Striking the right balance

Violet Salameh sings the praises of three legendary divas at the upcoming Oud Festival.

Violet Salameh 248 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Violet Salameh 248 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Violet Salameh may have made a first-rate accountant, but that would have deprived her audiences across the globe of an enchanting and enriching musical and spiritual experience. The 47-year-old Haifa-born singer is one the main draws at this year's Oud Festival (November 20-December 4) sponsored by Confederation House. On December 2 (at 9 p.m.), at the Jerusalem Theater she will perform a program of works dedicated to the three great divas of the classical Arabic music world - Layla Morad, Asmahan and Oum Koulthoum. Mention of the latter is pertinent, as Salameh's ability to spin a tale and captivate her listeners with her vocal prowess has been compared with that of the acknowledged late queen of classical Arab singing. "I don't know about that," says Salameh, with due deference to Koulthoum. "She was maybe the greatest of them all." Still, Salameh has earned the respect of the toughest audiences in Egypt, where Koulthoum lived. "I perform at the Opera House in Cairo," Salameh continues. "There is always a special audience there, which really appreciates and knows the music. So if they like me, that is wonderful." But lovers of classical Arabic music might have had to do without the delights of Salameh's vocal skills. "When I was 16, we moved to Miami," she explains. "I started getting interested in music and singing, but my parents thought it would be best if I got myself a 'respectable' profession first. I suppose, like all parents - Jews, Arabs, Poles, French, it doesn't make any difference where you come from - they wanted to make sure I could eat first before I tried to forge a career in music. So I studied accountancy." It soon became clear that balancing the books may have kept Salameh's clients' and her own finances in order, but it was hardly going to provide her with her essential spiritual nutrition. Salameh began putting out vocal feelers as a child. She joined the school choir and quickly became the soloist. In the States, she started out performing at private gatherings. "I sang on family occasions and that sort of thing," Salameh recalls, but it soon became clear that she was destined for bigger and better things. "I had other dreams. I wanted to perform in Arab countries. I felt that if I were to become a serious singer, that was where I had to prove myself." In the late 1980s Salameh took the plunge and moved to Egypt for 18 months, putting out her first CD in 1991. But then politics, and violence, reared their ugly heads. "I felt I couldn't carry on performing during the Gulf War," Salameh explains. "That really depressed me, so I returned to the States." For the next five years she was quite happy to revert to her initial performing format. "I like intimate settings," she says. "It is important to create that intimacy at all concerts. I have always felt that at the Opera House in Cairo, too." In 1995 she resumed her international career and also returned to these shores. "I grew up in Haifa. We had Jewish neighbors and Arab neighbors. We always lived together, and that is wonderful. This is where I truly feel at home." In fact, Salameh divides her time among three homes - in Haifa, Athens and Miami. Considering the multicultural ambiance of her hometown, it is hardly surprising to learn that, for Salameh, music is an important means of communication and of bridging cultural gaps. "Growing up in Haifa with Arabs and Jews greatly influenced who I am today. My home in Miami is also in a Jewish area." And it is not only musical nourishment that keeps Salameh's home fires burning. "A few years ago my husband and I had a restaurant in New York. We had lots of Jewish customers. You know, food is food wherever you go." For Salameh, the same goes for music as well. "I sing for everyone and anyone. I will sing for anybody who appreciates the music, even if he or she doesn't understand the words. It is the feeling I can convey, the story behind the music that is important to get across. If the audience gets that, then I've done my job." Delivery is also crucial. "Singers like Layla Morad, Asmahan and Oum Koulthoum sang accurately and made sure they sang each word correctly. They didn't think about the money they might get for a particular performance. They were pure and genuine." They also had good support from their writers. "You know, back then, composers could work for a year on a single song. Composers like Farid El Atrash and Abdul Wahad took their time, to make sure what they put out was exactly right. That was a different era, but I do my best to follow their lead. I also try to make sure I am genuine about the music I perform." For more information, visit