Salaam is the creation of violist Dena ElSaffar, big sister to acclaimed trumpeter/composer Amir ElSaffar and most likely one of his major influences – it comes as no surprise that he’s in the band. Brother-sister acts hardly being the norm in the Middle East, it figures that this would be an innovative group. Though Iraqi-born, both ElSaffars were raised on western music – and for each of them, discovering the centuries-old maqams of their native land would be a life-changing experience. This self-titled cd, their seventh, is pretty much the best of both worlds, a boundlessly creative, completely out-of-the-box mix of styles. The instruments are ancient and mainly Arabic – the music literally spans the centuries
This band’s Layla is a lot better than the one you’re probably thinking of – it’s a lush, richly orchestrated, swaying Levantine instrumental seemingly straight out of the Mohammed Abdel Wahab repertoire that morphs into a bouncy march and then to austere atmosperics before the magnificent opening theme returns, spiced by Amir ElSaffar’s trumpet. Sellefeena sets hypnotic crescendoing qawwali-ish vocals over soaring layers of strings and trumpet. The brief Balkan trumpet-and-accordion dance 21st Century Gypsy builds playfully over a series of modulations.
Chobi Party grows from swaying and sparse to an exuberant kanun solo by adventurous Turkish pianist Hakan Toker. A bluesily soulful take of a popular Iraqi folksong, Hadha Mu Insaaf Minnek has Dena ElSaffar’s stark fiddle playing over her brother’s acoustic guitar and her husband Tim Moore’s incisively boomy percussion. A sizzling Levantine dance with vivid Romantic piano, Mandira evokes the groundbreaking Iranian composer Abolhassan Sabah.
Arazbar Pesrevi, Salaam’s version of a medieval Ottoman court processional layers thoughtful microtonal trumpet over fiddle and kanun. A surreal dream sequence, part boogie, part maqam, Yugrug features piano and kanun over an insistent, crescendoing beat. The rest of the cd includes a gorgeously slinky instrumental, the pensive improvisation Taqsim Lami with its swirling strings and kanun, a bouncy hypnotic Iraqi folksong with ney flute, and a clever trumpet tune that ends it on an upbeat, jazzy note. Amir ElSaffar just got a rave review here for the NY debut of his Two Rivers Ensemble – this album proves he’s hardly the only brilliant musician in the family.
Something bears repeating here – this beautiful, inspiring music comes from the culture that Cheney and Rumsfeld wanted so desperately to destroy.