By Kristi Kates
Singer and musician Dena El Saffar grew up in Chicago in an Iraqi-American household, learning classical violin at the age of six. But it was the Arabic music listened to by her family - and initially not given too much thought by her - that would draw her into forming the band that is now called Salaam, a musical expression of El Saffar, her culture, and her bandmates wishes for peace - and simply good music.
Salaam is actually the Arabic word for peace, El Saffar says. The band - El Saffar (on vocals, violin, viola, djoze, and oud) along with percussionist/husband Tim Moore; Kevin MacDowell on accordian, guitar, and bass; and Sam Finley on guitar and bass - was formed in 1993, after El Saffars life-changing trip to her familys homeland.
She traveled to the Iraqi capital of Baghdad with her father at the age of 17, and had taken her viola along to practice. Soon, she found herself playing along to cassettes of Iraqi pop music on her viola with her newfound friends, where she says it became like a huge party as everyone started clapping and dancing along.
When I went to Iraq, I heard the Arabic music in a new way, and I had a vision to form a group to perform Arabic music, she explains. Salaam, the band, started as an idea in my mind, back when I was getting my degree in Classical Music Performance at Indiana University. I envisioned a group of capable, like-minded and versatile musicians who could play Arabic and Middle Eastern music authentically, as well as explore other styles with ease; musicians who could sight read anything. And I am happy to say thats what I got.
MELTING POT MUSIC
With 15 years of performing together, the band is now based in Bloomington, Indiana. Theyve gradually added other genres and sounds into their songs - and have affected the musical outlook of more than a few other musicians, as well.
Tim Moore and I are the core of the band, and over the years we have worked with numerous talented people, including Turkish, Iraqi, Palestinian, Syrian, Jordanian, Tunisian, Kurdish and American musicians, El Saffar says, I have also introduced many talented musicians to Middle Eastern music. Its so infectious, that they became hooked, she laughs.
I like to draw on the strengths of these players, El Saffar continues. All of the musicians in my group are capable of playing different styles of music, besides Middle Eastern. Some have a classical, minimalist, and avant-garde background; others rock and roll, blues and jazz. I feel like it doesnt matter where a musician comes from; if they are good musicians, they will have something to contribute.
Its definitely working - not only are Salaams live shows highly regarded, but their latest CD (the eponymous Salaam) had a track chosen as one of NPRs Songs of the Day, and El Saffar herself was interviewed about the album on NPRs weekend edition of All Things Considered.
El Saffars group plays music from North Africa to Iraq, and as far North as Turkey. El Saffar says that she loves the depth and complexities of these particular genres.
Middle Eastern music is the deepest style of music I know. There is so much to it, you can never stop learning. It has clear structure and yet is still open for self expression, making it wonderfully compelling and complex. Music is also a way to feel the connection with my Iraqi roots. I miss Iraq terribly, and I am thankful that playing the music can fill a little of that void.
Music is also one of the many ways that the focus can be put back on the Iraqi people as individuals, as opposed to being merely symbols of the countrys political troubles. El Saffar says that another important part of her work as a musician is being an ambassador for peaceful coexistence, as she calls it.
With so many cultural misperceptions at large about the Iraqi culture, El Saffar hopes that the arts can create an avenue via which people become better educated about one of the oldest civilizations in the world; the band performs a Middle Eastern educational show for schools in addition to their concerts.
As an Arab American musician living in the Midwest, I feel I have a unique opportunity and responsibility, El Saffar says. I see music as a bridge that connects people. The American population at large is undereducated about the Middle East, and so music is a nice gateway into the culture. I truly believe that in this world we are all brothers and sisters, and that we are all equal.
Many people really like Arabic music, not even knowing what it is, she concludes, many times I have been asked, what is that music youre playing? I really like it!
Salaam will perform a pair of shows in Petoskey on Friday, October 29 - in the afternoon they will perform their Middle Eastern Musical Journey education show for a local school, and in the evening, at 8:00 p.m., they will be in concert at the Crooked Tree Arts Center. For tickets to the evening show, contact CTAC at www.crookedtree.org or telephone 231-347-4337. A new CD from Salaam is also on the way this winter - for more info, visit www.salaamband.com.