The poetic licence of Arab indie scene leader Tania Saleh
The Arabic indie-music scene is in rude health. 2017 went down as a fruitful one, with a series of quality albums released, ranging from Egyptian rockers Cairokee (Noaata Beida) and Ramy Essam (A Letter to the UN Security Council) to Tunisian singer Emel Mathlouthi’s Ensen and Al Jamilat by Lebanese songstress Yasmine Hamdan. While only a few weeks were left to go until the year was out, Lebanon’s indie-music pioneer and visual artist Tania Saleh added another release to 2017’s bumper collection. Ever since her 2002 self-titled debut, which is largely credited as helping to kick start Lebanon’s vibrant indie-music scene, Saleh follow-up albums have all been marked by fierce lyricism and adventurous songwriting.
For her fifth album, the electro-influenced ‘Intersection’, the 48 year-old merges all of her talents for a project that includes music, literature, art and filmmaking. The 13-song collection is primarily made up of lyrics taken from poems by some of the finest Arabic writers of the 20th century, while the booklet contains street art that Saleh created across the Middle East. The album was also released with a YouTube documentary on its genesis. It was the result of a restless creative mind. “I didn’t know what to do at first,” explains Saleh.
“I had all these ideas about ways that I wanted to approach the album and I eventually settled for the concept of making it an audio-visual album. Then I realised that I didn’t know what that meant. I knew that I wanted to do draw as well as write songs. So I just started getting into it slowly.” That three-year process of exploration resulted in Saleh penning two songs, ‘Show Me the Way’ and ‘Speechless’. She recalls being struck by the songs’ subject matter. ‘Show Me the Way’ poses question on where the Arab world, with its various conflicts, is heading: “From Khartoum to Aleppo / From Rabat to the Arab Gulf / What history is being written / Can you show me the way?”
The multi-layered ‘Speechless’ looks at those who perished as result of such turmoil: “Those who died for freedom, never had a chance to live it / Those who wrote songs for others, never had the chance to sing it / Those who died for the cause, never had a chance to solve it.” Ironically, after examining the material, Saleh realised that she wouldn’t be writing her new project. “It came from this realisation that what I was doing was actually writing about the Arab world and I was not the best person to talk about it,” she says. “So I chose poets from the region that have tackled the problems better than me in the past century and whose work still resonates today.”
Saleh’s limited her personal writing contributions to those two songs; the rest all include poetry by late literary greats such as Palestine’s Mahmoud Darwish (Happy About Something), Syria’s Nizar Qabbani (Damascus) and Iraq’s Nazik Al Malaika (Invitation to a Dream) to contemporary names such as Lebanese writer and activist Joumana Haddad (I, Lilith). As well as the notion that justice and equality are not guaranteed in life, another theme uniting the work of the poets is that they all tackle grand themes by surveying the lives of commoners. “They wrote about these issues by looking at what is happening on their streets,” Saleh says. “They knew their environment very well and that came out in their words. For example, one of the of poems in the album is by the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran called ‘No Justice in the Forests’, and he describes the world as a jungle where only the fittest survive.”
The urban imagery the poems elicited inspired Saleh to undertake a near-two-year-long research trip that saw her paint more than a dozen murals in bustling cities such as Beirut, Cairo, Tunis and Casablanca. With Saleh academically trained as a visual artist before entering the music industry more than 15 years ago, she explains that each streetart piece was methodically planned, before being completed within 24 hours. The works, Saleh explains, is more her take on what is happening in the region than reflecting the themes explored in the poems. On Cairo’s main arterial, October 6 Road, she painted an image of a clothes-line with T-shirts stating “I love New York”, “I love Berlin” and “I love Paris” – in the middle is a similar shirt with the declaration “I Love Ta’meya” – a reference to the Egyptian term for falafel.
“The concept behind this is that we might like to look like foreigners and be all hip and cool and speak different languages, but we also like our countries” she says. “It is also a message that we shouldn’t just want to import beauty from abroad. We have to also like who we are.” A closer look among the hive of activity in Beirut’s Katarina crossroad and you will find another evocative image by Saleh: a congenial woman in a red dress holding a thread linking to a green map of the Arab world. “By the way she is positioned, you don’t know if she is either going to sew it back together or bring it all apart,” Saleh says. She admits to feeling somewhat depressed on the realisation that the issues of injustice, violence and inequality described in the poetrystill applies to the region today.
“It is important to point out,” she reasons. “Our society might need that slap on the face to maybe wake up. Sometimes you don’t realise that this has been going on for 100 years, until someone tells you.” That is providing if they are willing to listen. Hence, Saleh’s decision to jettison most of her oriental folk stylings and infuse her album with dance beats to reach a younger generation. To ensure the material doesn’t sound cheesy, she collaborated with Norway-based experimental electronic-music producer Khalil Judran. The Tunisian surrounded Saleh’s floaty vocals with shuddering beats, ranging from electro to dubstep in addition to squelchy and robotic sounds that are more at home in a sound installation than an album. Saleh states that Judran’s contributions were essential and not an after-thought.
After learning of the Saleh’s ambitious plans, he went to his studio and created a string of audio sketches – ranging from disparate beats and looped samples – to complement the vocal melodies. The fact that both artists shared a common heritage, Saleh says, allowed the collaboration to gel. “That was very important because we were both on the same page, so to speak, in what I was trying to do,” she says. “I wanted to work with someone who understand Arabic poetry.” As well as garnering critical acclaim, ‘Intersection’ cements Saleh’s as one of the pioneers of the Lebanese indie-music scene.
When asked to reflect on her influence, Saleh says is pleased the community is steadily growing. “There are great bands out there producing quality music and then there is stuff that’s not good. Someone who decides to play with spoons on a frying pan and gets his hair dyed green, decides to make music and call himself or herself an independent band – that’s crap,” she says. “The problem is they put you under the same label. I don’t want to labelled an independent artist just like this spoon-playing dude.”