Musician Salama Blends Jazz, Traditional Arab Style

March 6, 2009 at 6:45 PM EDT
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Musician Fathy Salama started playing piano in Cairo jazz clubs at age 13, and has since been recognized for his combinations of traditional Arab music and jazz, winning a 2005 Grammy award for his collaboration with Youssou N'Dour on the "Egypt" album. Salama discusses his music and participation in the Arabesque festival.

JIM LEHRER: Finally tonight, the last of our stories about the “Arabesque” festival of arts at the Washington, D.C.’s, Kennedy Center. Jeffrey Brown reports from Egypt on a musician’s story.

JEFFREY BROWN: On a recent Friday night at the Cairo Jazz Club, pianist, composer and producer Fathy Salama held forth with an electric version of his blurring of musical boundaries, East and West, mixing the Arabic music he grew up on with the Western jazz he first heard one day on the radio at home in Cairo.

FATHY SALAMA, Jazz Musician: I used to listen to Voice of America and used to listen to this kind of music I was really in love with. I didn’t even know then that it was called “jazz.”

Arabic music similar to jazz

JEFFREY BROWN: As a young adult, he pursued that love, including a period of study in New York with several jazz masters. Back home, after a successful stint as a record producer in the pop music world, he devoted himself to creating a whole new sound.

In 1989, he formed a band called Sharkiat, meaning "From the East."

FATHY SALAMA: I wanted to make my own version of my own roots, Arabic music, because, also, I always believed -- and I still believe -- that Arabic music has a lot to do or lots of similarity with jazz, because jazz is all about improvisation, primarily. Same in Arabic music.

JEFFREY BROWN: That a place like the Jazz Club and a musician like Fathy Salama exist and thrive at all might be a bit of a revelation to many Americans. A vibrant, crowded city of some 18 million, Cairo has long been a major capital of popular culture within the Arab world, film, television, and music.

FATHY SALAMA: To make a video clip, you know, or to be famous, they come to Cairo.

JEFFREY BROWN: To be famous, you come to Cairo?

FATHY SALAMA: Yes, yes, normally.

Using jazz chords creatively

JEFFREY BROWN: In recent years, there's been a growing influence of conservative Islam in Egyptian life. We were struck by the number of veiled women on the streets. Salama agrees that's happened, but characteristically, perhaps, he sees a mixed picture.

FATHY SALAMA: A very normal thing you will see everyday here, a girl wearing a veil, but wearing very tight jeans. This is exactly how people think, like they have a duality somehow, like in-between. Otherwise, there wouldn't be a club like this, like where we're sitting. There's not many clubs like this, also, I should say.

JEFFREY BROWN: The day after performing at the club, Salama invited us to his home and studio in a suburb of Cairo.

FATHY SALAMA: It starts with a melody like this.

JEFFREY BROWN: I asked for a demonstration of just how he puts together Arabic music and jazz.

FATHY SALAMA: But what I did, I put chords, so I put harmonies, I put -- like F minor 9th. Definitely we don't have this in Arabic.

JEFFREY BROWN: You don't have that?

FATHY SALAMA: No, we don't have that...

JEFFREY BROWN: That sounds like a -- that sounds like a jazz chord to me.

FATHY SALAMA: Yes, exactly. And this -- this, also, we don't have, you know? This is known even in the states and everywhere. This is a Herbie Hancock song. It's very known, you know.

JEFFREY BROWN: That's Herbie Hancock over an Arabic song?

FATHY SALAMA: Over this, yes. So that's what I'm saying. That's what I'm trying to achieve somehow.

'We are mixes'

JEFFREY BROWN: In recent years, Salama has also been working to connect Arabic music with traditions from other parts of the globe. At this recent concert in Cairo, his band played with a Cuban salsa group.

In 2005, Salama won a Grammy Award for his collaboration with world music superstar Youssou N'Dour from Senegal. Their album, called "Egypt," featured music from the Islamic Sufi tradition.

FATHY SALAMA: We are mixes, all of us on Earth.


FATHY SALAMA: Mixes, yes. Anyways, I mean, nobody can claim that you're pure this or pure that. Everybody was mixed at some time and came from here, when there. And for me, I think my message is to show this. We all share music, so somehow sharing this kind of peace that music brings.

JEFFREY BROWN: Fathy Salama and his band will perform in Washington at the Kennedy Center's "Arabesque" festival on March 8th.