An Arab American
producer uses the power of music to narrow the gap between cultures
By Joseph Braude, Joseph Braude is the author of "The
New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East,
and the World." Photos by Shay Peretz for the LA Times.
November 26, 2006
Dawn Elder grew up in San Francisco in the
'70s on a diet of rock 'n' roll and her mother's Lebanese
cooking. Her bedroom was the one with the Eagles and Beatles
blaring from it. She hit clean octaves on the piano in the
living room and skated neat figure eights at the local ice
rink. Her exacting personality, teachers said, ensured her a
promising career as a chemist.
Neither her science textbooks nor her taste
in pop could explain the profound impact a strange musical
experience would have the night her father, of Palestinian
descent, took her to see a Lebanese diva perform in a San
Francisco concert hall. Elder's lab partners in chemistry
class never could have guessed that the California native
was destined to fuse Middle Eastern music and American pop
in recording studios all over Los Angeles.
"It was, like, a
moment out of the space-time continuum," Elder says of that long-ago
night in the concert hall. "This exotic woman singing these ancient
sounds, and thousands of Arab Americans from all over California
singing along and cheering her like she was a rock star."
The melodies Elder and most Americans grew up with have their roots
in the music of the Middle East, where the early ancestors of the
electric guitar and saxophone were invented. But the East-West
aesthetic divide is wide, due as much to political tensions between
America and the Muslim world as to a basic harmonic difference.
Although songs by Bach and the Beatles use just two eight-tone
scales—major and minor—there are more than a dozen in the
freewheeling musical landscape spanning eastward from Morocco's
Atlantic shores. The music Elder heard that night in San Francisco
was sung in scales with names such as Hijaz and Rast, denoting
subtly different combinations of quarter-tone intervals that can
color the mood of any song. The scales, or maqamat, were interwoven
in an elaborate modal system, which can be traced back to ancient
Mesopotamia and Greece.
Today, American pop stars are embracing these foreign musical
styles, due in no small part to Elder's prodding. Take the bilingual
dance track "Love to the People," a duet with Carlos Santana and
Algerian vocalist Cheb Khaled that Elder co-produced. The song opens
with the breathy sound of the nay, an Arabic shepherd's flute,
wailing a dark melody along the angular Hijaz scale—at first slow,
low and tentative, then picking up speed and urgency. Just when the
mind's eye begins to conjure shifting desert sands or Arab street
scenes, a more familiar Latin rock groove kicks in on percussion,
followed by the unmistakable sting of Santana's electric guitar and
"Smooth"-style chord fills from his rhythm section. These Arabic and
Latino colors blend easily, to be upstaged only by lyrics from
California reggae singer Elan, in a whiskey-stained voice that
echoes the breathy blasts of the nay:
sun floating on the hill
something magic in the sky
flutters free on a jasmine breeze
like a butterfly
As Elan approaches
the refrain—Calling everyone/Changing body, soul and mind—he's
joined by lead vocalist Khaled, whose Arabic- and French-language
hits have stirred millions in Arab and European countries. On this
track, he sings in English for the first time in his career, the
conventions of Arab pop surviving the transition intact. He lingers
on the long vowels as if he were crooning in his native tongue,
ornamenting English words with North African-style melodic trills
wound tightly around the edges of his favorite Arabic scales. Hybrid
sounds like these have long been relegated to the World Music
section of a record store. But they typify a new style of American
ethnic fusion that's largely emanating from California. With a
mounting sense of urgency since 9/11, Elder has worked to persuade
top L.A. producers and recording artists to reach out musically to
the Arab world. The presence of Arab, Iranian and South Asian
immigrants—who together number more than 1 million in Greater Los
Angeles—has created both a talent pool of ethnic artists and a
reliable audience for their hybrid music. And given the widespread
disaffection with the Bush administration's foreign policy, some of
L.A.'s leading entertainers have been attracted by the chance to
make a political statement by teaming up with Arab and Muslim
"It's about making
music to help Americans humanize the Middle East," Elder explains,
"and keeping American pop growing and evolving."
Even before 9/11,
daring mainstream artists were demonstrating that a musical fusion
of East and West could transcend the conflict and resonate
deeply—and romantically—with American pop audiences. Sting's
landmark hit "Desert Rose," for example, from the 1999 album "Brand
New Day," has the British performer crooning about the mysteries of
the Sahara, while in between verses the piercing voice of Algerian
pop star Cheb Mami winds rapid trills around an old Algerian scale.
The lyrics Mami sings may be incomprehensible to most American
listeners, but his otherworldly vocal riffs helped "Desert Rose"
sweep pop charts around the globe, including America's Top 40.
recently, Arabic pop sounds have been migrating from the
background to the foreground. When DJ Cheb i Sabbah, another
Elder client and collaborator, shows up to spin discs at
Temple Bar in Santa Monica, the line outside the club looks
as if it could stretch to his native North Africa. Anxious
speculation over the availability of tickets buzzes in
Arabic, Urdu, Farsi, English and Spanish. "He's this
high-energy little guy who's transforming American dance
music," Elder says. Pulsating trance music indoors blends
the disparate sounds of Arabia, Africa and Asia—the
heartlands of the Muslim world—courtesy of an Algerian
Jewish DJ with a cult following that spans L.A.'s manifold
ethnicities and sects.
that are no accident.
I watch Elder
shuffle into Elias Arts studios in Santa Monica one evening with an
armful of CD jewel cases labeled in Arabic, Farsi and French. She
greets an Egyptian percussionist in the lobby with traditional twin
kisses on the cheeks and makes small talk in her American-accented
Lebanese dialect. Then for producer Jonathan Elias, a leading
composer of movie trailer and TV commercial soundtracks, she offers
a muscular handshake.
"I brought you some show and tell," she says, tapping her world
music stack. What follows, for hours into the night, feels like a
cross between a Def Jam session and a United Nations Security
Council debate. Dueling percussionists with a language barrier
require Elder's mediation skills to settle whether a Pakistani
rhythm could be grafted over a standard rock beat. As an Arabic
flute player struggles to tame the stand-up mike in a glass-enclosed
soundproof chamber, Elder simultaneously keeps her eyes on him,
motioning with her hands the solution to his problem, while
launching into an impromptu show-and-tell lecture for Elias.
"Just to kind of
give you an idea where I'm going with this," she says, "here's a
sample of Umm Kulthum in the '50s." At the touch of a button,
surrounding speakers pipe in Elder's CD mix of Cairo's most famous
diva, dubbed "the voice of Egypt," wailing an epic poem to a live
audience, backed by a string-heavy 32-piece orchestra.
"I love that," Elias
says. "All the instruments seem to be playing in unison, though."
Elder nods her head
slowly. "We do not have harmonies in traditional Arabic music."
Elias says he has
called in Elder and her clients to "internationalize" the ensemble
mix for his forthcoming trance album, "Prayer Cycle 2." He envisions
exotic instruments and singers in more than a dozen languages using
traditional song to ask a higher being for peace and protection from
nuclear war. Over this backdrop, Sting, Robert Downey Jr. and other
celebrities will read poems about the perils of the atomic age.
"I can get
you an Indian Pakistani raga singer," Elder tells Elias,
"because both countries have the bomb now, right?"
that one of her clients, Riffat Sultana, is the scion of a
singing dynasty that dates back 500 years to India's Mughal
Muslim empire. She's also the first woman in her esteemed
family to be allowed to perform—a cultural breakthrough in
South Asian Muslim culture for which Elder takes partial
"Make it happen, Dawn."
How Elder ended up
connecting professionally with her faraway roots is a story of
delayed surrender to destiny, and a fateful migration southward
along the Pacific coastline. Like many Californians of Middle
Eastern ancestry, Elder has wrestled with her multicultural identity
amid strained relations between the United States and her parents'
native lands. Harmonizing these often discordant influences can be
harder in life than it is in a recording studio. She might still be
avoiding her Arab American heritage today, but for an idealistic
In the early '80s,
Elder stopped pursuing her biochemistry degree at Berkeley and
eventually got a job in Santa Barbara promoting rock 'n' roll and
Latino acts, fusing authentic sounds and worthy community causes, as
long as they weren't her own.
"My father and I
went together to an Arab wedding in Detroit around that time," she
remembers, "and everything at this wedding was done up badly. The PA
system, the dancers, the singer. It got to the point where the star
performer was doing this dance with a candelabra on her head. I
looked at my dad and said, 'Baba, there's just no way I'm going to
get involved with this kind of stuff.'"
She teamed up with
Mike Love and the Beach Boys to plan fundraising concerts for a
scholarship program and took on George Clinton and the Funkadelics
and several other rock groups as a representative and artistic
manager. When Latin rock took off as a popular strain in California
music, she pioneered a Spanish dance festival and concert events to
celebrate the Latino history of the Central Coast.
It was songwriter
Michael Sembello, a Grammy Award-winning protégé of Stevie Wonder,
who in late 1996 asked Elder to help him plan a video shoot in Long
Beach based on a new song he'd written, "One Planet One People."
What became known as the International Friendship Festival aspired
to bring to one California venue as many ethnicities and bands as
possible. "We saw it as an opportunity to build bridges," Elder
recalls. "This idea that no matter what race a person may be—if you
can see him, hear him, reach out and touch him, then you won't be
Irish, Italian, Latino and South Asian elite lost little time in
lining up dance troupes and bands to make their mark on the
festival. But when it came to North African and Middle Eastern
musicians, Elder was disappointed to find that the community was
divided and lacking in leadership despite the large numbers of
immigrants and abundance of performing acts. In a development
meeting for the festival, some event planners offered to import a
small herd of camels to stock a tent exhibition on the Middle East.
Elder remembers fuming to herself: The part of the world that gave
birth to civilization and invented melody was going to be
represented by a Middle Eastern stereotype—unless she did something
"It was the last
straw for me, no pun intended," she says. "I remembered the
world-class concert my father took me to see when I was a girl. I
realized I was going to have to make this happen myself."
steered clear of L.A.'s belly dance and cabaret scene and
turned for advice to some of the city's Arab American
cultural cognoscenti. She was introduced to the Kan Zaman
Community Ensemble, an all-volunteer Arabic orchestra based
in Arcadia whose concerts re-create symphonic sounds that go
back more than 1,000 years. Adam Basma, a Beirut-born dancer
and choreographer, befriended the promoter and volunteered
his Rolodex. And when Elder mentioned that her parents had
named her after the famous Lebanese diva Sabah (it means
early morning in Arabic), Basma let slip some community
she's here in California right now," he told her. "Her
children live around San Diego, and she comes to visit every
year. Let's meet her."
For Arab music
lovers, meeting Sabah is a privilege akin to meeting Barbra
"I'll never forget
sitting down with that charming 73-year-old woman," Elder recalls.
"Blond hair, a grand dress, a heart of gold. My parents fell in love
to the sound of her voice. When I told her I was trying to introduce
Arabic music to a massive L.A. audience, she didn't hesitate. She
said, 'I'll do it. I'll do it for free.'"
For the festival,
Sabah assembled an all-Arab American orchestra to back her up,
performed to a packed Southern California crowd and added her voice,
along with the Kan Zaman players, to a live rendition of Sembello's
song about global oneness. The moving event was a turning point in
Elder's career, and a milestone for L.A.'s Arab American community.
Says Elder: "Middle Eastern and North African music is basically
what I've been doing ever since."
She maintains her
headquarters in Santa Barbara—a small office with a personal
assistant—and commutes to L.A. most weeks. She frequently travels to
Arab countries with her clients, though since the war in Lebanon and
Israel in July there have been numerous tour cancellations in the
region. In an e-mail I received from Elder in September, she seemed
caught up in the violence engulfing her ancestral homelands. "We
have a few things cooking hopefully that will bring on a positive
spin to all that has been so negative lately in the world," she
writes. "Music and Arts are Spiritual & Emotional healers[.] I only
hope I have enough of it around to bring a few smiles to people['s]
faces and a better outlook on tomorrow."
Pop music producers
who find their way into Elder's creative circle are an eclectic
bunch, but uniformly devoted to pushing the limits of pop. One of
them is KC Porter, Santana's co-producer on "Love to the People."
"I've just felt such
a responsibility to give," he explains. "The Middle Eastern world
has been getting this message from America of force and aggression,
and I feel like, what better response than to send back a message of
love and compassion?" Hence the bilingual duet Porter co-produced
after the start of the Iraq war, aptly titled "Love and Compassion,"
which brings together Grammy Award-winning vocalist Paula Cole with
Iraq's top singing heartthrob, Kazem Al Sahir, among others.
both California natives, were converts to the Bahá'í faith, a young
religion whose 19th century prophet hailed from Iran. Their
missionary work throughout Guatemala when Porter was a child exposed
him to the sounds of South American music and language—an upbringing
he put to use producing a young Ricky Martin's first album in
English. "The Bahá'í view on life, and the basic principle of the
Bahá'í faith, is the oneness of humankind," he says. "That's
something I've really tried to focus on—how can I further that? But
now, that means my interest is shifting from Latin America to the
reflects on his work, his assistant is shuttling in and out
of the house with two cellphones and a scratch pad as they
prepare for a new multicultural musical experiment. Seventy
or so culturally diverse musicians and songwriters will
converge on a sound stage at the Jim Henson studios in
Hollywood in a few days. Each act will spend the afternoon
in a soundproof room writing a song together. Elder, seated
across from Porter at a picnic table in his backyard, is
hellbent on stocking the talent pool with as many Middle
Eastern musicians as possible.
should get Gamal Gomaa for this," Elder suggests, scrolling
down the little PDA screen in her hand. "He's a fabulous
percussion player from Egypt. Played with all the great
belly dancers. And he lives here now."
assistant replies, taking notes, "We'll add him to the drum circle."
"I wish this thing
weren't happening so soon," Elder says. "We've got Kazem Al Sahir
coming in next month, and I would have loved to bring in Simon
Shaheen on oud."
A mainstay of Arabic, Armenian and Turkish
music, it is the 11-stringed antecedent to the European
lute, shaped like a giant pear sliced down the middle and
traditionally strummed, mandolin-style, with a feather pick.
A.J. Racy, professor of ethnomusicology at UCLA, says the
instrument is known in the Arab world as "Amir al-Tarab,
which means the prince of ecstasy, in reference to the
enchanting quality of his sound." Its hollow wood body
resonates with every nuance of finger pressure on the neck
or friction between the pick and string.
"I could tell you stories about the oud,"
Elder says. "I'll never forget this guy I know at Clear
Channel telling me that American radio won't accept the
sound of the oud. He just couldn't see any of his DJs
picking up on it."
One song featuring
the oud that Clear Channel radio stations haven't aired is Lenny
Kravitz's kicking antiwar track, "We Want Peace"—another Kazem Al
Sahir duet. Rock the Vote, a Redondo Beach-based youth empowerment
organization, released the song exclusively on its website in
February 2003, more than a month before the American-led invasion of
Iraq. The Palestinian American oud player Simon Shaheen starts off
the track with a feverish solo run down the neck of his instrument,
melding the flash of a Spanish flamenco guitar riff with a somber
Arabic scale. The trademark Kravitz R&B groove takes over, flavored
with tambourine and Levantine-style percussion fills by Lebanese
American drummer Jamey Haddad. Kravitz and Al Sahir take turns
crooning for peace, then jointly power the chorus: "We want peace we
want it yes we want peace we want it yes we want peace yeah we want
A version of the
song with an Arabic refrain wasn't released in the U.S. Elder
explains why: "It hadn't been long since Condoleezza Rice was
warning the media about coded messages on satellite television
broadcasts from Osama bin Laden," she says.
"After the Dixie
Chicks got in trouble, we didn't want to take any chances."
that, like Elder, the secretary of State grew up skating figure
eights and practicing classical music on the piano. And that both
women went on to pursue careers largely dominated by Middle East
"Don't push it,"
Elder says. "She does her thing, I do mine."
Photos, in order
from top to bottom:
Dawn Elder never forgot the night her father took
her to hear a Lebanese diva. She wanted to make music as
pure as that.
(Shay Peretz / For The Times)
Dawn Elder has Americans joining Arabs to make
music. It's a potent blend.
(Shay Peretz / For The Times)
Salar Nader | Tabla player
An Afghani American, Nader performs all over the world,
playing locally with DJ Cheb i Sabbah.
(Shay Peretz / For The Times)
Dawn Elder steered clear of the belly dance scene in
favor of traditional groups such as the Taal Dance
Company, led by Neera Chanani.
(Shay Peretz / For The Times)
Adam Basma | Choreographer
An award-winning dancer, director and instructor, Basma,
who was born in Beirut, owns a Middle Eastern dance
studio in L.A.
(Shay Peretz / For The Times)
Gamal Gomaa | Percussion player
The Egyptian-born Gomaa specializes in North African and
Arabic percussion instruments.
(Shay Peretz / For The Times)
A.J. Racy | Oud player
Born in Lebanon, Racy earned degrees in musicology at
the University of Illinois and has been at UCLA since
(Shay Peretz / For The Times)
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