Salaam: Iraqi Maqam By Way Of Indiana For classically trained Iraqi-American violist Dena El Saffar, a trip to Baghdad before the Gulf War launched a musical revolution. On a new self-titled record, her band Salaam takes an Iraqi folk tradition in new directions.

Salaam: Iraqi Maqam By Way Of Indiana

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GUY RAZ, host:

And today, across the Muslim world, millions are marking the start of Ramadan. During the month-long holiday, believers refrain from eating, drinking, and smoking from dawn until dusk. But at night, in cafes and homes from Rabat to Baghdad, music fills the air.

(Soundbite of song, "Gulli Ya Hilw")

This track is off a new album by the quartet Salaam based in, of all places, Bloomington, Indiana. Iraqi-American violist Dena El Saffar, who is one of the voices you're hearing in this song, founded Salaam in 1993 after a journey she took to Baghdad with her father. That trip, as we'll hear in a moment, changed her life.

Dena El Saffar joins us from member station WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. Welcome to the program.

Ms. DENA EL SAFFAR (Musician/Singer, Salaam): Thank you.

RAZ: Tell us about this song we're hearing. "Gulli Ya Hilw," is that how - am I pronouncing it right?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. EL SAFFAR: "Gulli Ya Hilw," this is a folk song from Iraq. Nobody really knows who wrote it but everybody knows this song. And when we play for Iraqis, they're all going to sing along to the choruses and the verses.

(Soundbite of song, "Gulli Ya Hilw")

RAZ: You were a classical trained violist and you had planned to pursue this at a conservatory. How did you connect with Arabic music?

Ms. EL SAFFAR: My father took me to Baghdad when I was 17. And I'd been asking to go for my whole life. So I went there. I brought my viola so that I wouldn't miss practicing while I was gone. And it was the month of Ramadan, actually, while I was there. So in the evenings, there's big get-togethers. And here I am with my instrument, and I was asked over and over again to play music for everybody.

And 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. And it was like this huge party erupted as soon as I played those notes.

And because of all the, you know, leading up to the First Gulf War that happened right after I left, I became very emotional about Iraq and about the music and started really learning in earnest when I got back.

RAZ: A lot of your sound, of Salaam's sound, is rooted in maqam, in Arabic maqam. First, can you sort of briefly explain what the maqam system is?

Ms. EL SAFFAR: There's different maqam in each country. And Iraqi maqam is a little bit different because it refers to what kind of instruments are going to be played, and what the vocalist is going to do, and what kind of poetry. It's a bigger meaning in Iraq, I guess. It's actually quite fun...

(Soundbite of laughter)

…to learn about and try to get it under your fingers.

RAZ: Dena El Saffar, I want to hear an example of that sound. This is the fifth track from the record. And forgive me, I will...


RAZ: ...never be able to pronounce this one.

Ms. EL SAFFAR: I know. We can't think of a way to spell it that it's going to make sense in English. It's called "Hadha Mu Insaaf Minnek."

(Soundbite of song, "Hadha Mu Insaaf Minnek")

RAZ: I visited Iraq and I've had the pleasure of hearing the oud strummed on some of those visits. But in this song, I hear guitars, which is not really an instrument we often hear in Arabic, specifically in Iraqi music, right?

Ms. EL SAFFAR: That's right. Aside from learning Middle Eastern music and being taken seriously in that regard, we've also always wanted to have that kind of freedom to incorporate different styles, blues or rock or jazz or bluegrass, whatever, because we've spent years on learning all these different styles. And then to kind of bring it full circle and put it into the context of Middle Eastern just makes us happy.

RAZ: This is a fairly well-known Iraqi song, right?

Ms. EL SAFFAR: Oh, yeah. This one is like a soap opera. It says, "It's not fair what you've done to me. What am I going to tell people when they ask me about you?" It goes on, and on, and on...

(Soundbite of laughter)

RAZ: These rhythms are so complicated. We're used to hearing meters in 4/4 or 3/4, but on some of these tracks you get way beyond that here; 17/8, for example.

Can you finger drum what that sounds like; what 17/8 sounds like?

Ms. EL SAFFAR: It's like this: doom, tac, doom, doom, doom, tac, a tac, doom, doom, tac.

(Soundbite of song "Sellefeena")

Ms. EL SAFFAR: This piece is called "Sellefeena." And the 17/8 rhythm actually has a name. All the rhythms have a name and this one is called "Khosh Reng."

(Soundbite of song "Sellefeena")

RAZ: You use an incredible number of instruments on this album. We hear the guitar, and trumpets, and zithers, and violins, and accordions. And you've actually brought one of the instruments that you play with you, the joza.

Can you play a bit of it for us?

Ms. EL SAFFAR: Sure. But before I do, I'll just tell you it's made out of a coconut shell...

RAZ: Hmm.

Ms. EL SAFFAR: ...for the resonator. It's a spike fiddle, which means I actually put it on my knee to play it upright. And also there's a membrane that's stretched across the coconut, the open part of the coconut shell that's the pericardium of a water buffalo.

RAZ: Wow.

Ms. EL SAFFAR: And nothing else will do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. EL SAFFAR: And the bridge rests on that.

(Soundbite of joza)

Ms. EL SAFFAR: So there's four strings.

(Soundbite of joza)

Ms. EL SAFFAR: How was that?

RAZ: That was great. Dena El Saffar, I want to play us out on one last song before we let you go. This is the third track off the album, and I can pronounce this. This is called "21st Century Gypsy," and it really doesn't sound like Middle Eastern music at all, at least initially. Can you tell us a little bit about it?

Ms. EL SAFFAR: I guess I was thinking about gypsies. The idea is that they travel. They're nomadic or they kind of get around...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. EL SAFFAR: ...the world. And in the 21st century, we all kind of do that, just with the Internet, with digital media, everything being so available to us. It's really wherever your will takes you, you can go there.

(Soundbite of song "21st Century Gypsy")

RAZ: Dena El Saffar is the founder of the Indiana-based quartet Salaam. The band's new record is also called "Salaam."

Dena El Saffar, thank you so much for joining us.

Ms. EL SAFFAR: Hey, thank you so much.

(Soundbite of song "21st Century Gypsy")

RAZ: And finally today, a quick reminder about the latest round of our writing contest, Three-Minute Fiction. You have until Tuesday at 11:59 P.M. to submit a short story, 600 words or less, and it has to start with this line.

Mr. JAMES WOOD (Staff Writer, The New Yorker): The nurse left work at 5:00.

RAZ: You can read one standout entry we've received so far and submit your entry at our Web site npr.orq/threeminutefiction.

That's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Have a great night.

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