I’ve written often about fantastic trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, an Oak Park native, who discovered the music of his Iraqi roots long after becoming a seriously skilled jazz musician. Years before he became interested in Iraqi maqam,* his sister Dena had already become immersed in the tradition, traveling to Iraq with their father in 1990 and learning the music and Arabic upon her return. She eventually studied ethnomusicology at Indiana University Bloomington, and formed Salaam to put her own spin on traditional Arabic and Iraqi music. In her group Safaafir, she and her brother play Iraqi maqam with painstaking authenticity, but as the new Salaam album, Train to Basra and Other Stories (due out October 29), makes clear, on her own Dena ElSaffar isn’t so concerned with purity (nor, for that matter, is her brother, who’s made his mark with a powerful fusion of free jazz and maqam).
* Not a set of musical modes, as in other Middle Eastern traditions, but the loose melodic and structural kernel of a song.
Despite the size of the Mexican population here, it wasn’t in Chicago but in San Miguel de Allende that Dena was taken with the sounds of mariachi music, which turns up in “The Mariachi Stole My Heart,” whose grace belies the corniness of its title. When she was a teenager her father would take her and Amir to south-side blues clubs like the original Checkerboard Lounge, and that exposure also makes it way into Salaam’s music, particularly on “Iraqi-American Blues,” which actually does sound as hokey as the title suggests, its blues riff closer to Peggy Lee’s “I’m A Woman” than to Muddy Waters’s “I’m a Man (Mannish Boy).” But that’s a rare misstep on the album; generally Dena handles such hybrids with poise and musical intelligence. “Lima Sahar” is named for a finalist on the musical competition Afghan Star who was subsequently scorned and threatened by her family and others, and here the instrumental sounds a bit like a stripped-down product of the Cairo hit factory, with Dena’s rich, overdubbed violins offering a plush cradle for the microtonal trumpet of her brother and the sorrowful ney lines of Lety ElNaggar. “Joza Tears” is a showcase for her mastery of the title instrument, a four-stringed Iraqi spike fiddle, with its brittle, sobbing lines stretching over a taut groove meted out by percussionist Tim Moore and bassist John Orie Smith.
Salaam performs Wednesday night (tomorrow) at the Old Town School of Folk Music; the lineup includes Dena and Amir ElSaffar, ElNaggar, Moore, and bassist Steve Harms. Below you can check out “Beledi, Baby,” one of the more austere and best tracks from the new album. Amir is featured on santoor, ElNaggar on ney.
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