September 8, 2009 - If you were an aficionado of Egyptian cinema music, and you heard the song "Layla" by the Bloomington, Ind.-based ensemble Salaam, you might well scratch your head in puzzlement. The elegant, romantic grandeur of the music, with its swooning string section and loping Egyptian percussion, would immediately call to mind classic works by composers such as the late Mohammed Abdel Wahab. But something is different: There's sprightliness to the performance, a brisk economy in the way it moves through melodic passages and musical modes before settling into a march-like midsection and returning joyfully to the opening theme. And isn't that a santoor — an Indian hammer dulcimer — mixing it up with the plucked melody of the Middle Eastern kanun?
All this happens within six breathless, exhilarating minutes. But what is it? The piece, it turns out, was composed by Dena El Saffar, a Chicago-born Iraqi-American who has spent years learning to play the august classical music of her ancestors, the style known as maqam. In fact, the venerable Iraqi art of maqam was overshadowed during the Ottoman Empire, in large part by the emergence of Egyptian cinema music, and later the great diva of Arabic music in the last century, Umm Kulthum. All this and more is fair game for Salaam, the group that El Saffar, her brother, her husband and a select group of likeminded Bloomington musicians formed a few years back.
Some of the pieces on Salaam's self-titled debut are decidedly more experimental, though none surpass the gem-like perfection of "Layla." The song subtly transposes a genre of music few Americans are even aware of into a sonic realm that feels enchanting and exotic, while still strangely familiar.
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