Children, families and members of the community gathered at the Monroe County Public Library on Sunday afternoon to hear the music of Salaam and learn more about the art and culture of the Middle East.
The event was arranged by the Jacobs School of Music’s Musical Beginnings program and in conjunction with BloomingSongs, a collaborative recording project between local musicians and composers launching May 6 with the goal of enriching musical education with a global lean.
Dena El Saffar and Tim Moore, who have been playing together under the name Salaam since 1996, shared musical selections from across seven Middle Eastern countries. The band itself travels with rotating membership around the country and the world performing some original and Middle Eastern traditional songs.
“This is our education show, which is really geared toward students and families,” El Saffar said. “It’s really informational about the Middle East because one of the things for me, growing up in the United States, I always felt a huge misunderstanding of the Middle East, and it continues. It hasn’t really gotten any better.”
Having a father with Iraqi heritage has always enriched her understanding of Middle Eastern music, art and culture, she said. El Saffar said she was interested in exploring that musical style further and share the attractiveness of the culture in contrast to some of the violent imagery shared in the media.
El Saffar graduated from Jacobs School of Music and has been playing the violin since age six. She also plays two other string instruments, the oud and joza.
Moore, trained to play the American drums, said he picked up the inspiration to learn the dumbek, or Arab-style drum, after meeting El Saffar.
“When I first met Dena she has this band — it was my first exposure to Middle Eastern music — and she bought me a dumbek,” Moore said. “She made me practice for two years before letting me join the band.”
Maggie Olivo, project manager for BloomingSongs and director of Musical Beginnings, said the power of Salaam is not to be missed.
“You’re in for a treat,” Olivo said. “We need this for our community and our kids.”
Some sections of the program were geared toward connections in language.
For example, El Saffar and Moore taught audience members how to say hello in various dialects and languages such as the Arabic word salaam, meaning peace, where the band gains its name, and shalom, the Hebrew greeting common in Israel.
During each portion of the program, El Saffar and Moore took turns talking to attendees, who ranged in age from around a year old to high school and up through adult members of the community, about each of the seven Middle Eastern countries in focus, starting with Morocco.
From there the musicians moved through Egypt, Israel and Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Each mini lesson was followed by Salaam playing a musical selection from that area of the world. During discussion of Syria, El Saffar paused to give a disclaimer about their chosen imagery for the country.
“All the photos we’ll be showing come from times of peace,” El Saffar said. “We hope peace will resume in Syria soon.”
Immersing himself in this new style of music gave Moore a greater understanding of the region, he said.
“It was like a real discovery of unearthing a whole treasure, a whole genre of music I’d never really heard before,” Moore said. “Such a rich tradition of music that goes back so many hundreds of years has been such a pleasure to discover and to try and learn. It’s been a real journey for me.”