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An Arab American producer uses the power of music to narrow the gap between cultures

November 26, 2006|Joseph Braude | Joseph Braude is the author of "The New Iraq: Rebuilding the Country for Its People, the Middle East, and the World."

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.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday November 26, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
Photographer: The last name of photographer Shay Peretz is misspelled as Perez on the opening page of today's West magazine story on Arab American music producer Dawn Elder.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 03, 2006 Home Edition West Magazine Part I Page 5 Lat Magazine Desk 0 inches; 28 words Type of Material: Correction
The last name of photographer Shay Peretz was misspelled as Perez on the opening page of the story on Arab American music producer Dawn Elder ("West-East," Nov. 26).

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:

Summer sun floating on the hill

There's something magic in the sky

She flutters free on a jasmine breeze

Gentle 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 artists.

"It's about making music to help Americans humanize the Middle East," Elder explains, "and keeping American pop growing and evolving."

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