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Lisa Rooney finds her passion in music of the Middle East

Audience dancing at the Mercury Cafe, 2012
Audience dancing at the Mercury Cafe, 2012
Zuruna/Lisa Rooney

Like everybody else in Zuruna, Lisa Rooney has never been to the Middle East. Make that almost everybody else. The band's lead singer, Catrene Payan, is an Arab-Christian from Haifa. The rest of the crew are Americans, born and bred.

Lisa Rooney
Lisa Rooney

Rooney plays a species of Arabic flute called the nay, which she took up while working in Argentina as director of the Bridge Spanish Language School in Buenos Aires.

"First thing I did when I got there was to seek out a belly dance class," she said. In addition to dance, the teacher was offering a course in Middle Eastern drumming. Rooney signed up.

"The rhythms are different," she said, "not your standard Western 4/4 time, but odd meters like 5/8, or 7/8, or even 10/8 time. Middle Eastern rhythms make you want to get up and dance!"

What really turned her on, though, was the multicultural bouillabaisse of the class. "I loved the mix;" she said, "an American in Buenos Aires learning Middle Eastern drumming from the Argentines."

One night at a recital of Sufi music in somebody's living room (again, Turkish music in Buenos Aires with nary a Turk in sight) she became entranced by the nay, which sounded to her very much like the human voice. After the performance, she approached the flautist.

"I want to play the nay," she said. "Where can I learn, and how can I get one?"

He volunteered to teach her, and sold her an instrument he'd made himself. "Call me when you can get a sound out of it," he said. That took her three days of trying.

"The nay is held at a 45 degree angle," she explained. "The air is blown both into and across the hole. I studied with him for six months. Then I got transferred to Denver."

Before she accepted the assignment, though, she Googled "Middle Eastern Music in Denver," and came across an ensemble called Sultanah. The group was led by Kylie, an Australian woman, and Chakid, her Moroccan husband. A multi-talented musician, Chakid played violin, keyboards, the nay, and a pear-shaped Arabic lute called an oud.

Rooney emailed them requesting information. They wrote back with a simple invitation; "Come play with us." Rooney joined the band as its official nay player.

"I could only play two songs," she said. "But I learned a lot from them about improvisation and performance."

Sadly, Kylie and Chakid departed for the East Coast in 2011, leaving behind a small coterie of Western devotees who, like Rooney, had become entranced with Middle Eastern music. Together they founded Zuruna and began playing regular gigs at the Phoenician Kabob on East Colfax, and at the Mercury Café. They also join forces once a year with the all-Jewish klezmer band, The Lost Tribe, for a concert they call Salaam/Shalom.

"Everyone in the band feels like we're knocking down stereotypes and misconceptions," Rooney said. "It's important for us to show that people are just people. The concert is another way symbolically to show that (Muslims and Jews) can co-exist."

Zuruna gets together once a week in somebody's living room to rehearse and learn new songs.

"It's a social gathering with a sharing of food," she said. "We play a wide variety of music including classics from the '30s and '40s, traditional dance songs, folk songs, and Samai, a musical form with four distinct movements and a refrain."

"In terms of personal fulfillment," she said, "this is where my passion lies. Music is like an escape from reality. It takes me into a different dimension. It's very much like meditation. It clears your mind, relaxes your body, gives you energy, and generates feelings of happiness. I also like the bond (known as Tarab in Arabic) that happens between the performers and the audience. You know it's a good show when they're clapping and dancing, or when they fall silent and are mesmerized."
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Coming Soon, a collection of the best of Don Morreale's Examiner stories in book form entitled "Cowboys, Yogis, and One-legged Ski Bums."

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