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MARCO WERMAN: TV's Emmy Awards for news and documentaries will be announced Monday. One nominated work is the musical score for a documentary called The Mosque in Morgantown. It follows one woman's battle against what she sees as growing conservatism at her West Virginia mosque. The score's composer is Kareem Roustom. Reporter Bruce Wallace met him recently and has this report.
BRUCE WALLACE: This song is inspired by the meter, feel, and emotional resonance of a particular type of classical Arabic poetry. This song, is not. They do have at least one thing in common, though, and that's Kareem Roustom. The first song is part of a piece he composed for the Damascus Festival Chamber Ensemble. The second was, you got it, Beyonce and Shakira. The song ï¿½Beautiful Liar.ï¿½ Roustom arranged the strings for that one. He was born in Damascus, Syria. Growing up, he remembers the city being a patchwork of sounds.
KAREEN ROUSTOM: Getting into the taxi cab you would hear Oum Kalsoum, the call to prayer, and of course going to churches there, the beautiful music in the Greek Orthodox and the Syrian Orthodox churches as well.
WALLACE: When he was 12, his family moved to a small town in the United States. It was around then that he started playing music. He says he did it in part to deal with the isolated feeling of being the new kid in town. He first got into guitar, then went on to study music and composition in college. Those Damascus sounds didn't work their way into his music for a while. They started to in the late ï¿½90s, when he was already making a career composing film and concert music. During a trip back to Syria, he became fascinated with the oud.
ROUSTOM: And the oud has its place in Arabic music, it's sort of the piano of Arabic music. So it's really the central instrument on which composers work, it's the instrument on which theory is based, and it's the primary instrument that accompanies vocalists as well.
WALLACE: He started teaching himself how to play it. As he mastered the instrument, he was learning more and more about the musical traditions of the Arab world, and those traditions were becoming more of a presence in his songs. It's one of three traditions he wove together for the score of The Mosque in Morgantown. To capture the film's setting, the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia, he had to study up, immerse himself in that music. He got equally wrapped up in the music of North India, where the film's main character is from.
ROUSTOM: For that kind of project, it takes times to just sort of internalize what you're listening to, and what you're transcribing and what sources you're studying, until it becomes something that feels a little more personal.
WALLACE: This is one of the main themes from the score for Mosque in Morgantown. Roustom said one reason he puts all this effort into being true to these different musical traditions is because Hollywood so often paints other cultures with broad, reductive brush strokes. As he continues to blend Arab and American styles in his music, becomes more ï¿½bi-lingualï¿½ he calls it, he gets asked to score more films on Arab and Arab-American themes. He says he was getting a little concerned about becoming the go-to Arab-film-score guy. Recently, though, he was talking to another composer named George S. Clinton.
ROUSTOM: The guy from P Funk.
WALLACE: Clinton does a lot of film score composing, particularly for comedic films.
ROUSTOM: And I said ï¿½George, are you ever worried about being pigeonholed,ï¿½ and he said ï¿½Show me the hole, I'll get in it.ï¿½ He said, ï¿½When you think about it, we're getting paid to write music, and that's really an incredible thing.ï¿½ He said, ï¿½So I don't really complain if people come back to me and ask me to do similar types of films.
WALLACE: Roustom says that helped him be more comfortable with this niche. Just in time, too. Another film Roustom scored called Budrus, a documentary about Israelis and Palestinians demonstrating together in the West Bank, opens in the US on October 8th. For the World, I'm Bruce Wallace.
WERMAN: The Mosque in Morgantown was produced in association with WGBH, which co-produces this program. You can hear Kareem Roustom's music at TheWorld.org.