Here's why Lebanese singer Mayssa Karaa's first album will be in English
No matter how catchy the song, if the lyrics aren’t written in English it’s unlikely to make it into the top 10 in English-speaking countries. There are exceptions to the rule, of course. South Korean musician Psy’s ubiquitous “Gangnam Style” or Belgian performer Stromae’s “Alors on Danse” are familiar to audiences the world over, but for the most part the motto of the masses might as well be “if it’s not English, we’re not interested.”
This may go some way to explaining why Boston-based Lebanese singer Mayssa Karaa has chosen to release her first single in English. Ironically, however, Karaa’s big break came when she was asked to transform an English-language rock classic into Arabic.
The singer was born in Lebanon in 1989 and grew up in Beirut, where she attended the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory. During the 2006 war her family fled Lebanon, relocating to Boston, where Karaa enrolled at the prestigious Berklee College of Music.
During her time at Berklee, Karaa studied both Western and Oriental music, working closely with Palestinian-American oud and violin virtuoso and composer Simon Shaheen, with whom she has performed in concerts across the U.S.
In 2013, Grammy-nominated American composer, pianist and producer Dawn Elder – of Lebanese and Palestinian descent – was looking for a singer to record a song for the soundtrack of the Oscar-nominated film “American Hustle.” The track was a remake of Grace Slick’s “White Rabbit,” released by Jefferson Airplane in 1967, sung entirely in Arabic. Having heard about Karaa from Shaheen, she contacted her to audition. The singer, who was visiting family in Lebanon, submitted her a cappella audition on her iPhone.
The haunting song went on to win a Golden Globe and was nominated for several Oscars. Karaa performed the number live during a concert at Emirates Palace last week, as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival. The song came toward the middle of a broad set that showcased her versatility and underscored her self-professed desire to create a new genre of music, a blend of Oriental influences and rock.
“I grew up in Lebanon. I was exposed to all of the different Arab musicians,” Karaa tells The Daily Star. “Then I loved rock – and not just the music – and being able to incorporate Arabic to Western music, having the world learn more about our music, is what I’m trying to do.”
Surprisingly, Karaa says that it was in America that she first began to focus on music from the Arab world. At the conservatory in Beirut she studied mostly piano and classical Western music theory.
“Berklee was more about expanding your horizons, not just sitting in one box,” she says. “That’s how I was exposed to very different music, different cultures, people from all over the world. Being able to exchange cultures and sing and perform all these different musical influences has added a lot to my music.”
Karaa is certainly versatile. Able to perform fluently in a multitude of languages, including Arabic, English, French, Spanish, Italian and Persian, her repertoire includes everything from an Arabic version of Bob Seger’s “Turn the Page,” to Fairouz’s “Li Beirut,” to Shahram Nazeri’s “The Passion of Rumi” to classic Italian opera numbers sung in duet with tenor Pasquale Esposito.
When it comes to singing in a foreign language, Karaa is dismissive. “People are always like ‘Wow, you sing in like 12 languages!’” she mimics. “I don’t think that that’s really impressive, to be honest with you. I can give you a text that makes no sense and you can learn it. So it’s not about singing in different languages, it’s about learning about the cultures. It’s about presenting the cultures in the right way [to an audience] – and sharing with them my own culture.”
“A lot of Berklee students were singing with me Fairouz songs and Arabic songs and it was really inspiring and beautiful to see that these people care about our art and are really motivated and inspired by what we have to give.”
The important thing, she says, is to get a feel for the atmosphere of the song. “You have to understand what you’re saying,” she says, “otherwise you won’t be able to deliver the emotion, but the music adds a lot, that’s for sure … I try to put myself in the shoes of the person who wrote the song, and why they wrote it.”
The young singer is currently working on her debut album, produced by Elder. Her upcoming single, which she performed for the first time in Abu Dhabi, is called “Over Again.” Despite the success of “White Rabbit,” the pair has chosen a song with English lyrics and a straightforward, power ballad sound for the singer’s official debut.
Karaa wrote the song in collaboration with Elder and American songwriter Michael Jay. “It speaks for women’s voices,” she says. “I see a lot of cases of young women, when they’re having problems in their relationships they think that it’s the end of the world … There’s a hook in the song that keeps saying ‘Don’t you worry, I’ll be alright,’ so it speaks about the struggles that the person has been going through, but in the end it’s all in the mind.”
As for her remakes of classic American rock songs in Arabic, Karaa says the formula for success is finding a personal connection with the music.
“A lot of people redo songs in Arabic, but you have to know which song,” she says. “With ‘White Rabbit,’ for example, people are like, ‘This song should have been written in Arabic from the beginning,’ because it has this feel, this bitterness in the voice, this deep voice, that Arabic music has.”
“Same with ‘Turn the Page’ – it has a lot of emotion and we turned it into a more poetic kind of thing. We tried to make it more personal – how I turn the page, what does that mean to me? It can be a big song but be irrelevant to what I feel. The song was adapted by Algerian poet Hanin Omar and by Dawn, my manager, and I contributed with them to make it more my own, so I feel it.”
To find out more about Mayssa Karaa, please visit www.mayssakaraa.com.
By India Stoughton
The Daily Star