6Qs with Dena El Saffar of Salaam //
Dena El Saffar, of Salaam (the Arabic word for “peace”) was exposed to Arabic music in the suburbs of Chicago, where she grew up attending Iraqi gatherings with her family. She began learning the violin at age six. At age 17, she accompanied her father to Baghdad and became enchanted by the music of Iraq and the Middle East. In 1993, while obtaining a classical music degree from Indiana University, she founded the group Salaam, a Middle Eastern ensemble that explores a cultural mosaic of music. Dena also plays the viola, joza and kemanche, and has performed with a diverse group of ensembles including Central Eurasian, bluegrass, blues and rock bands. Here, she tells FEN about how it all came together, her process for composition and what music is to her.
Group hangout/rehearsal space: Dena and Tim’s living room
Describe your sound in three words: Middle Eastern – Fusion
First instrument you each ever played: Dena – violin, Tim – drum set
LISTEN: “Hadha Mu Insaaf Minnek”
1. How did Salaam come about?
Salaam started as an idea in my mind. I envisioned a group of capable, like-minded and versatile musicians who could play Arabic and Middle Eastern music authentically, as well as explore other styles with ease; musicians who could sight read anything! And I am happy to say that’s what I got. Tim Moore and I are the core of the band, and we work with numerous talented people, including Turkish, Iraqi, Palestinian, Syrian, Jordanian, Tunisian, Kurdish and American musicians.
2. What does music mean to you, what does Arabic music mean to you?
Music, what can I say, it’s my life! Music offers a magical way to communicate, and some of the best things that ever happened to me were through music. I love Classical music (I have a degree in Classical Music performance from Indiana University) and other styles, but to me,
Arabic music is the deepest style of music I know. There is so much to it, you can never stop learning. The maqam system is wonderful in that it has clear structure and yet is still open for self expression, making it wonderfully compelling and complex.
Music is also a way to feel the connection with my Iraqi roots. I miss Iraq terribly, and I am thankful that playing the music can fill a little of that void.
3. What kind of feedback do you get from audiences in the Midwest?
There is a growing Arabic population in the Midwest, but it is very much a minority. The population at large is undereducated about the Middle East, and so music is a nice gateway into the culture.
Salaam created an education show for elementary students called Middle Eastern Musical Journey to help expose young people to the beauty of the music and the attractiveness of the culture. Many people really like Arabic music, not even knowing what it is. Many times I have been asked, “What is that music you’re playing? I really like it!”
4. What is the key to a good rehearsal?
Staying focused, and perfecting the details of a piece. Not getting distracted by socializing, because we all enjoy one another’s company. On the other hand, it is important that we all get along and have fun — an audience can tell if the people on stage are friends and get along well. Having an agenda, with sheet music on hand and possible listening examples always ensures that a lot will get done.
5. How do you go about composing for Salaam?
Composing for me is an organic process that starts when I am practicing my instrument, usually when I am alone. I start to improvise, and something I really like happens, and I play it again, try to add cadences or things that might make the music repeat, or move on to a new melody. Then I try to write it down before I forget, or record it on a little recording device. Later, I invite my band mates to embellish and bring any inspired ideas, though if it’s my piece, I get the final say.
LISTEN: “Layla” – Composed by Dena
6. What can Salaam fans look forward to next?
We are heading back to the recording studio to work on our next CD, which will be all original compositions — inshallah!