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From Brooklyn and Beyond: 10 Arab American Women On the Music Scene

posted on: Jul 31, 2019

By: Cait O’Connor/Arab America Contributing Writer

Victor Hugo perhaps said it best when he eloquently declared, “music expresses that which cannot be put into words and that which cannot remain silent.” The following women do just that. Each carries with them multiple rich, sometimes competing musical identities that spill forth when they perform. In many cases, their music is inspired by and imbued with humanitarian concern that translates into activism through music.

The following 10 women are in no way representative of the entirety of Arab American women playing music and striving for change. This is a small sampling of those who have helped create a beautiful tradition of musical diversity in this country in the past 20 years.

Rana Beyruti

Beyruti has been performing as an actress and dancer since she was twelve. Born in Tripoli, Lebanon, she moved to the U.S. in 1996. Specializing in traditional Lebanese jabali song, she has performed in concert halls across the East coast. She sings at parties, weddings, and clubs within and outside New York City.

A sampling of her music can be found here.

Dena El Saffar

Born in Chicago to Iraqi parents, El Saffar grew up surrounded by and engaged with her Iraqi heritage. She began playing the violin at age 6. When she was 17, she took a “life-changing” trip to Baghdad with her father, where she fell in love with the classical music of Iraq and the Middle East at large. She went on to study classical music at Indiana University, pursuing a degree in viola performance. It was during her studies that she founded the music group Salaam. They have shared their passion for the music of the Middle East, specifically the Iraqi maqam musical tradition, with audiences throughout the country.

Aside from the violin, El Saffar plays the joza (also known as the rebab), the kemanche, and the oud. She has performed with several Central Eurasian groups, including Rivers of Sound with her sister Amir, the National Arab Orchestra, as well as bluegrass, salsa, blues, and rock ensembles. She lives with her two daughters in Bloomington, Indiana.

Gaida Hinnawi

Among the female talents on the New York Arab/improv scene is a vocalist and composer Gaida Hannawi. Born in Damascus, Hinnawi spent her childhood in Kuwait, Paris, and Detroit. She received a degree in classical vocal performance from Wayne State University in Detroit, then moved to New York City. She is a member of several New York-based groups, including Ayyoub, Zikrayat, and the Tarab Ensemble. In 2010 she worked together with famous trumpeter Amir El Saffar.

Her style is a mix of influences, from classical Arabic songs, Syrian folk music, and improvisation based on the traditional maqams (modes). The result is an emotionally-charged production that has garnered her wide recognition, including in Hollywood. She recorded and composed for the film Jimmy Carter: Man from Plains in 2007. Aside from recording and performing, she also works as a speech pathologist.

Find several of her selections here.

Shoshana Tubi

Shoshana Tubi was born in Sana’a, the capital of Yemen. As a child of three, she was entranced by the wedding songs and dances of the Jewish women who performed at her brother’s wedding. Tubi quickly set about learning from these women, whom she remembers as “celebrities” of her community in a New York Daily News article.

When Tubi’s family moved to a Yemeni settlement in Israel, she continued singing and performing. A local promoter soon discovered her talent and asked her to join a troupe performing traditional songs and dances. The group traveled to New York in the 1960s, performing for Arab and Yiddish audiences in New York and Detroit.

Eventually, she settled in New York, singing with theater productions and regularly performing wedding songs, lullabies, and religious music at weddings and other events. She can sing in a variety of languages, including Arabic, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Ladino (old Spanish).

Dressed in beautiful, traditional garb, she has performed at many prestigious venues, including the United Nations and the Carnegie Recital Hall in the U.S. and a celebration hosted by the foreign minister in her hometown of Sana’a, a performance she calls one of the most powerful of her professional career.

Today, she performs in venues across New York, often with her daughter Roselle.

Malika Zarra

Born in a small town in southern Morocco, Malika Zarra brought a rich musical heritage with her when she and her family moved to France. As a child, she studied clarinet and voice, alternately absorbing the records of traditional oud performers and American jazz albums. Jazz particularly appealed to her for its focus on improvisation, a technique critical to Arabic music. Although her parents were hesitant about a career in music, Zarra pursued her vocal studies with a passion, training in several conservatories throughout France. She took up a musical internship and performed at several prestigious concerts, including Festival L’Espirit and Jazz de St. Germain. Zarra forged new territory at these festivals (where music was usually performed in its original language) by rewriting and composing a song in Arabic-she said she was “tired of forgetting Engish lyrics!” Singing and performing in Arabic, she found, gave her a greater sense of emotional expression-a fact her audiences appreciated.

She traveled with her performance group to New York City in 1996, ultimately deciding to move there in 2004. “I felt that I could be more myself and learn a lot of things, musically and as a human being,” she says of the city’s appeal.

Her style, although founded upon Moroccan folk, also combines gospel, funk, and Sub-Saharan African musical traditions. It incorporates the traditions of gnawa (percussive religious trance music), chaabi (Arabic working-class blues), and American jazz. She performs today in concerts and festivals across the world, moving seamlessly between Moroccan Arabic, French, Berber, and English. Her 2006 album On the Ebony Rode exemplifies this fusion of Eastern and Western sounds.

Mariela Shaker

Violinist Mariela Shaker was born in Aleppo, Syria in 1990. She took up the violin at age 10, after joining the Arabic Institute of Music in Aleppo. She graduated with distinction from the program in 2004. Her musical career flourished in Syria, where she was invited to perform at many festivals and concerts in and beyond Aleppo, including the Dubai Arabian Competition, where she worked with the Emirate’s Youth Symphony Orchestra. In 2009 she joined the Syndicate of Artists in Syria and began teaching violin lessons at the Arabic Institute of Music.

In 2013, she received a scholarship offer to complete her second bachelor’s degree (her first was in Business Administration from Aleppo University) at Monmouth College in Illinois. She moved to the U.S. and has remained since, deeply affected by her inability to return home due to conflict. However, she has been committed to using her platform for good. Since 2015 she has worked with UNHCR in shedding light on the severity of the Syrian conflict. In 2015 she performed at the Kennedy Center for World Refugee Day:

That same year, she was honored by President Obama as a Champion of Change for World Refugees. She has organized and performed benefit events at the Lincoln Center, Harvard University, and Carnegie Hall. She has performed for a variety of celebrities, from the Minister of Scotland to Queen Rania of Jordan to actress Cate Blanchett.

In terms of activism, she has spoken and performed at the White House, the Brookings Institute, United Nations, Pentagon, Arab American Institute, and the Aspen Ideas Festival. She also serves as the peace ambassador of the World Council of Arameans.

Hela Melki

Tunisian singer Hela Melki is known in particular for her beautiful covers of classic Arab singers, including Ismahan, Om Kalthoum, and Mohamed Abdelwahab. As a child, Melki was inspired by her father, a pianist, and singer who sang in English and French as well as Arabic. The family listened to a combination of Arabic classics and Western songs. Melki enjoyed attending her father’s band practices, studying and performing music herself at school. After graduation, Melki began producing her own material in collaboration with famous artists. In 2003 she released her debut song “Hokm Ezzaman,” releasing a second in 2005. Following her releases, she performed in venues across Europe and the Arab world. In 2006 she was awarded the Medal of Culture by the Tunisian ministry.

In 2007 she was approached by Maestro Abdelhakim Belgaied, a big name in the Tunisian music industry. Together they released the six-song album “Ghazelni” in 2009. After releasing a second popular single in 2014, Melki took a break from the music scene. She re-emerged this year with an appearance on MBC’s “The Voice.” Melki was among the final four participants in the hugely popular competition.

Lubana al Quntar

Syrian opera singer Lubana al Quntar grew up immersed in music. “I don’t remember myself as having not been a singer,” she told Refinery29, “I would sing when I was four years old.” She was the first to attend the newly-created Opera Department at her school. “It was an adventure for me because there was not a Syrian opera singer I could look up to and see what the future is like. But I could try and put this on the music map in Syria.”

She certainly did just that, winning the top prize in the Queen Elizabeth music competition in Belgium.

Al Quntar was forced to flee her home after peaceful protests were met with violence. This was back in 2011, and she still has family living there. “I was forced not to come back,” she told Refinery29, “that’s where my family is, where my friends are. I watch their suffering every day through the TV and it is like torture for me.”

Like Mariela Shaker, al Quntar has committed herself to the refugee cause. Recently she performed with the Brooklyn-based Refugee Orchestra Project. Proceeds from the concert were given to the International Rescue Committee. When asked about her participation in the orchestra, al Quntar stated that “I think many people in this country don’t realize just to what extent we rely on refugees and immigrants in our culture, our society, and our everyday life. In the world of music, I’ve seen how much musical style has been influenced by refugee composers.”

Mayssa Karaa

Maysa Karaa grew up anticipating a career in civil engineering. It was only after a French conductor, realizing her talent, said to Maysa: “when you meet God, he’s going to tell you, ‘I gave you a gift-what did you do with it?'” and that’s one reason she chose to pursue music and has been capturing audiences ever since.

Maysa, now 29, began her singing career in a local choir in Beirut. At seven, she was singled out as one of the strongest vocalists in the group. Her parents encouraged her musical pursuits, enrolling her in the Conservatory of Beirut. While studying, she performed in many charity concerts across Lebanon.

In 2006, tensions in Lebanon increased, prompting Karaa’s family to move to the U.S. With the encouragement of her father, Karaa applied to Berklee College of Music in Boston. She was accepted after her first audition.

Living and studying in Boston opened up many new avenues for Karaa’s music career. In the summer of 2013, she met and began touring in Naples with composer Pasquale Esposito. She also connected with preeminent Arabic composer Simon Shaheen, who asked Karaa to accompany him on his tours of the U.S. and Canada.

It was at Berklee, along with several of her peers, that she recorded and released her first pop-rock album Winter to Spring. After receiving her degree in 2012, she began touring again, this time with the Berklee World Strings Orchestra.

Maysa’s approach to songwriting is uniquely personal. Most of her lyrics originate from conversations she has had. A complete album, backed by everything from stripped-down piano chords to heavy electronic beats, pieces together a story in Maysa’s life. The album “Simple Cure,” for example, focuses on the value and necessity of inner strength in an often-chaotic modern world.

Karaa often uses music as a form of identification and a tool for sharing with others the distinct parts of her identity. “I have been in the U.S. for 11 years,” she says, “but sometimes I feel like I am in between two places like I have lost a part of my identity. Every time I meet someone who doesn’t know about my part of the world, I am compelled to tell them about the richness of my culture and traditions.”

Currently based in the U.S., Maysa performs in nine languages and frequently travels the world with eastern-western fusion performances. With an affinity for rock, she melds the distinct worlds of Arabic song and American classic rock, slipping between languages with ease and delicacy.

In 2013, Karaa recorded a highly-popular version of the American rock song “White Rabbit” for the Grammy-award winning soundtrack of the film American Hustle. Listen to an interview with PRI’s “The World” about how she got this job here.

Salma Habib

Salma Habib has been singing since she was a young girl. Born in Haifa, Palestine in 1975, she was a leading dancer in the Salma Dancing Group. Aside from music, she hosted the only children’s TV show in Palestine, called “Amal and Kamal.” She hosted three daily radio show for children and adults, focusing on women, classical music, and current events. She also worked behind the camera, appearing in leaders roles of TV shows targeted toward children and families.

Academically, she earned her undergraduate degree in education and English literature from the University of Haifa. In 2010, she majored in psychology at Montclair State University, going on to receive a doctorate in counseling psychology from Seton Hall University.

Upon moving the U.S., she continued both her TV and music careers, in addition to pursuing activist endeavors. She served as Education Coordinator at the American Mideast Leadership Network, a program aiming to empower women and children in Queens. She also worked with the Youth Advocate Programs as a behavioral assistant.

In pursuing her media career, she also began hosting programs on the Arab Radio and Television Channel related to Arab current events. She frequently performs classical Arabic music in venues across the East Coast, working with many notable artists and ensembles. Among these are Ahman Gamal, Simon Shaheen, the Al-Qantara Ensemble, Bassam Saba and New York Arabic Orchestra, and Zikrayat.

Aside from her artistic pursuits, Habib is a practicing psychotherapist, working with children in New Jersey.