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San Francisco’s Don Arbor pays tribute to Iraqi blogger

An Interview with Don Arbor

By Julian Wilson

San Francisco has always been a wellspring of musical talent; from Jefferson Airplane to Journey, the Bay Area continues to be in a world of its own, free from the artificial and disposable product often emanating from Southern California. Count singer/songwriter Don Arbor as among the city’s real pleasures, a gifted vocalist and lyricist with the socio-political heart of Bob Dylan and Jackson Browne but blessed with the golden throats of Brian Wilson and Del Shannon.

Julian Wilson: You named your album after an Iraqi blogger who wrote first-hand about the atrocities in his homeland. Did Salam Pax inspire you to record a whole album? I ask because, even when you’re not writing about the war in Iraq, there is a sense of calmness throughout the record, a certain therapeutic vibe that seems to yearn for love and understanding in a world of madness and violence.

Don Arbor: I was incredibly moved when I read the entries in Salam Pax’ blog. Even now, I get chills thinking about it. It was amazing to me that Salam Pax had such courage, insight, humor, and ironic sensibility, as his home, his city, and his life were endangered. In reading these stories, I felt like Salam could be a neighbor, a friend, a kindred spirit, and this feeling was especially important to me at a time when I felt that the U.S. government was attempting to justify the war by presenting negative images of the Iraqi people. I wouldn’t say that Salam Pax inspired me to write the whole album, because I had been working on songs for the project with other sources of inspiration, both before and after reading Salam’s blog. But I do credit Salam Pax as the inspiration for the song that bears his name (“Peace”), which I hope speaks to others about the possibilities of peace. I do yearn for more love and understanding in the world so I’m glad that sense came through to you in the rest of the album as well.

Wilson: How do you feel you have evolved musically since your previous album, Postcard from the Mystery Spot?

Arbor: Postcard from the Mystery Spot was recorded in commercial studios, where my time and access were limited. After that recording I built a studio in my home, which has allowed me more time to explore the possibilities in each song. The instrumentation, arrangements, and the overall sound of the new album are a better expression of the variety of emotions I am trying to convey in the songs. Like the power of the horns in “Salam Pax (Peace)” compared to the subtlety of the piano and the building intensity of the string quartet in “I Let It Go.”

Wilson: When did you start recording albums? Was this something you had attempted earlier in your life?

Arbor: My first recording project was in a small room with two four-track tape decks in the Montmartre neighborhood in Paris, France, in 1975. I was performing in cafes, in the streets, and in the metro. We also performed a couple of the songs on a live radio broadcast for a show called “Le Pop Club.” Great name. In 1976, I moved to California and started law school. I kept writing songs, but I did not have the time, money or equipment to record them. In the 1980s, I recorded several songs with a band, the Tectonics, and we sold records at gigs. After that band broke up, I didn’t record for a long time. I have been raising a family, and our two boys are old enough now that I can put more time into the music. There’s a lot of support for music in our family, which is great.

Wilson: Your music video for “Salam Pax (Peace)” will be presented at the Berkeley Film and Video Festival on September 27th. How did that come about?

Arbor: After “Salam Pax (Peace)” was recorded in the sping of 2007, people who heard it were moved. Sometimes to tears. Their reactioons reinforced my own belief that the song communicated an important message and should have a wider audience. Some of the lyrics evoke visual imagery, and I thought a video to accompany the lyrics could give the song a path to the wider world. I asked my friend, Pam McCann, a video director, to listen to the song and let me know if she was interested in helping to make a video. After she wiped away the tears, Pam said she would love to help. We worked for several months on finding the right material to tell the story. We had great contributions from Hal Phillips, the videographer and editor, and especially from Kamran Kamjou, a young student who played the role of Salam Pax with great presence. The video was completed just before Christmas 2007. Pam dropped off a copy at the office of the Berkeley Film and Video Festival, and the festival directors told us that same day that they wanted it as an Official Selection for the 2008 festival. That’s coming up on September 27, and we’re very excited about it.

Wilson: In the late ’60s, amid the bloodshed of the Vietnam War, many singer/songwriters sang openly about serious real-world issues. Why do you think that is so rare these days?

Arbor: I came of age listening to songs that did have real-world content, and that experience shaped my relationship to music. I think there are still many songwriters and bands that attempt to express social and political ideas in their work, and I don’t think that there’s a black-and-white difference between the content of songs today and those of the earlier era. But in the 1960s, music represented a broad-based cultural movement more than it does today. There was also more experimentation with mixing styles, and messages, rather than commercial niches that are limited to a single style of music. One of my favorite of today’s musicians with a message is Michael Franti, who traveled to Iraq during the war and has a wonderful video based on his travels, “I Know I’m Not Alone.”

http://www.donarbor.com

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