He is America’s first Muslim country-western musician, and he has Egyptian roots. With his thick Southern drawl, he speaks Arabic with a novel twang. The Egyptian audience at Kareem Salama’s debut concert in the Middle East found this amusing, but responded enthusiastically when he spoke in his native tongue.
On Thursday night, Azhar Park’s Geneina Theater pulsated with Salama’s country-pop tunes. As part of US President Barack Obama’s strategy of building relations with the Muslim world, the Kareem Salama Tour, sponsored by the Department of State, is “designed to bring to audiences in the Middle East a rising American musical talent, representative of America’s diversity of faith and heritage, who can serve as a bridge between Americans and the peoples of the Middle East.”
Salama is proud of his Egyptian heritage, and fondly remembers summers in Alexandria, drinking the “best lemonade,” but is more aligned to America, where he was born. Growing up in the South, in Ponco City, Oklahoma, attending country fairs, it seems natural he’d be drawn to country music. He values his American identity, and the opportunities it presents.
‘’The US is about freedom of speech,’’ he declares patriotically. ‘’My country doesn’t tell me what to say. My country has paid for me to come here, and I can say whatever I want to say.’’ He says of Obama, whom he met when invited to a White House iftaar, ‘’Regardless of what you think of his policies, he’s a good man in person.’’
Salama’s music — the genre and the lyrics — reflects this symbolic bridge. Country music is largely regarded as the bastion of a right-leaning, white demographic. Within this group and Muslims, he’s seen as a maverick. Salama told Daily News Egypt he wasn’t previously cognisant of the power of music to influence paradigms, but that has changed. “I receive hundreds of emails from fans who tell me they now see Muslims and Islam in a different light,” he explains.
He refrains from using overtly religious language, enabling his lyrics, which touch on universal values of love, respect, tolerance, to appeal to humanity as a whole, not just Muslims.
His music is inspired by the poetry of a great eighth century Muslim scholar, Imam Shafi’ee, and he studied classical Arabic to understand it. Verses from Shafi’ee’s poetry appear in his single “Generous Peace.”
“Gentleman, I’m like incense, the more you burn me, the more fragrant I get,” he croons.
Another poetic influence is the seventeenth century poet and Anglican priest, John Donne. Salama started song-writing after writing a melody to memorise Donne’s “A Valediction Forbidding Mourning.” Modern day sources of inspiration are drawn largely from his eighties idols-Michael Jackson, Cindy Lauper and U2.
Salama has self-released two albums, “Generous Peace” (2006) and ‘This Life of Mine” (2007), the former being the literal translation of his name. He recently released a debut single for “Generous Peace,” including pop, acoustic and Arabic versions.
He’s currently working on his first mainstream worldwide release by the newly formed record company LightRain Records. His music producer, Dan Workman, has previously worked with artists Beyoncé and Clay Walker. Workman laughingly comments on Salama, “I wasn’t surprised to hear a Middle Eastern man singing country music, when I first met him.
I was just taken aback at how different his voice and appearance are.’’
The crowd at Geneina Theater, including a fair amount of expatriates, was initially hesitant to participate. But the catchy beats were difficult to resist, and soon the audience was clapping along in rhythm.
While the man, according to President Obama, “certainly can sing,” he lacks a stage presence. Wearing chinos with a checked shirt tucked into his waistband, with high-top shoes, he looked awkward beside his band members. Salama is also clumsy, with distracting hand and feet movements.
Yet Zubair, a fan of Salama, can see beyond this. “The first time I heard him sing was at an Islamic Relief Concert at Royal Albert Hall. I fell asleep, questioning my state of being if I found nothing good amongst the many performers. Then this American hero came on, with his Yankee accent, and I groaned. But then he sang his first tune. I was sitting on the edge of my seat. When he sang ‘Baby, I’m a Soldier’ I choked up.”
Although “Baby, I’m a Soldier” was interpreted as a reference to the Iraq War, he ascribes it to war in general. It’s the tale of two men fighting on opposite sites, but united in their dying moments.
The audience’s favourite was undoubtedly “A Land Called Paradise”.
Salama has not produced any music videos, aside from that of his remixed single, “Generous Peace”, and the video for “A Land Called Paradise” belongs to Lena Khan, who entered a competition which wanted video images of Muslims in America. She had requested permission to use the song and through her video, the song became a hit.
All his songs capture the essence of the human spirit, and preach unity and understanding.
Thirty-two-year-old Salama is a self-described devout Muslim, and so is at a disadvantage by not being able to sing in bars to promote his music, like other country singers. But despite that, as a Muslim country singer, he has certainly captured the interest of the mainstream media.
For more information about Kareem Salama, visit his website at www.kareemsalama.com.
Kareem Salama signing photos for Egyptian fans.