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Wednesday, 20 September 2017

INTERVIEW: Lebanon's Tania Saleh on Beirut, love and art as experimentation

Ahram Online met with the multifaceted artist during her recent trip to Cairo and discussed her vibrant artistic vocation

Nourhan Tewfik , Monday 3 Oct 2016
Tania Saleh
Lebanese visual artist, singer and songwriter Tania Saleh began her career in the 1990s and has over the years become one of the most celebrated singers in the Arabic music scene. (Photo: Valero Rioja, Courtesy of Tania Saleh)
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“Beirut windows are slowly rising
Read in their coffee cup
tell me what you see
They’ve been through a lot
sweet days and sour days
Hungry for more legends
and life is still young.”

Shababeek Beirut ("Beirut Windows"), Tania Saleh

The words raytak to’borni, a colloquial Lebanese Arabic expression, are penned on a copper tinged piece in graceful Arabic calligraphy. Literally, “may you bury me,” the phrase suggests something along the lines of “I love you so much that I’d prefer to die and have you bury me before losing you.”

Taken together, the lines of Shababeek Beirut that open this article, and the description of the penmanship that follows, hint at the multifaceted talents of their maker, the Lebanese visual artist, singer and songwriter Tania Saleh.

Since the onset of her career in the 1990s, Saleh has made a name for herself in the Arabic music scene. She has molded a rich and assiduous artistic vocation preoccupied with themes that range from the preservation of Arab identity, to the social and political malfunctions that plague today’s Arab world, all the way to bold meditations on the state of love, told from the viewpoint of Arab women.

Saleh’s musical repertoire spans four albums: Tania Saleh (2002), Wehde ("Unity", 2011), Live at DRM (2012) and most recently Shwayit Souwar ("A Few Images", 2015). This in addition to her participation in the following compilation albums: Songs From a Stolen Spring (Norway/USA), Baghdad Heavy Metal and Desert Roses 5 (USA), Radio Beirut (Germany), Sunset in Marrakesh and La Fleur Orientale (Turkey).

Saleh’s musicianship extends to Lebanese cinema too, having written the lyrics and coached the singers for the soundtracks of Lebanese filmmaker Nadine Labaky’s 2007 film Caramel as well as Labaky’s 2011 film Where Do We Go Now? Saleh’s other contributions to cinema include co-writing Rizkallah, the soundtrack of Philippe Aractingi’s 2014 film Héritages.

Raytak To’borni
A sample of Tania Saleh's calligraphy work: the words ‘Raytak To’borni’ are penned on a copper tinged piece in beautiful Arabic calligraphy script. (Photo: Courtesy of Tania Saleh)

Of Fairouz and Lebanon


Whether it is Shababeek Beirut ("Beirut Windows"), whose lyrics opened this article, or Ya Baalback, another song written and performed by Saleh as a tribute to Lebanon’s City of the Sun at the Baalbeck International Festival's 60-year anniversary, her songs heap praise on Lebanon’s beauteous particulars, and bear witness to Saleh’s infatuation with her country.

“I’m Lebanese and of course I very much cherish my country. Many civilizations attempted to invade us and one time after the other we bravely told them ‘we don’t have bread for you.’ And I’m very proud to be from a country that was able to resist all these forces throughout history and preserve its identity throughout,” Saleh tells Ahram Online in an interview conducted during her last Egypt tour, during which she delivered three mesmeric shows in Cairo and Alexandria.

“While it is true that most of this identity is erased now, you still catch a whiff of it whenever you’re in Lebanon, especially in the villages. We speak French and English, eat frites and Sushi, drink Coca Cola—khabsa tawila areeda (a very vibrant mix). But you still feel you’re in Lebanon whenever you visit. I can’t help but be in love with this hotchpotch,” explains Saleh as we sit in a restaurant in Cairo’s Mohandessin neighborhood, surrounded by flamboyant depictions of the Arab world’s beloved musical icons—from Umm Kalthoum to Asmahan to Sabah--- the atmosphere fitting to the essence of our interview.

Perhaps Saleh’s fascination with her country, and the particulars of Arab identity and language—both recurring themes in her work—can be traced back to the 1970s and the unfolding of civil war.

At the time, many Lebanese—Saleh's family among them— had no option but to escape the unfolding cataclysm. Saleh was in a car with her family heading to Syria as the voice of legendary Lebanese singer Fairouz filled the air. She could see her mother crying as she repeated the words "Rodani ela beladi" ("Take me back home") after the Arab diva.

“I couldn’t fathom why she [my mother] was crying, but slowly began to decipher her emotions and wonder how a song can create that much effect on her,” Saleh explains.

Tania Saleh
In her songs, Saleh inveighs against the social and political debacles characterising today’s Arab world, from long-standing tyrannies and patriarchy all the way to corruption and sectarianism.(Photo: Elie Fahed, courtesy of Tania Saleh)

The family moved on to Kuwait, where Saleh’s father secured a job and the family finally began to settle down. But despair weighed on nine-year-old Saleh’s heart and she grieved the spell of evil that befell her beloved country.

“Everyday I’d ask my parents to take me back to Beirut. I wasn’t old enough to grasp the concept of wattan (homeland) just yet. I only had Fairouz’s songs and the realization that a war was happening in Lebanon while I wasn’t there. We returned to Beirut three months later and it’s a good thing we did,” Saleh reminisces.

But this is not to suggest that Saleh’s love for the homeland culminated in an uncritical romanticizing of her country. On the contrary, in her songs, Saleh has inveighed against the social and political debacles characterizing today’s Arab world, themes which would underpin her very first album Tania Saleh (2002). Written in the aftermath of the Lebanese Civil War, the album centers on “the reality of a lost generation with no identity, with the same politicians still running the country and the same global powers setting the rules, until today,” Saleh describes on her website.

Saleh’s subsequent albums bear the same painstaking and committed preoccupation with these themes, from critiquing long-standing tyrannies and patriarchy all the way to laying bare the ugliness of corruption and sectarianism.

Singing for love and designing for Palestine

“She doesn’t love you
She only likes your metaphors
That’s all there is to it
She likes the rhythm of the flowing river
Be a river so she likes you”

Thus the opening lyrics of Hiya La Touhibouka ("She Doesn’t Love You"), a poem by late iconic Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish set to music on Saleh’s latest album A Few Images (2015).

Tania Saleh
In her latest album A Few Images (2015), Saleh decided to experiment with a Brazilian Bossa Nova. (Photo: Ahmed Waddah, Courtesy of Tania Saleh)

The album, Saleh says, started as a challenge posed by a friend—established Lebanese journalist and talk show host Giselle Khoury—to produce and debut a new album at the Beirut Spring Festival in 2013. Over several months, Saleh embarked on a diligent process of creation and the result was a bold meditation on the state of love immersed in Bossa Nova melodies.

“I found myself at a point where everything was jumbled up. There was a lot of fighting, blood and ugliness. And I didn’t want to keep reminding people of all this, but rather wanted to give them something beautiful to dream of and for. People need some romance in their lives,” says Saleh.

The crowd-funded album “was also a tribute to Arab women, who are always misunderstood emotionally and still suffer in the [patriarchal] system. I wanted to celebrate Arab women, who—unlike men, always craving more wars—are still striving for peace. This was an important message I wanted to send to the audience. Namely that not all of us, and not even all men for that matter, want more wars,” she adds.

As for the choice to experiment with a Brazilian Bossa Nova, Saleh says it was “primarily because I loved Brazilian music and wanted to see what a mix of Arabic tunes with a Brazilian arrangement would bring to my repertoire, and also because the biggest Lebanese Diaspora reside in Brazil, about four times the number of Lebanese who live in Lebanon today.”

“I thought the Diaspora would relate to the music and feel it resembles them, and they did,” Saleh adds.

Besides her rich musical career, Saleh is also an established visual artist with long experience in advertising, illustration and design.

Among her recent projects as a visual artist was designing the booklet of Gaza Youth Choir’s album Salute to Gaza.

Gaza Youth Choir
Fragment from the cover designed by Saleh for Gaza Youth Choir's album 'Salute to Gaza' (Photo: Courtesy of Tania Saleh)

Experimenting with camera phone photos taken by album producer, Norwegian Erik Hillestad, Saleh was able to produce a beautiful album cover celebrating Palestinian people’s steadfastness and their unceasing will for life despite the calamitous situation in Gaza.

“Palestinians in Gaza are battling all sorts of problems. If they plant an olive tree, the Israelis crush it. If they build a house, the Israelis destroy it. If they try to bring in a piano to learn music, the Israelis prevent it from going in. Yet, they keep holding on to life and fight to live it beautifully,” explains Saleh. “So I was definitely excited to contribute to this project, especially as I cannot visit Palestine, I have only the option of speaking about what is happening there. My only form of resistance is art and culture,” Saleh adds.

Experimenting with visual art

Saleh’s vocation as a visual artist allows her to experiment with different art mediums, including street art and calligraphy.

As part of this experimentation, Saleh recently attended a six-week calligraphy workshop at the American University in Beirut (AUB), where she fetched her favorite font, revisited it then digitized it for future use in her illustration work.

“The font is inspired by the Maghribi/Andalusian font engraved on the walls of Alhambra of Granada,” explains Saleh, who adds that she will use this new font to create a collection of handmade artworks to be sold as useful home decorations, all comprising Arabic calligraphy.

“For me, calligraphy and the Arabic language are two of the last remaining tools that have the potential of uniting today’s Arab world. Most countries are scuffling together but what unites all of us is that we speak the same language. How are we not making use of that?” wonders Saleh, who sees great potential in collaboration—the chance to enrich our economies, instead of killing each other.

Logo HayelMatar
Fragment from a logo designed by Tania Saleh for the first Syrian radio program produced by the BBC. (Photo: Courtesy of Tania Saleh)

This is perhaps why she plans to incorporate both art forms in her upcoming music project, which will celebrate Arabic poetry and calligraphy. The visual album, Saleh says, will comprise a selection of works written by a number of iconic Arab male and female poets that she will use as inspiration, to create calligraphy and street art drawings all over the Arab world.

“I enjoyed experimenting with Mahmoud Darwish’s poetry in my last album. Also, when it comes to writing about one’s country, I’ll never be able to articulate something as beautiful as what has already been penned by icons like Salah Jaheen, Nizar Qabbani, Younes El Ebn or Badr Shaker El Sayab,” Saleh asserts.

Astonished at Saleh’s constant yearning for experimentation and smooth waltzing across art mediums, I ask her where else she intends to go with her art.

“I don’t know,” she swiftly answers. “I’m walking on life’s pathway and I don’t have long-term plans. I only know that I have to keep going, that I want to keep making the music that resembles us as Lebanese and Arabs. I dream not of making a fortune out of it, but rather of producing art till the very last breath.”
 

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