Tunes For The Tribe
By Karen Iris Tucker
In an era of Britney and Backstreet Boys, it is comforting to know about songwriter Dave Hall. Despite the music industry's current teenybop pop trend (or maybe because of it), Hall has chosen to release a CD so dense with meaning and musically gentle that it stands out simply in its quiet candor.
Against the backdrop of a retro '50s diner in Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Park Slope neighborhood, replete with egg creams and olive vinyl booths, Hall explains why his third CD, True, is more about shades of quiet than walls of sound.
The title cut is about an old friend of mine--my very first boyfriend--who I'd just discovered had passed away," recalls Hall. "It was really hard to hear that this young guy had died from HIV.... It got me to thinking about life and how it needs to be lived and addressed."
Hall built a hushed, eloquent base for his melancholy lyrics, one that is acentuated by two instrumental pieces than interpret Bach's cantata "Sheep May Safely Graze," making it clear Hall was on a quest to craft elegance through atmosphere. These classical adaptations bookend a set of bittersweet tracks that broach topics including Hall's 100-year old grandmother, simple life regrets, and the persistent taboo of gay sex.
The Brooklyn-based musician says it was his romantic partner and manager of nine years, Joe Romano (whom he met at a gay runners' club), who insisted on keeping the tracks as unadorned as possible, thus preserving the CD's bare-bones, delicately drifting quality. By contrast, Hall's two prior releases, Playin' the Man and Places, rock a lot harder, with cowboy croons and carefree folk-pop. Hall, who attended the Manhattan School of Music and received a degree in classical composition, says he was influenced in part by his childhood record collection, one filled with Cat Stevens, drama rockers like Queen, and the traditional Arabic melodies cherished by his Arab-American mom.
Hall, who grew up in Vermont, where his father is from, and upstate New York, added a few spare cello and violin flourishes to the tracks on True, and also layered them lightly with austere choruses and organ swells--though the 12-song set hardly suffers from an absence of instumentation. Rather, listeners can more clearly zero in on Hall's true-to-life tales--ones that will surely resonate with dreamers in various life crises and the people who love them. "This record contains some of my truest work," Hall reveals, though the CD art contains a photo of Hall crossing his fingers, as if to say that maybe some of it is actually fiction. Ever the heartfelt artist, Hall quickly points out, "people also cross their fingers as a sign of hope." Of the self-revelatory nature of his CD, Hall says, "I've never been one of these artists who writes therapy songs." Instead, he says, he is driven to being "a community-minded artist, like a tribal artist. I always feel that if someody's gig is to be a bricklayer, I hope that they are making the kind of houses that everyone wants to live in. My thing is to write songs that the whole tribe can read and say, "Yeah, this person is speaking for all of us."
Gay, Arab, American
May 18, 2007
Singer-songwriter Dave Hall is proud of his Arab heritage. You know, the tradition that includes inventions like algebra, sherbet—and Kathy Najimy.
Recently a friend and I compared childhoods as we ate in an Arab restaurant. “Dave,” she asked, “remember when we were just regular Americans?” I laughed a little at the question but took it seriously, because after entire lives spent as ordinary citizens, my friend and I, both Arab-Americans, were experiencing how it feels to be “other.” And it wasn’t feeling good.
I’ve dealt with stereotypes before. Arab-Americans are used to tired Hollywood images—the enslaver of virgins, the ardent lover (maybe I can live with that one), and lately, the terrorist. But before, when we encountered such caricatures, we could roll our eyes and keep eating our popcorn. At school, after learning the European view of the Crusades, we could go home and get the correct version. We never felt our very place in the world was in question.
Now it’s all questions. Like: How do you feel about suicide bombing? Is terrorism part of your culture? How do you feel about violence against gays in the Middle East? What about Islam? When confronted with such questions one can either lament American ignorance or roll up one’s sleeves and pitch in. Let me do the latter and attempt to answer those questions. Then I’ll pose a few of my own.
Regarding suicide bombing and terrorism: There is nothing essentially Arab about terrorism, nor are Arabs the only perpetrators of terrorist acts. Just as we shouldn’t lump all Irish people together based on the actions of the IRA or equate all Germans with Nazis, we mustn’t assume all Arabs support terror or even understand it.
I feel the same about violence against gays in the Middle East as I do about antigay violence in Wyoming—terrible. But let’s define terms. The Middle East is made up of many countries, not all of which are Arab. Under the Taliban regime in non-Arab Afghanistan, severe punishments were meted out to gays. And in non-Arab Iran, a nation that recognizes gender identity disorder and performs many sex reassignments each year, people have nevertheless been punished for homosexual acts.
I won’t pretend homophobia doesn’t exist in the Arab world, but it might be noted that Lebanon has a national gay magazine and a very active LGBT community. The Middle East has a long history of tolerance of homosexuality—it was European colonizers who introduced antigay laws to the region, and it is those laws that tyrants enforce for political gain.
What about Islam? Like most Arab-Americans, I’m Christian. But I do know that Islam is one of the great Western religions, and Allah, the Arabic word for God, refers to the same deity worshipped by Jews and Christians. Islam was born out of those two earlier monotheistic faiths, and Muslims revere all the Old and New Testament prophets. Sometimes American Christians ask about Islam being spread by the sword, as if their own faith was spread with a powder puff! I answer this way: My Arab Christian forebears lived for centuries with and among Muslims under Muslim rulers and were not forced to convert. Compare that to the European Christian model.
All of the above questions assume that Arabs behave more badly than Americans. Jesus said that to take a speck out of your neighbor’s eye, you must first remove the plank from your own. Let’s take his advice and reverse the questions: How do we feel when our tax dollars are spent destroying Arab cities and killing Arab civilians? And how do we feel when Christian leaders incite hatred of Muslims?
Arabs have brought to the world an extraordinary number of things I’m proud of. A very brief list would include algebra, geometry, astronomy, coffee, orange juice, sherbet, newspapers, the guitar, Kathy Najimy, and my mom.
You’d like my mom. She taught me tolerance. She’s proud of me as a musician and as a gay man. She makes a really mean tabbouleh. And she’s as American as you are.