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Arab-American takes country music act to the Middle East

From Ben Wedeman, CNN
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'Country eastern' cowboy croons in Cairo
  • Kareem Salama, 32-year-old country singer from Oklahoma, on Middle East tour
  • Tour sponsored by U.S. State Department to raise cultural awareness in the region
  • Salama mixes country music with Arab and Muslim themes
  • His cross-cultural approach is hitting home with audiences

Cairo, Egypt (CNN) -- Kareem Salama's latest concert tour has taken him a long way from home.

The 32-year-old singer-songwriter has packed up his country-western act for a stint in the Middle East this month as he serves as an ambassador of sorts: an ambassador of Americana, thanks to a U.S. State Department-sponsored tour aimed at raising cultural awareness in the region.

Salama is an ideal messenger.

Born in Ponca City, Oklahoma, to Egyptian immigrants, Salama has invented a genre of music by blending his family's roots with his country of birth. His songs incorporate the Arabic poetry of a medieval Muslim theologian with the iconic twang of American country music.

Country-eastern, some might call it.

"The messages I try to focus on -- and I think it's sort of the focus of country music generally -- is just values: family values, love, kindness, things like that," Salama said after a recent performance in Cairo, one of the first stops on the monthlong seven-country tour.

And while he may resemble his audience in appearance, his Southern-accent-infused Arabic -- admittedly rusty -- draws giggles from the crowd.

"Is that proper? Is that right?" he asked the audience after attempting an Arabic thank-you.

But with lyrics such as "I want to live in a land called paradise / I want to go the Valley of the Kings," Salama's cross-cultural approach is hitting home.

"He has really nice songs, written songs. His voice is amazing. His band is amazing," concertgoer Sheriin Ali gushed after Salama's Cairo performance.

According to the State Department, Salama's tour -- which will stop in Morocco, Kuwait, Bahrain, Syria, Jerusalem and Jordan -- "is designed to bring to audiences in the Middle East a rising American musical talent, representative of America's diversity of faith and heritage, who can serve as a bridge between Americans and the peoples of the Middle East."

While in the region, Salama and his band will perform at public and private events, do community outreach events and interact with youth.

And, thanks to his parents, Salama seems born to carry a message of diplomacy.

His name translates literally to Generous Peace.