A&E

The ambassador of 'Arabology'

Stanford DJ and lecturer champions the music of the Middle East

Tune into KZSU 90.1 (Stanford University's radio station) and you'll hear hip-hop, electronica, folk songs, indie pop, rock 'n' roll, interviews with leading luminaries and everything in between. And that's all in one program: Dr. Ramzi Salti's "Arabology," the eclectic show that introduces listeners to the best music and culture coming out of the Arab world today.

The infectiously enthusiastic Salti, who's also been a lecturer for the Arabic program at Stanford since 1998, said listeners are often surprised at the breadth of indie music now flowing from the Arab region -- and the progressive topics explored in it.

"I bank on that surprise," he said. "I myself was initially surprised when I discovered the new kinds of musical genres that were emerging."

Arab culture is more than the traditional, monolithic world of Western stereotype. But because many listeners don't speak Arabic, they may be missing much of the music's impact, he said.

"If you're going to play one of these songs that are addressing freedom of speech, women's rights, gay rights, things like that, I felt like what was lacking was someone telling you what the song was about, because the lyrics would be in Arabic," he said.

Salti, who broadcasts in English, breaks it down for his audience by providing plenty of translation and context.

"I think on my radio show, half the reason for the success is the music, obviously, but also before I play a track I contextualize it for listeners."

Salti's enthusiasm for showcasing Arab indie music has allowed him to connect with many artists who are excited for the chance to speak out to a wider audience.

"Some of my interviews led to creating a dialogue that centered on certain issues that would have been otherwise censored," he said.

When Salti interviewed Lebanese band Mashrou' Leila's lead singer, Hamed Sinno, in 2009, Sinno did something unprecedented.

"During my interview with him, he came out as gay. That was probably the first time ever that an Arab musician living in the Arab world would proudly talk about being gay, and record songs that celebrated love and attraction between two males," he said. "Once that interview aired, I think it generated much-needed discourse. Through him, you could start hearing a whole new discussion that centered on Arab sexuality, and it happened because his songs were so good."

Salti first encountered the band on a trip to Lebanon.

"I was so moved and so impressed," he said. "They were just students in Beirut who got together for jam session." Since then, and following Sinno's coming out, Mashrou' Leila has been touring the world, including a recent sold-out show in San Francisco.

"People like me started playing their music and writing about them. It proves this kind of music, given a chance, can reach a global audience," Salti said. "It wasn't just an Arab audience in America, either. Look at the audience and you had all colors and shapes and orientations."

"Arabology" covers a diverse range of music styles, from subcultures all across the region. Tunisia, for example, where the Arab Spring began, provided Salti with his first exposure to Arab hip-hop.

"I had thought that was such a Western thing, but with the Tunisian revolution there was a new kind of hip-hop that started to fill the streets: Arabic hip-hop songs that were so applicable to what was going on, crying out against the unjust dictatorship, crying out for women's rights, for freedom, for rising up against the system," he said.

The rapper El General rose to fame with his incendiary song "Rais Lebled" (a twist on the phrase meaning "president of the country"), which became an Arab Spring rallying cry.

"This powerful, young Tunisian rapper was speaking to the president through song, saying 'your people are starving, your people are afraid," he said. "It led to the singer being arrested but the government's attempts to censor it didn't work. The song became almost an anthem; it showed how hip-hop can be used on the global level."

Another Tunisian musician, singer/songwriter Emel Mathlouthi, also faced governmental persecution and exile and arose as a prominent revolutionary artist (and later performed at the Nobel Prize ceremony). Salti was instrumental in bringing her to perform at Stanford's Bing Concert Hall this October as part of Stanford Live's "Islamic Voices" series. He called this experience one of his personal highlights.

"She's such a healing voice, such a voice for equality," he said. Standing on stage and introducing her to the Stanford audience, he said, proudly, "was the best moment of my life."

Though Salti's show is mainly music-focused, he recently interviewed the renowned comedian Bassem Youssef, who's been called "the Egyptian John Stewart" and his program "The Daily Show of the Arab world."

"He really shook things up during the revolution," Salti said of Youssef, who's currently a visiting scholar at Stanford. "Through comedy and satire he was poking fun at the government but also exposing some of the corruption. Unfortunately his show was then cancelled because of censorship, but instead of him folding over and giving up he continued to do shows through the Internet and continues to bravely and humorously talk about his experience in Egypt."

Salti named Lebanese composer, singer and oud player Marcel Khalife as someone he'd love to have as a future "Arabology" guest. Khalife, he said, often sets classic poetry to new music, the combination of which allows his work to bridge the gap between generations of listeners. "To me," he said, "he's one of those musical giants that would be great to interview."

Music has always inspired and sustained Salti. Born in Lebanon and raised there and in Jordan, Salti came to America at age 17 to study at Santa Clara University, where he earned his undergraduate degree in French and English. His parents approved of the choice because of the school's location close to relatives living in the area, but teenage Salti had his own reasons.

"For me it was the dream of being near San Francisco," he said. "I'd always dreamed of being there. I was so happy to be accepted."

Salti enjoyed his studies and collegiate life in the U.S. but naturally felt a certain amount of homesickness.

"When I missed home, what kept me going, what helped me get through the lonely times and culture shock, was music, I would listen to music from back home and that would put me in a good mood," he recalled.

Music helped him settle into his new home, too.

"I would save up and get vinyl and listen to that. Looking back, I'm so glad I did. Music enabled me to understand the culture, whether it was Arabic music from back home or new American music that helped me understand the new culture I was in," he said. "I always have relied on music to get me through difficult times."

His two musical realms were largely separate, he said, until recent years ushered in a new wave of artists, playing a fusion of Arab and Western sounds.

"I felt my two worlds were coming together," he said "It had this beautiful melange of East and West together. I felt that fulfilled me as an Arab-American."

Since then, he's been a champion of fusion music, seeking out and sharing the freshest sounds and most important voices on his radio program, podcast and accompanying social-media sites.

He began by playing some of his favorite discoveries for his Stanford language students, who loved what they heard.

"They were first of all very surprised; secondly, they were really able to relate to it. Music is a great way to explore a culture and retain language. Why not expose more people to this kind of music?"

He began blogging about it (at Arabology.org) and eventually the KZSU DJ "byrd of paradise" took notice, inviting him to come on as a guest when the Arab Spring revolutions and corresponding surge of Middle Eastern voices garnered international attention.

"The response we got for that show was phenomenal, with listeners writing in saying how much they enjoyed the selection of music," Salti said. That reaction led to more guest spots. "Finally byrd jokingly said, 'You've been on this show so many times at this point, Ramzi, you should have a show of your own." Salti duly went through KZSU's technical training and became a full-fledged DJ in 2012.

His own life as a music fan has been influenced by a perhaps-surprising source: "Grease." No, not Greece, the Mediterranean nation, but "Grease," the 1978 musical film starring Olivia Newton-John. In fact, Salti's something of an expert on the Australian singer.

"OK, so, you know how we all have our guilty pleasures?" Salti said, laughing. "I just remember falling in love with the music. I didn't even realize it had been a play. I loved the film and I loved Olivia Newton-John's voice," he recalled. "I was a 10-year-old Middle Eastern boy trying to learn English. I would leave one screening and pay for another ticket and see another screening. Everyone thought I was the craziest kid in town," he said. "I would not spend my allowance on anything but this film. I watched 'Grease' a good 20 times and by the time I was done, every one of my friends knew the lyrics."

He especially admired how Newton-John's character, Sandy, undergoes a metamorphosis, showing him, "you could be more than one thing; the character wasn't binary. I loved that," he said. "Fast-forward to me coming to America," he said, to when he was getting his doctorate at U.C. Riverside and finally had a chance to start attending Newton-John's concerts, eventually writing articles about her for several periodicals. He's now met her about a dozen times and credits her openness about her battle with breast cancer with his being able to educate the women in his own family about the importance of early detection.

"Her music differs greatly from the indie Arabic music I love and play, but when no one's watching maybe I'll put the 'Grease' DVD on at home and sing along, or dance to 'Xanadu.'"

Salti has no plans to slow down on his mission to broadcast the best music from the Arab world. On a trip to visit family in Jordan over the summer, "people were coming up to me and saying, 'there's a new band, go see them!' I ended up spending half my vacation meeting musicians," he said. Not only did he discover more high-quality music that would appeal to his audiences back in America but also, once again, that music was serving the vital purpose of helping people in times of crisis to feel connected.

"The Jordanian people are hospitable to Syrian refugees," he explained, "but the music especially empowers them to try to help."

He pondered the fact that many refugees themselves are able to carry on writing and recording music and sharing it with the world via the Internet.

"They're recording in tents; Refugees doing hip-hop, uploading it. I don't know how they're able to do it," he said, his voice rich with awestruck emotion. "It sounds amazing: so raw and so beautiful and inspiring."

For more information, go to Arabology.org, Arabology on Soundcloud and Arabology on Facebook.

Comments

Like this comment
Posted by Ramzi Salti
a resident of another community
on Dec 9, 2016 at 12:24 am

Thank you for featuring this article about my radio show.


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