Sound from across the sea: Syrian musicians play Wings for Dreams

Abigail Suddarth


Salaam plays various songs throughout the course of dinner during the “Wings For Dreams” charity event.

Dena El Saffar and Tim Moore want to touch people’s lives through music.

The married couple of 18 years make up the Arabic band Salaam, which performed at the Wings for Dreams at 6 p.m. Monday  in Carter Hall.

The event raised money to help the Syrian refugees receive an education.

“All the time they’re doing stuff supporting the young generation,” said Mervat Odeh, adjunct professor of Arabic. “I love that spirit.”

Though the event fell on El Saffar’s birthday, she said she was happy to perform at the event because she felt helpless in the aid for Syrian refugees.

“I think a lot of people in this room have had a similar experience where we’re thinking, ‘My gosh, this is happening on my watch, in my lifetime,’” she said.

Living so far away from Syria makes it difficult for Americans to find ways to help refugees, El Saffar said.

Salaam performed traditional Iraqi, Syrian, Egyptian, Algerian and Palestinian music as well as a few pieces El Saffar wrote herself.

“I would say 75 percent of it was just music that we’ve memorized,” El Saffar said. “But Arabic music has a lot of improvisation incorporated into it, so probably a quarter of what we did was improvised.”

El Saffar’s own childhood inspired her song “Train to Basra.”

“My dad used to tell me a bedtime story of his childhood, taking a train from Baghdad to Basra and it inspired me to write a song of the same name,” she said.

Throughout the course of the evening El Saffar and her husband played several different traditional Middle Eastern instruments.

El Saffar played a joza, which resembled a banjo, the an oud which resembled a guitar and a viola. Her husband played the percussion instruments including two doumbeks, which are goblet-shaped drums, two frame drums called a riq, also known as an Egyptian tambourine, and a daff.

“The joza and the oud are traditional Arabic instruments, they’ve been around for over a thousand years,” El Saffar said. “The viola is western, but it’s played a lot in the Middle East.”

Originally from Chicago, El Saffar received her undergraduate degree in music from Indiana University Bloomington’s Jacobs School of Music. She and her husband still live in Bloomington, Indiana.

“We’re free-lance musicians so we travel a lot for our music and then we also teach music lessons,” she said.

Salaam will perform in in Abu Dabi as well as across the U.S. in the spring, El Saffar said.

“We have so many experiences through music, meeting people and traveling,” she said. “Music is a lot about the journey more than the destination.”