Iraqi refugee moves crowd with music at St. Nicolas Church

Jia You

With a fusion of Arabic and classical elements in his compositions, pianist and Iraqi refugee Karam Salem hopes to connect two cultures with his music.

The 24-year-old performed Saturday night for an audience of about 30 people at St. Nicolas Church, 806 Ridge Ave., as part of a national tour to raise money for his graduate education at the Berklee College of Music in Boston.

“I want my culture to be heard,” Salem said. “Mixing between Middle Eastern and classical music is going to help me build that bridge that I want people to cross and come to my place and see who we are.”

The hour-long solo concert began with “Intonations,” a piece that blends piano and singing to tell the story of a journalist exploring foreign places. Like many of Salem’s songs, it fused Arabic tunes and classical compositional structure. During the second half, Salem had audience members pick cards with musical notes on them and improvised based on the notes chosen. Salem’s abstract artwork was displayed on both sides of the piano.

In between each piece, Salem spoke to the audience about his music and artistic beliefs. He said he believes in the universal appeal of art.

“You don’t need to learn that language, you don’t need to take classes to understand what is happening,” he said. “You could feel, you could sense.”

Salem’s family fled from Iraq to Syria in 2006 because of threats to their lives, he said. After two years as a refugee, he received a scholarship to study at Holy Cross College in Indiana through the Iraqi Student Project, a nonprofit organization that helps Iraqi refugees pursue college education in the United States.

Before his fundraising tour this year, Salem had performed in Chicago three times to raise money for his friend Hala, who received a scholarship at DePaul University through the Iraqi Student Project.

“I always become emotional when I come to his concerts,” said Hala, who declined to disclose her last name due to concerns for her safety. “He transmits images of Iraq into his music.”