Saturday, December 6, 2008

Not Europe but Imagination -- Kareem Salama

I thought I had posted about Kareem Salama, the Oklahoma-born Arab-American country singer, the son of Egyptian immigrants, when he performed in Rome earlier this year, but maybe I didn't...

The New York Times profiled him last year, and Weekend America runs a piece on him this week:
In high school, Kareem Salama spent a lot of time at the rodeo and drove a Silverado pick-up truck. Ever since he was little, he knew exactly what he wanted to be.

"I always wore a black cowboy hat and I used to wear my boots and I used to wear a cowboy necktie. I was pretty much into that kind of thing," Kareem says.

His favorite music was Garth Brooks, Reba McEntire, Tanya Tucker, and Alabama. That might be in part because, he says, country music is like "crickets" in Oklahoma. "It's not really whether you like it or you don't, it's just part of the culture. I don't meet people in Oklahoma who don't like country music."

But listening to country music isn't enough for Kareem Salama: He wants to be a star. He's already recorded two albums and just got back from a European tour.

Kareem's parents are engineers from Egypt and they immigrated to Ponca City, Oklahoma to work in the oil business. At first, slow-talking Oklahomans drove his mom crazy, but Kareem was born in Oklahoma. No one could stop him from loving it.

Salama makes a good news story because as a Muslim American of Arab descent, he doesn't fit the stereotype of the typical country singer. (Similarly, I got good rides out of profiles I've written about Kinky Friedman and Asleep At The Wheel's Ray Benson, both of whom are Jewish.)

I like Salama's music, which is pretty straightforward country/Americana. I found it amusing that the newspaper listing I saw for him in Italy -- a country where country music is little-known and generally scorned -- tried to sell his music as a world music hybrid, claiming that he enriched the Americana with Arabic and Middle Eastern themes....

Also, the stories European performers tell me resonate a lot with what Kareem says in the biographical essay on his web site, particularly the way he talks about his immigrant parents and their embrace of their new culture and how they immersed him in it, too.
Oklahoma is a hybrid of Southern, Western and Native American culture and thanks to my mother’s insatiable desire to learn and experience new things she made sure that I and everyone in my family was immersed in all of it.

As a child, I went to Indian Tribal Powwows, heard country music artists at the county fair and watched my favorite cowboys at the rodeo every year. My mother would take us to nearby Western Arkansas just to watch an outdoor play in an amphitheater. My parents would take us to Branson, Missouri in the summertime where we’d watch live shows, listen to bluegrass music and make wax candles like it was done in the old times. They even took us to Opryland and the famous Grand Old Opry in Tennessee.

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