Bridging Cultures with Music

Luti Erbeznik began his music career as a 15-year old by playing drums and singing in a band. A few years later, he was the lead singer and drummer in Angled Projectile, a regionally acclaimed rock band. He taught himself to play acoustic guitar and began writing songs. In college, Luti left the band and focused on his college education, eventually earning a Fulbright Scholarship for graduate studies in the United States. After earning a Ph.D. in molecular biology, Luti spent a decade in postdoctoral research and teaching at liberal arts colleges. All the while, he kept playing guitar, mostly for himself, and mostly for solace … an aspiring immigrant trying to live the American Dream.

Luti bridges cultures with music. His mixed ethnicity (Slovene/Macedonian/Greek), his childhood immersion in folk music from the many ethnic groups coexisting in the former Yugoslavia, combined with exposure to melodic rock (Wishbone Ash, Styx, Queen) and classical music, helped forge his eclectic songwriting style.

Watch Luti’s half-hour interview, read his interview, and visit his website to enjoy more of his music http://www.lutimusic.com/

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When and how did you begin your music career?

I began my music career when I was about 15 years old. My buddies and I began picking up songs of our favorite rock bands, and practicing them on the instruments we had. I was raised by a single mom, and we were quite poor. At the time, she could not afford to buy me a drum kit (I was the drummer in the band), so I was borrowing drum kits from other older boys who had their own. We would perform at school venues for our peers, and we were very well received. I was the lead vocalist as well. Within a year or so, my mom took a loan and bought me a drum kit, so I was able to practice and perform on my own drums.

As time went on, we started writing our own original music, which was also very well received by the audience at our performances.

How has your background, where and how you were raised, affect your music?

In our country which used to be called Yugoslavia we were exposed to all sorts of music! Ours was a multi-ethnic society with more than 20 different nationalities living together, and so we enjoyed a variety of music from different heritage lines. The republic in which we lived ( Serbia) had its own rock and pop bands, which drew the inspiration for their opus mostly from the Western counterparts. That is to say, under our leader Josip Broz Tito, we were an independent multi-ethnic nation, not oppressed by the Soviet Union (like our neighboring countries Romania, Hungary, etc), and, as such we had open access to Western (American and Western European movies, music and other cultural aspects). So, our music was largely influenced by the music of the American and British rock and pop scene.

How did your career in music develop?

As our musicianship developed further, our songwriting became more sophisticated, and our songs became more complex. Ours was a five-piece band: a lead guitarist, a rhythm guitarist, a bass player, a keyboardist and me on the drums. Everyone but the keyboard player (who at the time was a 12-year old prodigious sister of our lead guitarist) sang, and, as I mentioned before, I was the lead vocalist. At one point, we went to a studio, and had three of our songs professionally recorded. Unfortunately, the people on the radio were not too keen on playing our music. Our songs required close listening, and were not simple three-chord ditties which one could hear on radio stations at the time. We were not too discouraged, though, and we kept playing for the fun of it. Those were some of the very best times of my youth.

What’s your daytime job, or the job that supports you, and how did you get involved in it?

While in my rock band, I, of course, continued my education, which involved completion of the undergraduate degree in Biology and a Master’s Degree in Taxonomy (a special discipline within biology). Simultaneously, I was doing research at my university in

the Microbiology lab starting as a sophomore. After coauthoring several articles in peer-reviewed science journals and having presented research results at multiple national and international conferences, and having earned a high GPA in my coursework, I received Fulbright Scholarship in 1987 to pursue graduate studies in the USA. So, I came here and earned my PhD from the University of Illinois at Chicago. After three productive postdoctoral stints and several adjunct teaching engagements, I landed a permanent teaching career in higher education. For the past 15 years I have been teaching as a full time faculty member Microbiology and Human Anatomy and Physiology at Oakland Community College in Waterford, MI. That’s my day job.

How would you describe the music that you normally create?

Musically, I would say it is a bit of a blend of rock, pop and folk, with some influence from the music of the Balkan Peninsula where I grew up. Lyrically, I am interested in delving into the social issues and bringing the elements of human condition that corrupt the possibilities of understanding, harmony, acceptance and mutualism in a society. Some of the themes evident in my songs include greed, racism, police brutality, abuse of women, homelessness and destruction of the environment. I am not shy to sing about these and, by doing so, implicitly ask my audience to think about these issues and contemplate how each of them can make this world a better place.

What is your creative process like?

Usually, I come up with a melody first. To me, a song is not a song unless it has a melody that is catchy and pleasant to the listening ear. Then, I decide what the song ought to be about. Next, I write any thoughts, lines, ideas, images that may come to my head – uncensored by my internal editor. Then, I begin to figure out how these writings — that are seemingly random, but all connected in some way—can be converted into the lines of the song. It helps if the lines rhyme, so I use a rhyming dictionary and also a thesaurus.

Which famous musicians do you admire and why?

There are too many to count. I’ve always loved music by ABBA as their songs are so beautiful and memorable. Of course, there are the timeless Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Peter Gabriel and hundreds of others such as the late Paco de Lucia, and a living legend of the Macedonian rock scene, an amazing guitarist Vlatko Stefanovski. Every one of them is a hard worker, passionate about their music, immensely creative and dedicated. I am also a huge fan of Jethro Tull and their leader Ian Anderson, and also of the British band Wishbone Ash. Both of those bands have had remarkably strong influence on my music writing.

What has been the biggest struggle you experienced in your music career?

I guess just finding enough time to pursue music, when at the same time I want to give the best of myself to my students and my family.

What is the best advice you’ve been given?

Just keep doing what you’re doing.

What advice would you give someone starting out as a musician or struggling as an established one?

Enjoy every moment of music and try to find enough time for songwriting, as songwriting takes time.

What’s next for you?

I currently play in three different bands — The Whistleblowers, Eastward Bound and The Byrds Tribute Band. I also perform in a duo form with my friends Bobby Pennock and Dan Hazlett. Once Covid-19 pandemic is fully brought to control, I will resume performing with those people as it gives me immense joy and happiness. I will also continue to give my students the best education I can to help prepare the for their further endeavors in health care.

Paul Manoian Photography

Respect: The Poetry of Detroit Music

M.L. Liebler is the author of fifteen books and has been on faculty in the English department at Wayne State University since 1980. I interviewed him over ten years ago when I was working as a freelance writer for the St. Clair Shores.  He’s St. Clair Shores’ (his hometown) first Poet Laureate. The next time I saw Liebler is when he was a keynote writer for the Detroit Working Writers. We’ve stayed connected since then.

Liebler’s recent book, Respect: The Poetry of Detroit Music, is a collection of poems and lyrics that shows the global impact of Detroit’s music scene – Grammy winners, Pulitzer Prize winners, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductees, and poet laureates. Included are icons such as Eminem, June Jordan, Fred “Sonic” Smith, Rita Dove, Jack White, Robbie Robertson, Paul Simon, Nikki Giovanni, Philip Levine, Sasha Frere-Jones, Patricia Smith, Billy Bragg, Andrew Codrescu, Toi Derricotte, and Cornelius Eady.

Amazon (paperback)

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Here’s a poem from M.L. Liebler, called “Rhythm and Blues Fire.”

TONIGHT GASOLINE POURS

CREATING A FIRE OF RHYTHM

AND BLUES IGNITING AN ENGINE

OF SWEET SOUL DREAMS

WARM, DARK PRUPLE

LATE SUMMER NIGHT SONGS

THAT RESPECT THEMSELVES

HOT HARMONIES ON AN EASTSIDE DETROIT STREET

FALCONS SINGING IN THE FRONT

ROOM AND ACROSS THE STREET

AND A YOUNG BOY HEARS

THEIR CALL AND RESPONSE.

IT’S A NEW CHURCH

IT’S DETROIT. IT’S LATE 1959

AND IT’S OUR GOOD FORTUNE TO HAVE

NOT HYMNS FOR OUR NORTHERN SOULS.

I found so many other wonderful poets in this book, including a dear friend, Zilka Joseph. Zilka was born in Bombay, India, and grew up and was educated in Calcutta. She moved to Chicago with her husband in 1997 and currently lives in Michigan. She has been nominated twice for a Pushcart prize.

Other works by Liebler include award winning Wide Awake in Someone Else’s Dream (Wayne State University Press 2008) featuring poems written in and about Russia, Israel, Germany, Alaska and Detroit. He has read and performed his work in Afghanistan, Israel, Palestine, Russia, China, France, UK, Macao, Italy, Germany, Spain, Finland and most of the 50 States. Aside from teaching at Wayne State University, he is the founding director of both The National Writer’s Voice Project in Detroit and the Springfed Arts: Metro Detroit Writers Literary Arts Organization.

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For more information and upcoming events, visit  http://www.mlliebler.com

The Oud Player

 

It was Nineveh Cultural Night. As I set my books on the author table, I heard the sound of the classical music of the legendary singer Abdel Halim Hafez. It transported me to the days of long ago, when I was a little girl in Baghdad, Iraq. Television was programmed for only several hours a day and the rest of the time my family listened to the radio.

After I finished setting my books, I turned around and was surprised to see a young man playing the oud. Not having paid any attention to my surroundings, I’d assumed it was a stereo. He then sang the songs in their original Arabic language even though I learned later that he was born in America.

This event, where I was a speaker, occurred shortly after my mother had passed away. Listening to him brought so many heartfelt memories that, for me, it became the most notable part of the evening. I sat there and enjoyed the sound of the oud, a musical instrument that’s some 35000 years old, the oldest found in Persia.

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Brian was lucky to be born to a very supportive mother who taught him and his siblings several languages and encouraged his music career. At 12 years old, he cried to her that he wanted an oud so she took him to a small warehouse in Dearborn where he was given the option to choose one of two ouds. He loved the design on one of them, they bought it, and this became his favorite oud.

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Brian was soon taught by Abdul Karim Badr, who I happened to interview in 2010, and who has since passed away. I’d had the pleasure of visiting Badr at his home and listening to his story and music. Badr was born in 1921 in Lebanon to a Lebanese mother and a Syrian father. Yet much of his music career was spent in Iraq, during the country’s “Golden Age,” where he said that King Faisal II was so moved by his music that he granted him an Iraqi citizenship. Badr said that during that time, “People wished to have the good fortune of attaining a visa to Iraq.”

Times have changed, haven’t they?

Badr had said to me, “Today’s music has no meaning, depth or talent. Authentic singing and those who value true art are gone, replaced by too much noise.”

I find this to be the case even in writing, where people spew whatever comes to mind without consideration for authenticity and literature.

Badr felt that the media attributed to this problem. He’d said, “The media has become a school for people. Children imitate and become attracted to idols like Michael Jackson who sometimes behave in an obscene fashion while performing.  And the words singers these days use! Dressed in fine clothes and wearing lots of makeup, female as well as male singers sing about their loved ones abandoning them. Why are pretty singers singing about lost love? Because they are not so pretty on the inside.”

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In the olden days, when legendary singers like Um Kalthoum or Abdel Halim Hafez sang, there was no food or drink served or any other distractions. It was pure music. Back then, when one turned on the radio, one knew a singer’s origin, whether they were Iraqi or Lebanese or Egyptian. Later different singers began mixing things up and using others’ songs and music. Today, many singers and musicians are forced to do the music people want of them, to know everyone else’s songs, in order to make a living and survive in the industry.

In August of 2005, Abdul Karim Badr was given the Golden Oud Award for his fine artistic work, teaching and inspiring a rising new generation. And on August 12, 2006, he was awarded the Michigan Heritage Award in Lansing by the Michigan Traditional Arts Program of the Michigan State University Museum. While he has made many contributions to the arts, he credits his greatest achievement to having married his beautifully elegant and supportive wife of over four decades, Evelyn, who was born in Iran to a Chaldean family.

Brian was very fortunate to have had such a teacher. And the Iraqi American community is fortunate to have a young man like Brian continue the art of music which reminds people, such as myself, of our ancient birth land’s richness. In 1932, Iraq was awarded first prize for music in the Arab world by the Egyptian Music Award. In 1956, the first Arabic television in the Middle East was set up by the British Museum.

Art is important for a healthy democracy. That is it is such a threat to some countries who want to keep their citizens oppressed.

Brian can be contacted on Facebook “Oud player in Michigan  خضر العواد.” By phone 586-424-7101 or email brianoud6@gmail.com