Dena El Saffar, Tim Moore, Tomas Lozano and Ozan Cemali were rehearsing for their band Salaam’s “World Music Night” scheduled for 8 p.m. today at the Player’s Pub.
El Saffar, who is Iraqi-American, started a Middle Eastern band when she attended the Jacobs School of Music where she got her degree in viola performance. As other musicians have joined the band, she said, their repertoire has expanded to incorporate many different Middle Eastern cultures, including Turkish, Kurdish and Jewish.
“I was born and raised here,” El Saffar said. “I’m very drawn to Arabic culture and I’ve been to the Arab world, but it’s dangerous and off-limits right now. Playing music is the only way that I can feel any kind of satisfaction with that connection, because it’s very frustrating. When I play Middle Eastern music, I feel more emotionally connected with it.”
All of the group’s first CDs consisted of Middle Eastern folk songs that had been passed down through generations, but their most recent album “Train to Basra and Other Stories” is a collection of El Saffar’s own compositions.
She said her compositions stay within the Middle Eastern genre but she has added infusions of classical and Western elements.
Spanish guitarist Lozano said they each embody their cultural traditions as musicians, just as a blues player would carry the blues with them anywhere they go. El Saffar said they can’t stop their culture from showing through.
“Part of it is being this introduction or ambassador of our culture musically,” El Saffar said. “We need to normalize the perception of the Middle East.”
The best kind of audience to have is one with Americans and Middle Easterners mixed together, Moore said.
El Saffar said Americans can be too polite, and the Middle Eastern audience members show them how to interact with the music by clapping, cheering and singing along.
“When we have people from the Middle East in the audience and we play songs that they recognize, they love it,” Moore said. “They get up and dance and they feel familiar with it. It’s also fun to play the music for people who have never heard it before, because it’s something new for them. It’s a kind of cultural immersion.”
Listening to Middle Eastern music can be a way to appreciate the culture, Cemali said. Cemali, who moved to America from Turkey in 2006, sings in Turkish, Greek and Armenian and plays traditional Turkish folk instruments.
Moore said the group is lucky to be able to focus on one of the beautiful aspects of Middle Eastern culture.
“I want people to feel a little more connected to Middle Eastern culture, more familiar with it,” Moore said. “That’s an important thing that this band does, especially in this day and age, because the more familiar people are with something, the less fearful they will be of it.”
Salaam’s statement of peace, introduced by the name of the band itself, is a way to connect the musicians to each other and to audiences, El Saffar said.
“Anytime or anywhere I play, it doesn’t matter what we play, our repertoire, or how we play,” Lozano said. “If the people that come leave in a better state than when they came in, I’m happy.”
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