BACKSTORY: A COUNTRY-WESTERN MUSLIM
Kareem Salama - the main act on this evening's Muslim Student Association program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology - nervously sips a bottle of water backstage as his guitarist/producer tunes a 12-string guitar.
The crowd buzz softens to a deferential hush as a bearded student takes the stage to start the evening with readings from the Koran in an Arabic melody that sounds like a medieval hymn.
It's Koranic recitations like these that inspired Mr. Salama, the son of Eygptian immigrants, to become a musician. But it's the peculiarly American circumstances of his life that drove this devout Muslim with a Southern drawl to his musical passion - country.
And so on this evening Koranic verse dissolves into the main act: the upbeat twang of what is perhaps the first Muslim country singer. In a down-home sound that seems at total odds with his look - an elegantly built man with a goatee style popular with young Arabs in his parents' Middle Eastern homeland - Salama croons to the enthusiastic audience. "Baby, I'm a soldier and I hear those trumpets calling again ... It's time for this simple man to be one of the few good men," go his original lyrics to a war ballad about the shared humanity of two soldiers on opposing sides.
As any musician emerging at the grassroots level, Salama performs mostly at smaller, niche events like this one. But he clearly has a growing following. Mariam Kandil, an MIT brain and cognitive sciences major who first heard him at another Muslim conference, says that Salama "got me to like country music."