Backstory: A country-western Muslim
With Egyptian roots and a southern drawl, Kareem Salama sings at a very American crossroad.
Kareem Salama – the main act on this evening's Muslim Student Association program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – nervously sips a bottle of water backstage as his guitarist/producer tunes a 12-string guitar.Skip to next paragraph
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The crowd buzz softens to a deferential hush as a bearded student takes the stage to start the evening with readings from the Koran in an Arabic melody that sounds like a medieval hymn.
It's Koranic recitations like these that inspired Mr. Salama, the son of Eygptian immigrants, to become a musician. But it's the peculiarly American circumstances of his life that drove this devout Muslim with a Southern drawl to his musical passion – country.
And so on this evening Koranic verse dissolves into the main act: the upbeat twang of what is perhaps the first Muslim country singer. In a down-home sound that seems at total odds with his look – an elegantly built man with a goatee style popular with young Arabs in his parents' Middle Eastern homeland – Salama croons to the enthusiastic audience. "Baby, I'm a soldier and I hear those trumpets calling again ... It's time for this simple man to be one of the few good men," go his original lyrics to a war ballad about the shared humanity of two soldiers on opposing sides.
As any musician emerging at the grassroots level, Salama performs mostly at smaller, niche events like this one. But he clearly has a growing following. Mariam Kandil, an MIT brain and cognitive sciences major who first heard him at another Muslim conference, says that Salama "got me to like country music."
But further, adds Ms. Kandil, a Muslim who wears hijab, the traditional Muslim head scarf, "What really caught my attention was his voice. But also the lyrics of the songs ... cater not only to the Muslim population but to a more universal group of people because of their meaning."
Salama's attempt to break into country music may seem bizarre to many outsiders. Even his guitarist/producer Aristotle Mihalopoulos – himself the son of Greek immigrants – admits it's a little odd: "He's doing country influenced music as a Muslim and has one of the thickest Southern accents I've ever heard."
"It doesn't feel strange to me," says Salama. "But it certainly is a novelty for other people to see someone who's Muslim and whose family didn't grow up here getting into something like this."
It's also fairly normal from his family's perspective, he says. Though his parents grew up in Egypt, they spent most of their adult lives in the US and raised Kareem and his two brothers and a sister in Oklahoma and Texas. Most of them enjoy country music. But, he adds, "that I'm choosing to put together a CD and go around performing the music ... might be a step outside the norm."
Though most country music fans would tell you nothing is more American, the genre has a reputation for being ultra patriotic, often to the point of bigotry.
Salama, however, is proving that country music might be America's real melting pot.
Especially since the September 11 attacks, some country songs tread the line between music and jingoistic calls to arms. In the controversial "Courtesy of the Red, White, & Blue," Toby Keith describes the "American way" as giving the boot to anyone who messes with America. In Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten?" he surmises that America is rightly looking for a fight and encourages replaying the 9/11 footage daily.
For a pious Muslim with traditional Arab tendencies, country music is a natural choice.