Salaam: Iraqi Maqam By Way Of Indiana

There's a new record that takes listeners from the western edge of Morocco right to the heart of Baghdad — by way of Bloomington, Ind. It's the new, self-titled album by the Bloomington-based band called Salaam.

Salaam i i

The group Salaam is centered around string instrument specialist Dena El Saffar, percussionist Tim Moore, zither-ist Hakan Toker and (not pictured) trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, brother of Dena. Yelena Yahontova hide caption

itoggle caption Yelena Yahontova
Salaam

The group Salaam is centered around string instrument specialist Dena El Saffar, percussionist Tim Moore, zither-ist Hakan Toker and (not pictured) trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, brother of Dena.

Yelena Yahontova

Classically trained Iraqi-American violist Dena El Saffar founded Salaam in 1993 after a journey she took to Baghdad with her father at the age of 17. Because she took her viola along to practice, that trip changed her life.

"I was asked over and over again to play music for everybody," El Saffar says. "They popped in a cassette of some Iraqi pop music, and they said, 'Can you play this?' And I picked up my viola, and started playing it. Everyone started clapping and dancing — it was like this huge party erupted as soon as I played those notes."

The arrival of the Gulf War, not long after El Saffar returned to the U.S., inspired her to learn Iraqi music in earnest. She spoke to host Guy Raz about the band's music, which is rooted in the structures of the Iraqi maqam tradition.

"Aside from learning Middle Eastern music, and being taken seriously in that regard, we've also always wanted to have that freedom to incorporate different styles — blues or rock or jazz or bluegrass, whatever — because we've spent years on learning all these different styles," El Saffar says. "And then to kind of bring it full circle, put it into the context of Middle Eastern [music] just makes us happy."

El Saffar discussed the band's music, and showed off a distinctive spike fiddle called the joza.

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