Six Moons, Music Review >>
Headquartered in Bloomington, Indiana, Salaam is the funky love child of American Iraqis reconnecting with their traditional musical culture. Salaam is the siblings Dena and Amir ElSaffar on violin, spike fiddle, trumpet and santoor both raised on Rimsky-Korsakov, Gershwin and The Blues Bros. and trained in classical Western music. Salaam's third core member is Dena's husband Tim Moore on various Arabian but also Western percussion. Salaam further includes Turkish pianist Hakan Toker who also picked up the qanun. Joe Donnelly adds nay and baritone sax, two tracks add bass and one oud. The ElSaffar siblings also contribute vocals.
Having formally versed themselves in traditional Arabian music to focus their parallel Safaafir ensemble exclusively on purist Iraqi maqam, Salaam's playground is bigger and thus easier for Western audiences to enter. It happily includes made-over popular love songs, 17th-century Ottoman courtly music and take-offs on Egyptian string orchestra tunes. The focus is clearly deeper than tarting up Middle Eastern numbers with Jazz riffs or electric key boards. As a NYC Jazz trumpeter, Amir employs tuning slide trickery for the perfunctory quarter notes while Hakan's piano runs obviously fixed tuning but is played in a clever non-intrusive way. With 15 years of refining their recipe, the Salaamsters have found much favor with Arab and Western audiences alike.
Take the closer "Nihavent Saz Semaisi", a 10/4 and 7/8 Mesut Cemil Bey tune. Driven forward by big-fisted piano rolls and a dumbek's limping accents and peppery trills, Amir's trumpet timbre adds a bluesy quality while Dena's switch to the viola injects a peculiar classicist flavor to parallel the piano.
It's a finely tuned collision of styles which works from the inside out by not being thinly laid-on surface decoration or pop music with a few borrowed ethnic sound snippets. The melody here is recognizably Bosporus, its delivery quite non-standard for delightful frisson.
The general locale of the album's sound track is Iraq, Syria, Tunisia and Egypt, the latter the entry portal with the opener "Layla" which conjures up lush Cairo strings. "21st Century Gypsy" kicks off with a baritone sax oompah bass line while the trading melody sections of accordion, violin and trumpet reek of Klezmer celebration, with the occasional flare-up of Russian primas violin thrown in for good measure. "Hadha Mu Insaaf Minnek" is a Salek El-Kuwaity Iraqi pop tune with a 10/8 Jurjina rhythm and lead vocals by Amir and backup by Dena and Tim. "Mandíra" shows how cleverly the piano can be incorporated into this type of slightly modal Middle-Eastern music while "Retik" is a well-known Tunisian love song turned sweeping instrumental.
Salaam covers a lot of ground with a perfectly balanced mix of respect and innovation. It also puts a lie to the old 'the twain shall never meet' Kipling notion. Salaam's Turkish-born pianist relocated to the US to pursue classical Western music. There he met American-born Iraqis who had expanded their conservatory background by venturing East. Cultural borders evaporated, musicians like bees practice geopolitical cross pollination and fusion while the regular kind of politics talks the talk but won't walk the walk. Salaam is a very hopeful find of the other kind...
– Srajan Ebaen 08/01/09 >> go there