Raymond M. Lane
The Washington Post
July 31, 2009 - 12:00am

Barefoot and sun-blasted from a summer job working as a swim coach in upper Northwest Washington, 21-year-old Ramzy Charles Suleiman smiles an easy smile and caresses the keys of his grandmother's upright piano.

It's a Sunday at his boyhood home, a day spent creating what he calls "performance ready" compositions for both instrumental -- he plays piano, clarinet, saxophone and many other instruments -- and "spoken songs." Later this year he will earn a degree in music from the Berklee College of Music in Boston, proud to join such alumni as Quincy Jones, Melissa Etheridge, Branford Marsalis. He's also set to release a first CD in December as he begins an East Coast tour.

The sounds can be rousing, tender, mathematically complex or as simple as water flowing. He calls it art created "through the life I've lived." A native Washingtonian who speaks Spanish and Arabic, and says he can get by in Greek and a few African dialects, Suleiman is "eternally grateful" for an upbringing drawn from the unusual lives of his parents.

His late father, Sami, worked at the World Bank, while mom Penelope Mitchell is in international development. The family spent every summer overseas. They visited his father's home town of Al Bireh outside Ramallah on the West Bank and took their time exploring many countries in Africa and Europe.

"We learned about the world when were young," Suleiman says of himself and his sister, Nura, 23, a Peace Corps volunteer in Cameroon. "We were so fortunate."

More recently, he spent last semester in Athens studying Mediterranean odd-time percussion signatures, and in May, when he and his mother visited Nura in Africa, he stayed for Mali's annual Festival in the Desert despite State Department warnings against Americans visiting the site.

"It was too cool to miss," Suleiman says. Living in tents in the Sahara in a kind of annual desert Woodstock, he met and played with artists Salif Keita, Vieux Farka Touré, Habib Koité and other stars of contemporary African music. Suleiman brought his melodica and an old, beat-up lined notebook.

Blowing into the melodica (a kind of reed instrument played like an accordion), he lays out twining arabesques of guitar sounds blended with the eerie pacing of a zither. In the notebook, the one his mother gave him to take on his many trips overseas, he keeps musical notions of what he hears and diary-like notes on people and experiences.

"I'll have a new Mali song in the CD," he says happily.

Nearby are his mother's old phonographic records of Sam Cooke, Duke Ellington, the Beatles, Billie Holiday and Ray Charles, albums Mitchell collected growing up in Detroit, where her father oversaw General Motors' designers creating the Corvette. After falling head-over-heels as a 4-year-old for Charles, Suleiman began mimicking the voice and piano playing he heard on Charles's records.

By the time he was 12, the self-taught Suleiman won honors at an amateur talent contest at Bethesda's Episcopal Church of the Redeemer. It was a spot-on "Baby, What'd I Say," he says laughing, remembering, "They went crazy over that."

For all the enthusiasm and exuberance of youth, Suleiman says he sees a world "larger and more complex" than music. . A few days after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, for example, as a 13-year-old, he overheard classmates on the playground, one voice in particular slicing through the recess din of shouts and play.

" 'If I could just kill five Arabs,' the boy said, and other kids were saying, 'Yeah, me, too,' " Suleiman recalls.

He kept quiet but took it as a reminder of how far his fellow Americans have to go before understanding Arabs like him and his father's family. It helps that before his father died in 2005, he established a student exchange program between Ramallah Friends School and Sidwell Friends School in Washington, the peace-advocating Quaker school from which Suleiman graduated.

"Dad said we build peace by loving, not hating," Suleiman says. "Maybe my music can help."



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