Wednesday, April 25, 2012


Brace yourselves. This is going to be a long one.

Someone listened to our music recently and said to me, "At first, I couldn't stand your vocals. Then I listened some more, and I started to get into them." He went on to say that my "Middle Eastern sounding voice, no wait, more like exotic, you know, for lack of a better term," stood in jarring contrast to Stefan's production style. "You sing from the gut," he said, "and to me, that doesn't really go with synths, but yeah, I'm into it now!" I asked him if he had expected to hear lighter, more washed out vocals. "Yeah, sung in more of a head voice," he concurred, "with more reverb on them." Yes, of course. Like this. And this. And this. I told him that I generally dislike fragile, over processed vocals, especially vocals drenched in reverb. That is, I don't personally identify with such vocals. They may blend well with layered electronics, but I have no desire to sound like a wispy dream girl. Fearful of causing offense, he quickly assured me that he fully respected the aesthetic choices Stefan and I have made. "What you guys do, it's different, it's really different," he insisted, "and I dig it. I respect you guys for making a bold choice, you know?" At this point, Stefan, who was sitting in on the conversation, joined in to say that we hadn't really decided to be bold. We had decided to work together, me as myself and him as himself. This was the choice we had made. And anyway, as Stefan put it, "The differences between us are the reason why we're interested in working together."

On a similar note, I recently received an email from a former co-worker who had finally listened to the FEZANT link I sent him ages ago. He wrote that he liked my "Middle Eastern approach" to singing, citing my use of minor modes and plaintive melisma. "You guys pull off a cool fusion of Eastern and Western music," he concluded. Then he compared us to Yazoo. I wrote back and thanked him for his kind words, all the while thinking to myself, "Plaintive melisma?" Yes, I'm from Lebanon and Stefan is from England, but does our making music together immediately equate to a cultural fusion of some kind? Does my voice really sound "Middle Eastern"? What does that even mean? Not that I'm upset by any of this. People hear what they hear. It's not my business to dictate how my voice should be identified or described. But I'm nonetheless intrigued by the label of "Middle Eastern" and the idea of fusion, because I can't sing a single song in Arabic, be it a folk tune, a classical masterpiece or a modern pop trifle. I rarely listen to Arabic music, and I can barely hear the difference between a half tone, a quarter tone, and a three quarters tone. I won't even go into all the different kinds of Middle Eastern music, be it North African, Levantine, Turkish, or Persian, and their respective vocal styles, because I can't sing in any one of these styles. I can't even fake it.

Several years ago, having returned to Beirut after four years in Western Massachusetts, I found myself at a creative loss. I was back in my home country, writing songs in English, listening to music in English, thinking in English, dreaming in English, and then wondering why I couldn't find my way into interesting collaborations with local musicians. Beirut is a fairly cosmopolitan (and somewhat confusing) place. Its citizens are multilingual, multicultural, and for the most part, have ample access to movies, music and the Internet. They consume cultural products from all over the world. Given such an open environment, I hoped that my diatonic pop songs, with their English lyrics and their verse-chorus-verse-chorus form, would be a relatively easy sell. This was not the case. Everywhere I went, I was asked why I didn't sing in Arabic, or at least, why I didn't incorporate Arabic elements into my sound. After all, everyone else was doing it. "You should learn to play the oud," a young oud player told me. "You should read some Arabic poetry," an old poet told me. "You should sing mix jazz with muwashah like Rima Khcheich," a friend of my mother's told me. So I put away my Kate Bush albums, found a music school, and enrolled myself in several courses, most notably, classical Arabic voice.

It didn't work out too well. Antonine University is located in a hilly suburb of Beirut. Its faculty comprises both priests of the Antonine order and laypeople. The curriculum is officially taught in French, but everyone speaks everything (Arabic, French and English) with varying degrees of fluency. It was vastly different from any educational institution I had attended thus far. My voice teacher was a young, blind, Egyptian man called Mustafa Said. He was witty, slightly neurotic, and unsparing in his criticism of my "American style" upbringing. In our first lesson, he asked me questions to which I could only offer unfavorable answers. "What do you think of Umm Kulthum?" I don't think of her all that much. "How many scales do you know?" Three or four at most. "What Arabic folk songs did you learn as a child?" None. "Do you realize that the call to prayer is the original form of Arabic vocalization?" No, but that makes sense. He then proceeded to hand me a flash drive full of ancient recordings of obscure imams reciting the call to prayer. He asked me to listen closely to the way they vocalized. "All in the chest and throat," he said. "Nothing in the head. Anyone who sings from the head is not singing Arabic music. They are singing a bastardized form of Arabic music that was perfected in the 1950s as a result of the infiltration of Western forms and styles into classical Arabic music." Oh. Good to know. "What about Asmahan?" I asked. "Wasn't she admired for her mastery of both classical Arabic and classical Western vocalization?" To which he replied, "What a loss, that woman. She could really sing. Why do you think they killed her? She was a spy. And even Umm Kulthum was lost by the end. Only her early recordings are excellent. At first, she was a miracle, but then she began to sing from the head to please the new audiences."

In other words, I was fucked. If late Umm Kulthum didn't cut it and Asmahan got killed for being embroiled in Western affairs, then there was no way in hell I would make it through a reconfiguration of my vocal technique alive. Surely enough, I couldn't sustain a strong chest voice through more than an octave of my range. Mustafa assured me that if I worked hard, I could undo my previous vocal training, unify my disparate vocal registers, and develop a monolithic, far-ranging chest voice, but after three months of lessons, I lost all interest in doing so. I had entrusted myself to Mustafa upon the premise that my musicality was lacking in ethnic authenticity and local relevance. All those years learning complex arrangements in middle school choir, belting overblown tunes in high school musicals, struggling with Italian arias, memorizing jazz standards, and dragging myself through hours and hours of college a cappella rehearsals were pushed aside in favor of the NEXT BEST THING, in this case, the Arabized version of my musical self. As I struggled through one Arabic folk song after another, I remembered the Bel canto teacher who told me my voice was too "cloudy" and needed to be lightened, the choir director who asked me to darken my timbre so as to blend more with the rest of the alto section, the guitar teacher who asked me to stop scooping up to notes so as to sing more "straight," the jazz band leader who told me my sense of time was too fluid and needed to be tightened up, and so on. I learned a great deal from all these well-meaning mentors, but the point is, everybody got their something. I'm interested in my own idiosyncratic muse rather than the infinitely varied and conflicting standards of teachers and peers. You can't please everyone. Not by any means.

The final unraveling of my doomed Arabization experiment was instigated by the insufferable husband of my mother's first cousin. One day, while we ate lunch in my aunt's bright and beautiful garden, he asked me what kind of music I made. Anticipating the worst, I said something monosyllabic about writing pop songs in English and hoped someone would change the subject. No one did. Instead, he, being of a hyper literary, congenitally Marxist, and perversely reactionary bent, began to lecture me on the merits of tarab. "Only Arabic music has tarab. Why would you want to make music that has no tarab? You should sing in Arabic. You should listen to the great singers of the past. You should..." I didn't bother defending myself. Tarab is a complex term. It signifies both a genre of Arabic vocal music and a more abstract concept of musical ecstasy. Although the term comes from Arabic music, it can be applied to any music whose main aim is to express and elicit emotion. It's actually a very useful way of drawing a distinction (as described in the "Arabic Music" blog to which I linked above) between the cerebral and the emotional in music.  The purpose of tarab is "to move one emotionally through the music" until a state of ecstasy is achieved. Tarab is all emotion. Clearly, all kinds of music have tarab. I'm pretty sure Whitney Houston's "I Will Always Love you" is tarab through and through. Although he made that long ago lunch a miserable experience for me, in retrospect, thank you, insufferable husband of my mother's first cousin, for impressing upon me the value of the term tarab.

Now that I'm back in Amreeka and settled here for the forseeable future, I'm free to sing, think, and dream in English throughout the day and night. I can forget all about Umm Kulthum and the like. Except that people keep reminding of my secret Middle Eastern self. They hear this secret self in my voice. Could it be genetic? Something about my overbite and the shape of my nose? That seems ridiculous. Could it be something in my basic temperament? A fiery passion derived from a childhood spent beneath the hot Middle Eastern sun? Probably not. Could it be the result of passive absorption? Despite having never paid it much heed, isn't it undeniable that Arabic music seeped into my ears via the radios, televisions and calls to prayers that surrounded me for my most of youth? Maybe. Because whatever it is, it's there. I actually agree with the fellow whose thought-provoking comments opened this post. I do sound somewhat Middle Eastern, whatever that means. Maybe what it means is tarab. I can settle on this. Stefan and I are very committed to tarab. Musical ecstasy. Singing from the gut. Analog synths oscillating from the gut. And we're definitely not the only ones. There's this duo called Light Asylum. They're amazing. The singer is amazing. She's all throat voice. Mustafa would be proud. (OK, maybe not, but it would be nice be nice if he were). We're going to see them play in a few weeks:

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