Slam Academy program connects refugees with local musicians

Samer “Zimo” Saem Eldahr and J. Allen of Music Unite Minneapolis.

Samer “Zimo” Saem Eldahr and J. Allen of Music Unite Minneapolis. Photos courtesy of Slam Academy.

A big idea from Berlin has found its way to the Twin Cities.

Music Unite Minneapolis, now taking place at Slam Academy in northeast Minneapolis, was inspired by a successful German program that connects international refugees with free music classes and members of the local creative scene.

A bustling home for workshops on everything from DJing to music production, Slam provides recording studio access and builds community around a shared interest in electronic music and the digital arts. Now, through Music Unite Minneapolis, it also offers a positive response to the disturbing anti-immigrant trend in the United States, focusing on music as a shared aspect of humanity that transcends borders and laws.

“I find music therapy really fascinating,” said J. Allen, 39, CEO of the five-year-old Slam Academy. “I didn’t study it, but everyone says music heals and there’s a whole profession that does that, there’s science.”

Allen’s interest in music’s therapeutic value was first piqued when he read about a program providing veterans with free guitars to help manage post-traumatic stress disorder. After discovering Music Unite Berlin, he forged a trans-Atlantic partnership and set out to find a local collaborator.

Allen didn’t know Samer “Zimo” Saem Eldahr, aka Hello Psychaleppo, but after reading about him in a March 2017 City Pages feature he reached out to the Syrian musician. “We saw eye-to-eye right away,” says Allen.

Eldahr, 28, brought not only electronic music expertise to the project but also his personal experience of displacement. A resident of Aleppo, he left in 2012 to visit Lebanon for a month, but two weeks after his flight out the airport closed and the bombing intensified. Eldahr stayed in Lebanon, where he eventually met his wife, a Minnesotan. He now lives in Minneapolis.

Eldahr began experimenting with electronic music 10 years ago. “Instead of gaming, I used to spend hours working on drum patterns,” he said. In particular, Eldahr enjoyed blending technology with the more traditional melodies in Arabic music to create new sounds. One of the hallmarks of electronic music, he added, is that it is so “accessible” – a computer (or even a smart phone) plus software is enough to get started.

“Electronic music can be a little addictive – a healthy addiction,” Allen added. “I always tell people electronic music is not a genre. It’s a tool to make music and can be found in nearly every genre.”

Students in the Music Unite Minneapolis classes have access to computers on loan from Foundation Technologies. Allen and Eldahr are reaching out widely for students from the Iraqi and American Reconciliation Project to the Holy Land deli and beyond. Beginning as a three-week course, the project will continue if interest grows.

According to Eldahr, the classes not only teach skills but help build a sense of self-agency, important to the refugee experience when so much is unfamiliar. “It’s just having a positive practice, something that you can get involved with that keeps you wanting more,” he explained. “It’s a peaceful act and that’s important for mental health. Having things go the way you want them to, having some control, sometimes that can be really necessary.”
As Allen and Eldahr launch Music Unite Minneapolis, they are also continuing with their own projects. Allen is attending the international Loop Summit for Music Makers in Germany November 10-12, where he will lecture and connect with Music Unite Berlin. Hello Psychaleppo will be appearing with Beirut’s Mashrou’Leila at the Cedar Cultural Center on November 11.