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Minnesota Sounds and Voices: Salah Fattah and the Egyptian music of Amwaaj

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Retired Minneapolis pharmacist Salah Fattah
Retired Minneapolis pharmacist Salah Fattah is the founder of the 10-year-old Arabic classical music ensemble Amwaaj, which in English means "wave," as in waves of the sea.
MPR Photo/Dan Olson

Salah Fattah can pinpoint the moment the music bug bit him. He was 12 years old; the family was living in Cairo. He and his older brother were at a theater watching Charlie Chaplin's movie, "Limelight."

The physical humor was fun, but Fattah says the movie's theme song captivated him - and inspired him to buy a violin.

"It was really made almost like a plywood type.  It was very cheap," Fattah recalls of the little instrument.  "When I bought that violin my mother said, 'You better hide that, you know.  Your father, he's going to worry about your school.'"

Fattah's father was a teacher, his mother a homemaker, and the family of six lived on a modest income. Getting an education was a big family value. And Fattah says his formal music education was short-lived, a victim of the economy.

"I had two lessons at school, and then there was no budget for the teachers to stay any longer, and there was no way I was going to ask at home for private lessons because it was a secret," he says.

That was 50 years ago. Now, Salah Fattah is the founder of the 10-year-old, Minneapolis-based classical Arabic music ensemble called Amwaaj, which means waves -- like waves of the sea or waves of music. Amwaaj's next performance is Saturday afternoon, June 16, at Minnehaha Park in Minneapolis as part of World Refugee Day.

Fattah left his homeland in 1969. With a college degree in agriculture in hand, he headed overseas to the United States, aiming for he hoped were more work opportunities. But his degree didn't match the jobs available. But he enrolled at the University of Minnesota, emerged with a pharmacy degree, married, raised a family, owned a couple of drug stores and kept playing the music of his homeland.

Ears more attuned to polkas or hip-hop may struggle a bit with Middle Eastern music. The melodies and harmonies are exotic, and the tunes seem to have extra beats - a signature of music from countries all around the Mediterranean, and not just Egypt, Fattah says: "It's kind of not balanced, there's always an extra beat that comes when you don't expect it."

And if the tunes sound like they're running long -- very long - to western ears, Fattah puts that down to a cultural holdover from the era when sultans ruled the region -- court composers and musicians didn't worry much about the clock.