New York Music Daily

No New Abnormal

Tag: dena el saffar

Salaam Plays One of 2013’s Best Concerts Downtown Saturday Night

Throughout her band Salaam‘s set this evening at Alwan for the Arts downtown, multi-instrumentalist Dena El Saffar had an expression of pure, unselfconscious delight on her face. Which makes sense, considering how much fun to play her songs must be. A cynic would say that this group is a bunch of Americans playing Middle Eastern music, which is true, although there is a family connection. As she explained it, the bandleader and her jazz trumpeter brother Amir grew up as second-generation Iraqi-Americans in Chicago in the 80s, although their musical lives then revolved around Lutheran hymns and classical music in school and then sneaking into blues clubs at night. “Amir stopped going when he turned 21,” she joked. Since then, they’ve come full circle with their heritage and in the process have built one of the most entertaning Middle Eastern bands on the planet. She began the night on viola, her original instrument, with the ridiculously catchy, irresistibly slinky Mesopotania. The song was nspired, she explained, by her first awestruck sight of the land between the Tigris and Euphrates, which hardly resembled the boring-as-dust account she remembered from middle school. Joining in soaring harmony with soprano saxophonist Ole Mathisen, her brother played trumpet on that one. Then he switched to santoor (the rippling, ringing Iraqi dulcimer) for a bouncy traditional song whose Arabic lyrics went something along the lines of “she went from her father’s house to the neighbor’s house and didn’t stop at mine, I wonder if she’s mad at me.”

A gregarious, nonchalantly charismatic performer, Dena El Saffar seemed to have as much fun telling stories as she did playing music. She explained that she never envisioned herself as someone who’d make a career out of introducing kids to Middle Eastern music. but because she had so much fun the first time she did it, she kept doing it – and now she’s led workshops with thousands of students. But while like her brother, she’s immersed herself in traditional Iraqi music, her influences range far beyond there. Her husband Tim Moore, who played dumbek (goblet drum) with a groove that was as understatedly joyous as it was hypnotic, led the group through a tribute to Lima Sahar (the first woman to compete on the Afghani verison of American Idol, whose rapid rise to fame was derailed by misogynists in her own family) with a hook-driven Bollywood flair. Queen of  Sheba, inspired by some very cool folks at a Louisville Ethiopian restaurant, built to a swirling, dancing Ethiopiques vamp. The title track from the band’s latest album Train to Basra served as a long launching pad for sizzling hard bop as well as plaintive Orientalisms from both trumpet and sax. And Iraqi-American Blues artfully juxtaposed  iconic Muddy Waters riffage with eerie Iraqi chromatics, an illustration of both the emotional similarities between the blues and Middle Eastern music as well as the sometimes hellish experience of being an American of Middle Eastern descent in the years following 9/11.

As the night went on, Dena El Saffar switched to oud, then violin, then joza (the stark Iraqi fiddle, with its coconut-shell body) for a harrowing version of the rustically mournful Joza Tears. Although Salaam’s music doesn’t typically feature as much of the sometimes long-winded soloing common throughout the Middle East, everybody got a chance to cut loose, even the bassist, whose agile microtones, jazzy variations on the melody and stark, brooding bowing were some of the set’s high points. They wound up the show with an exuberantly anthemic singalong of the classic Iraqi folk song Over the Palm Tree, the elder El Saffar in unselfishingly soulful crooner mode, his sister taking what might have been the most exhilarating solo of the night on viola, building to a fiery series of stun-gun staccato riffs, finally blasting through the last chorus at doublespeed. It’s been a great year for concerts in New York this year, but this was one of the very best.

Salaam’s Train to Basra on the Express Track to Fun

Is there a musical family anywhere in the world as talented as the El Saffars? Big brother Amir, one of the great trumpeters in jazz, shifts the paradigm with his blend of Miles Davis elegance and haunting Middle Eastern themes (his other axe is the santoor, the rippling Middle Eastern dulcimer). Younger sister and brilliant violinist Dena El Saffar leads Salaam, the Indiana-based Middle Eastern instrumental ensemble. She’s bringing them to her brother’s place, Alwan for the Arts downtown, which is to the music of the Arabic diaspora what CBGB was to rock, on Sept 26 at 8 PM. $20 advance tix are still available as of today (you can try the day of the show, but this will probably sell out).

Salaam has yet another new album out, Train to Basra, their eighth and arguably their best. At least it’s their most eclectic. The opening track, Queen of  Sheba sends a shout-out to the Louisville Ethiopian restaurant (yup) where Dena El Saffar forgot her phone (and whose cool staff mailed it back to her!) with a slowly unwinding Ethiopique groove that mingles her own oud with Sam Finley’s incisive guitar and an ecstatic horn section of her brother plus tenor saxophonist Lety ElNaggar. Kashaniya works a slinky, dancing chromatic groove with a suspenseful noir edge, Finley having a great time supplying searing Middle Eastern licks. The title track memorializes her dad’s train ride as a seven-year-old going by himself to meet his family on vacation (in the days before post-9/11 paranoia, LOTS OF KIDS DID THAT ALL THE TIME AND NO ONE EVER GOT KILLED) with a joyously pulsing romp driven by ElNaggar’s ney flute

Iraqi-American Blues wryly works the Muddy Waters Mannish Boy hook into a Middle Eastern vamp fueled by more of Dena’s oud work, a more simpatico stylistic mashup than you might think. As she alludes in the liner notes, if you happen to be an American-born citizen of Iraqi ancestry, you definitely know what it means to have the blues. The most hauntingly cinematic of all the songs here, Lima Sahar commemorates the rapid rise and sudden fall of the Afghani woman who was the first to win her nation’s version of American Idol, only to be driven underground by extremist Muslim misogynists, never to be seen again.

Dena El Saffar switches to the hauntingly austere Iraqi joza fiddle on Joza Tears, a murky, echoing theme with a dubwise feel driven by John Orie Stith’s hypnotic bass. She finds the missing link that connects the Middle East and Mexico with the lushly soaring The Mariachi Stole My Heart, taking one of the album’s most intense solos midway through on violin. After that, there’s a long, celebratory vamp with a misterioso santoor solo, then a multi-percussion solo from her husband Tim Moore (whose diverse beats propel this album), followed by Awakening, an auspicous tribute to the heroes of the Arab Spring that may be the most suspensefully gripping track here, Amir’s conspiratorial trumpet ushering in a triumphantly slinky, classic Egyptian groove. The album winds up with the wryly titled, gorgeously levantine Rast Saffari, Dena multitracking herself as a stately string orchestra, and then Mesopotamia, which manages to blend a hypnotic Jamaican sleng teng riddim with a long, pensive, Iraqi violin solo that hits with an anthemic wallop. It’s still a long way til December, but this just might be the best, funnest album of the year.