From Iraqi Maqam to Robert Johnson: Middle Eastern Band Salaam Creates a New American Sound
Suave Saudis in small-town America and belly-dancing Hoosier housewives. Trumpets and pianos that take on quarter tones. Iraqi tunes that channel the ghosts of American bluesmen. A good old family band, but with a serious series of twists.
Welcome to the world of Salaam, the brainchild of a Chicago-born Iraqi-American on a tireless quest for her roots, a dedicated spouse who dove merrily into the odd meters of the Middle East, and an eccentric cast of musicians passing through the funky college town of Bloomington, Indiana. After years of committed research and practice of strictly traditional forms like Iraq's endangered maqam, violinist and spike fiddle player Dena El Saffar, percussionist Tim Moore, trumpeter and santoor-player (hammered dulcimer) Amir ElSaffar, and Turkish pianist and qanun-player Hakan Toker play fast and free with the musical past of the Arabic and Turkish world on Salaam (self-titled independent release; August 11, 2009).
“When we rehearse traditional Iraqi music, it takes so much concentration and fine tuning of minute details. It's really serious," explains Dena El Saffar, who along with brother Amir, became active performers of maqam. This rich and storied body of music suffered a blow when Egyptian cinema emerged, British occupation took its toll, and Jews -- the leading instrumentalists in Iraq -- were deported to Israel. “The great thing about Salaam, after you learn that serious classical stuff, is that you can relax and have fun. And see what happens. We can be playful, more willing to introduce novel ideas" to everything from Iraqi popular songs ("Hadha Mu Insaaf Minnek" & “Gulli Ya Hilw") to 17th-century Ottoman court music ("Arazbar Pesrevi") to originals inspired by the lush heyday of Egyptian orchestras ("Layla," written by Dena).
These novel ideas spring from days of improvising together, and from unexpected moments in unexpected places. A wild gig at a smoky hard-drinking bar in Terre Haute, Indiana, spurred the unique arrangement of the Iraqi folk song “Gulli Ya Hilw," as the crowd --which included a dapper Saudi engineering student who bore an eerie resemblance to Prince and scions of the town's long-established Lebanese family -- went nuts for the driving rock drum set backing the traditional, lovelorn vocals and started a sing-along.
An unusual instrument -- unusual for Middle Eastern music, that is -- inspired Salaam's version of another romantic song Iraqis know and love, “Hadha Mu Insaaf Minnek." “We wanted to make it sound like we were sitting around a campfire on a beach," laughs Moore, who is married to Dena. “Amir began experimenting with a guitar he had borrowed, and I was playing the dumbek, but trying to channel the bongos." As ElSaffar strummed, he summoned up an old love affair with Robert Johnson recordings and wound up creating “a Bluesy guitar intro with an Iraqi beat."
Salaam's wily innovations may raise a few eyebrows among hardcore purists -- though they are the apple of many a Middle Eastern music aficionado and belly dancer's eye. These experiments run deeper than merely jazzing up or rockifying Middle Eastern tunes, or following the approach common in Arab music today of throwing an electric keyboard behind an otherwise traditional arrangement. They are the products of years of research and a longing to bring ancient musics fully into a global and fluid world, while opening American eyes to what Moore aptly calls “the beautiful sides of Middle Eastern culture" that are too often overlooked.
Amir and Dena's Iraqi father raised them on Rimsky-Korsakov's Sheherazade, Gershwin, and the Blues Brothers, but was reluctant at times to share his heritage. Dena's search for a deeper connection with her ancestral roots led her as a young woman to Middle Eastern music, an obsession soon shared by Amir. Both were trained in Western classical music, and both were soon egging the other on, traveling overseas to find teachers who could further open up the new landscape they sensed on scratchy archival recordings or mysterious cassettes by Egyptians who could effortlessly squeeze gorgeous quarter tone scales out of battered trumpets.
“My first interest in Arabic music came when I was 19 when Dena played me a recording, a two-minute free rhythm improv, and I couldn't tell what instrument it was," recalls Amir, who is a critically-acclaimed jazz trumpeter in New York City. “I asked her, 'What is that?' She said, 'That's a trumpet.' I was blown away by it. Miles Davis was an epiphany moment. Egypt's Sami El Bably was another one."
Epiphany led to epiphany, and eventually to Iraq. Soon Dena, Amir, and Moore became filled with a purpose beyond just playing Middle Eastern music and passionately began to set out to master the rapidly disappearing Iraqi maqam in all its complex, multi-faith, and regionally diverse glory. “Maqam was the music of any major occasion, even religious ones in Iraq's mosques, synagogues, and churches. The background for all music in Iraq is maqam, whether it's religious or popular," explains Amir.
Salaam does not strictly pursue the spirit of pure maqam -- that's the goal of the trio's other group, Safaafir, which performed this spring in an international maqam festivalin Baku, Azerbaijan. Salaam manages to honor tradition by both finding the play between notes and keeping the core of the music all in the family, albeit with a twist. Getting the microtones at the heart of most Middle Eastern scales with Western instruments like the trumpet may seem like a lost cause. But Amir, thanks to a few tricks with the tuning slide, can make an ordinary trumpet move effortlessly between bluesy solos and perfect Middle Eastern melody.
And Toker, who resides in Istanbul and dug into scientific music theory treatises back home, turns the least likely candidate for quarter tone success, the piano, into a striking part of Salaam's sound on pieces like “Yugrug." “Hakan is a mad genius of sorts and has devised this amazing strategy for supporting microtones while playing the piano, some principle based on the Pythagorean Theorem and the stacking of fourths," Dena jokes. “He chooses the most interesting things to play way down in the lower register that don't clash."
“When I met Salaam, I had to face a paradoxical fact," says Toker. “Here I was, a born-and-raised Middle Easterner who had devoted his life to Western music; and here they were, born-and-raised Americans who had devoted their lives to Middle Eastern Music. I couldn't handle the fact that these people had a handle on my culture's music, more than I did! They were playing traditional instruments, capable of microtones, whereas my instrument wasn't, so I picked-up the qanun, and my life changed... along with it, my view of the East and the West!"
The family aspect once common to many Iraqi and other Middle Eastern ensembles is equally transformed by Salaam. Women did not play instruments like the joza (spike fiddle) traditionally-at least not in public performances-making a brother-sister or husband-wife team a new take on old roots. “We have a psychic connection," Dena smiles, “and can intuit what the other is about to do."
Beyond the family circle, Salaam has found a way to draw on the unexpectedly cosmopolitan and musically talented resources of their local community in Bloomington, Indiana. People like Toker, who first came to town to attend the local conservatory for classical piano, but soon immersed himself in local performance art and learning the Turkish qanun (zither), or the scholar visiting the local university from Tunisia who left behind the love song “Retik."
But there is also a pool of enthusiastic local rock and folk musicians eager to enter the world of Middle Eastern music. While these musicians may not have the dedicated focus of the ElSaffars or Moore, they often uncover new approaches, as rock bassist John Orie Stith did in his funky line for “Chobi Party," a jam based on an infectious and hard-driving Iraqi dance beat. “It is fun to bring these skilled musicians into the fold while creating enough space to highlight their strengths," reflects Dena, who was recruited for Youssou N'Dour's string section on a recent tour of his “Egypt “ project.
Though it has taken 15 years, Dena's persistence and dedication has paid off -- from creating a Middle Eastern ensemble in a small Indiana town when there were no Arabic musicians to draw on, from persevering through a rotating door of college-town transient sidemen, to memorizing and transcribing recordings of Om Kalthoum and Sabah Fakhri, to traveling the world in search of maestros and paid gigs. With the convergence of a dedicated percussionist husband, a “mad genius" from Turkey, and a brother who traveled as far as Iraq to unearth maqam techniques, Salaam has come into its own sound.
“We're not trying to be a band that just recites this music," Moore muses. “We want to add our own fingerprint, our own identity into it. If we feel like we can do something new or interesting to a song, then we are more likely to embrace that." 07/10/09 >>