Backstory: A country-western Muslim
With Egyptian roots and a southern drawl, Kareem Salama sings at a very American crossroad.
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"The last bastion of ethical tunes," as Salama terms country, tends to focus on a deeper meaning. Listening to a Southern tune, Salama likes to imagine an old man sitting by the fireside telling "a story that means something to him."Skip to next paragraph
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Traditional Arab music follows a similar pattern.
Given Islam's strict moral guidelines, few songs have quite the illicit content you'd hear in some American pop songs. Instead, Arab music, like country, tends to focus on issues like unadulterated love, family, and religion. According to Salama, these common themes attract a number of Muslims.
The connection has allowed Salama to freely mix Islamic ideas into his music, while ensuring that it maintains broad appeal.
"Even my hard-core right, Christian buddies are like, 'This is great! This is excellent!'" says Mr. Mihalopoulis, who has bridged his own musical tastes – his main gig is a heavy metal band, the stylistic opposite of country music – to team with Salama.
In a song about the virtues of tolerance, for example, Salama quotes the noted Islamic scholar and poet Imam Shafi'ee's version of the turn-the-other-check proverb: "I am like incense; the more you burn me the more I'm fragrant." Like most of Salama's music, the song emphasizes dealing peacefully with people in an evenhanded manner.
"I don't like to be preachy," he says. "My ideas and thoughts change all the time. So for me to preach something very adamantly and try to force a view down someone's throat implies that I'm very confident. I change my views all the time, especially being a young man."
The attitude has won Salama praise in a variety of circles. He was invited to perform in London at the "Radical Middle Ground" annual conference, sponsored by the British government.
Salama's laid-back and open attitude reflects life in his family home. In Ponca City, Okla., the Salama family was often the only Muslim family in town. Christians seeking converts visited them nearly every weekend.
"Frankly, I always used to enjoy visits from Jehovah's Witnesses, the Mormons, and other denominations," says Salama's father, Mamdouh, an engineer in the petroleum industry. He often invited them in for friendly religious debates. "You know, a lot of people actually hate it when they come, but I always enjoyed having them."
Despite stereotypes of the South as a region struggling with race issues, the Salama family experienced limited discrimination. Salama remembers only a few incidents when people shouted ethnic slurs and believes they were isolated occurrences. His mother, who wears hijab, once joined a women's painting group and initially experienced friction from suspicious members. However, once they got to know her, they became close friends.
"The South embodies so many Islamic values," says Salama. As an example, he cites the prophet Muhammad's command that good Muslims must greet their neighbors, also a common Southern practice, he says.
So far Salama and Mihalopoulis have performed almost exclusively at Islamic gatherings, largely with rave reviews.
"This is certainly one market, but we want to expose our music to a larger audience," says Salama.
While Salama's Muslim background may attract a very particular audience, both he and Mihalopoulis hope that it also might provide them with a hook capable of snagging the attention of more diverse listeners.
In the meantime, the two keep their day jobs – Salama studies law at the University of Iowa, and Mihalopoulis is a substitute teacher.
"I don't have a definite goal right now as to what I want to do with [my music]," says Salama.
But, he optimistically jokes, "If the Dixie Chicks would need someone to open for them, I'd be happy to."