo has been awarded a Susan Smith Blackburn Prize special commendation and the Marian Seldes-Garson Kanin Fellowship for her work. She received a Lucille Lortel Award for best solo show in 2005, as well as various outstanding performance nominations.
Amir has performed extensively as a jazz and classical trumpeter with artists such as Cecil Taylor, Vijay Iyer, and Daniel Barenboim. After a trip to Iraq in 2002, he became interested in the Maqam, the traditional music of Iraq, and the Iraqi santoor, which is a hammered dulcimer instrument. He has now mastered a significant portion of the Maqam repertoire, and leads Safaafir, which is currently the only ensemble in the U.S. performing the Iraqi Maqam. His latest work, “Two Rivers,” brings Maqam melodic structures into a modern jazz context.
Advance ticket reservations for the free performances on Jan. 21 at 8 p.m. and Jan. 22 at 3 p.m. are available by calling 540-808-6504 or by sending an email (include name, phone number, email address, number of tickets requested, and performance date). The deadline for email reservations is Jan. 20 at 4 p.m. Tickets can be picked up at the School of Performing Arts and Cinema's ticket office, located on the first floor of Squires Student Center, starting one hour prior to each performance. Reserved tickets not picked up 10 minutes before the performance begins will be released. Seating is limited and available on a first come, first served basis. Tickets also will be available at the door beginning one hour prior to each performance.