It's that time of year when music writers start compiling their annual year end "best of" lists. As I look back at this year's crop of local music releases Salaam's Train to Basra stands out as a personal favorite for me. The group is a Middle Eastern music ensemble based in Bloomington, Indiana. I interviewed the group's leader Dena El Saffar in this column two years ago.With an exciting new recording out, it's a great time to catch up with the Iraqi-American composer and multi-instrumentalist El Saffar.
We spoke via phone from her home in Bloomington as we discussed the musical inspiration behind her group's new LP.
They'll play for free as part of the Eskenazi Music Program on Thursday at the hospital.
NUVO: I understand the title of your new record is a reference to a story your father used to tell you about cross country train rides he took in Iraq as a child.
El Saffar: My dad is an immigrant from Iraq. I was born here, and my mom is an American. We had a very international upbringing, but our main connection with Iraq was through my dad's storytelling. Whenever he was telling me bedtime stories, I tended to ask for certain stories over and over again. The story about him riding the train from Baghdad to Basra on his own starting when he was only about six years old was one of my favorite stories. That story made a big impression on me.
NUVO: I appreciate that you included those little anecdotes behind the music in the liner notes. There were a couple I found particularly interesting, like "Lima Sahar" for example. What prompted you to compose a piece for her?
El Saffar: I listen to NPR a lot and one day there was a feature about an Afghani woman vocalist who entered a singing competition and was making it to the final rounds and making a big splash. Her name is Lima Sahar. I think the situation with women in Afghanistan made it an extraordinary story. She was in the public eye and she was a very brave and charming young woman. So I wrote the song in honor of her. Maybe I'll put some words to it one day, but right now it's an instrumental piece.
Her story had a little bit of a sad ending. I don't know exactly what happened to her, but I do know her family was very discouraging of her singing and being in the public eye. So she had to run away and went into hiding. Her time in the spotlight was very, very short. I'd always wondered about her and still do.
NUVO: One of my favorite pieces on the LP is "Joza Tears." There's a very heavy, sort of sad atmosphere on that recording. Was there any particular inspiration behind that work?
El Saffar: The joza is an Iraqi spike fiddle that I play. The way I learned the joza was by learning Iraqi maqam, which is the music tradition of Iraq. So I learned to play the joza by studying the ancient music traditions from Iraq. A lot of these ancient melodies from Iraq are really haunting, they're full of this kind of pain or anguish. I suppose that has something to do with the sad history of Iraq.
I just wanted to highlight the instrument and those melodies. The instrument has a sound almost like a human voice, it's very plaintive. So the idea is the joza is shedding tears, and the tears are these musical phrases.
NUVO: What prompted you to incorporate Mexican folk music forms on "The Mariachi Stole My Heart"?
EL Saffar: Mexico is a place I've visited many times. It's a very vibrant place in terms of music and art. I've been in the most surprising live music situations in Mexico. While traveling on a bus a trio will get on and play and then get off at the next stop. Or you're just sitting in a park and there are several bands, if you give them some money they'll play you a song. There's something really impressive and fantastic about the music scene in Mexico. I find it inspiring.
I've also noticed some Latin music has ties with Arabic music. You can also see that connection in the architecture and culture. It's interesting to look back at the connection between the Arab world and Spain which goes back many, many decades and see how it has manifested here in the New World in Latin America.
NUVO: What instruments are you playing on the album?
El Saffar: I play string instruments. I started with the violin and moved to the viola. I received my viola performance degree from IU Jacobs School of Music which is how I wound up in Bloomington. I kept the violin and viola going and still play both as well as the oud, which is an Arabic lute, it's a fretless instrument. And as I mentioned before I play the joza. They're all similar in that they're fretless instruments.
NUVO: What keeps you here in Indiana?
El Saffar: Indiana is a bit of a challenge. A lot of the fantastic musicians I've worked with have either moved here and left for bigger cities or they never lived here at all. But fortunately there are some great musicians living here.
I like living in Bloomington because it's a good mix of small town and big town. There's a big international scene here with lots of great artists and musicians. I think the lifestyle is nicer here than if we were in an apartment up on the 44th floor in Manhattan. Another big reason we stay here is that we've been raising two kids and this seems like the best place to be for the moment. We're always dreaming of the possibility of moving to a bigger place, but that wouldn't happen for a few years.
NUVO: And you've found an audience for your music here?
El Saffar: Yes, we have found an audience. But the truth is we travel a lot. This is home base, but we go to a lot of different towns to play, and if we didn't do that I don't think we could make it work.
A Cultural Manifesto is now available on WFYI's HD2 radio. Tune in Wednesdays at 7 p.m. and Saturdays at 3 p.m. as NUVO's Kyle Long explores the merging of a wide variety of music from around the globe with American genres like hip-hop, jazz, and soul.