For nearly 20 years the Bloomington-based ensemble Salaam have been bringing the sound of the Middle East to the Midwest. Salaam have carved out an impressive career gaining international exposure through appearances on NPR and Al Jazeera.
Salaam was founded in Bloomington in 1993 by classically trained Iraqi-American violist Dena El Saffar. I spoke with El Saffar after a recent Saturday afternoon performance at the Indianapolis Children's Museum.
I was amazed by El Saffar's incredible musicianship, skillfully rotating between the oud and djoze (a Middle Eastern predecessor to the violin.) But she really came to life on the violin. Her soulful, virtuoso performance brought new life into a variety of vintage Egyptian and Turkish melodies.
NUVO: When you were a teenager you visited Iraq. Did this trip have a profound influence on your life and music career?
Dena El Saffar: Yes, I grew up in Chicago and I'd always wanted to go to Iraq. When I was a kid that was my bedtime story: I would ask my dad to tell me about Iraq. Finally we went when I was 17 and it was life changing for me.
I was already a musician at that time and I had been accepted into a music conservatory. I brought along my viola with the idea I would lock myself in my room and practice, which is what classical musicians do. But, I didn't have any time to myself. There's a whole different feeling in Iraq about closeness and families spending as much time together as possible. So I wound up changing my whole plan with my my instrument.
My family in Iraq would be playing recordings of Arabic music and I would play it back on my viola very easily. They were so impressed and it became an instant dance party. As soon as I would learn a little melody, I got so much enthusiasm back from them. They were dancing, clapping and cheering me on. It was very impactful on me, these moments in this house with my aunt and cousins.
I had been waiting so long to go there. While traveling around Baghdad and Iraq I remember consciously thinking, "Take in as much as possible. The architecture, the air, the music."
We'd get in taxis and hear the radio stations. I'd heard Arabic music before, but it finally made sense to me when I was there. It was like I was infected by a bug that carries the virus of Arabic music. When I came back all I wanted to do was play Arabic music. I was still going to the conservatory, playing classical music. But in my spare time I was learning Arabic music.
This was in 1990, right before the Gulf War. It was so heartbreaking, because it was impossible to go back. The sanctions made it illegal, plus it was dangerous. The Gulf War had an impact on me. I wanted to do whatever I could in my power to promote Iraqi culture and for me that was music.
NUVO: How have you used music to promote Iraqi culture?
El Saffar: One thing we did was start an education program teaching elementary school kids about the Middle East using music and images. We've performed this program for tens of thousands of kids.
With music, it's easy. Arabic music is so infectious; there are great rhythms and melodies. The music brings people in. They may not know what it is, but they start dancing and clapping along.
During the Gulf War, I felt the beginnings of prejudice or hatred towards Middle Eastern people, because of the fear-based mentality in the media and the constant talk about terrorism. I feel like that could have gotten a lot worse. But I think Americans are very open minded and they're willing to give something a try.
Right after September 11 was probably the worst of the worst of it, I felt there was some real animosity starting to blossom in this country. But it never really did. At that time I felt a strong purpose with the music. We weren't going to let people think all Middle Easterners are terrorists. I feel like we're way beyond that now. People I encounter are quite open-minded. People get it. It's a complicated world and there are many beautiful things from the Middle East.
NUVO: So what's the state of culture in post-war Iraq?
Dena El Saffar: I hear from my family in Iraq. They don't complain. Which is weird because I know there's a lot to complain about. They are really optimistic, they say things are getting better and things are looking up. I think musicians have had a tough time. I feel like the culture is there and it's just waiting for the right moment to reemerge.
Catch Salaam's Dena El Saffar and Tim Moore at the Children's Museum on June 30 at the "Take Me There: Egypt" exhibit.
Each edition of A Cultural Manifesto features a mix from Kyle Long, spotlighting music from around the globe. This week's podcast features a selection of funky vintage tunes from the Middle East.
1. Salah Ragab - Egypt Strut (Egypt)
2. Elias Rahbani - Le Dance De Nadia (Lebanon)
3. Omar Khorshid - Hebbina Hebbina (Lebanon)
4. Aris San - Dam Dam (Israel)
5. Erkin Koray - Istemem (Turkey)
6. Ahmad Zahir - Che Kelaf Sar Zad Az Mah (Afghanistan)
7. Zia - Helelyos (Iran)
8. Souad Abdullah - unknown (Iraq)
9. Omar Khorshid - Solenzara (Lebanon)
10. Jalil Bennis - Mirza (Morocco)