“Don't be frightened if my heart keeps you waiting
I haven't lost my way
It's just that on the way to you
I found the road a little too long”
With lyrics by Mahdi Mansour, the Swedish-Syrian singer and songwriter Faia Younan opened her latest live-streamed concert, where she gave an intimate setting of an apartment in Beirut.
The Lebanon-based singer's soft timbre captivates us from the very first notes of I’m on My Way to You (Fi Al Tariki Ilaik), as she sings with the buildings of Beirut as her backdrop. I’m on My Way to You is one of her most successful songs and it comes from Younan’s 2017 album A Sea Between Us.
Organised by the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation, the concert streamed on YouTube on 17 February. It was filmed during the lockdown period “with limited technical resources and adhering to all necessary procedures in accordance to the approved safety conditions,” the organisers assure in the video.
Seated on a high chair right next to the large window which separates Younan from the surrounding buildings, the singer is accompanied by a quintet: Nidal Abou Samra (soprano saxophone), Walid Baba Nasser (percussion), Jihad Assaad (kanoun), Bashar Farran (double bass), Rayan Al-Habre (keyboard and arrangements).
“Welcome you all,” Younan addresses the viewers after the first song. “The last time we gave a concert was exactly one year ago, time during which we went through a lot of events,” she refers to the difficult months of the coronavirus. “This is our first online concert, but we hope to return to the theatres soon, there is nothing more beautiful than music," she added.
She then starts singing Shababeek (Windows), a title song from a Syrian 2017 television drama series. The song is composed and arranged by Iyad Rimawi.
“The most things I love in this house are the windows. Each one has a story that reminds me of you,” Younan’s expressive timbre and eloquent delivery carries us through “All the windows [that] remind me of you,” with the soprano saxophone giving beautiful musical sentences embellished with keyboards providing a sweet-pastel, almost celesta-like sound.
A more cheerful musical note comes with Kifna Tnaynatna (How Are We, the Two of Us?) from Younan’s 2019 album Tales of the Heart. With music composed by Ziyad Sahhab and lyrics written by Lama Al-Qayem, the song is filled with a sense of longing. Younan’s well-controlled delivery and colouring infuses the song with sophistication whereas the lyrics look into pain, the music manages to erase it.
The emotional charge changes when we enter tarab’s territory with Younan’s new arrangement of Ya Fajri Lamma Titull (Oh Dawn, When You Appear). The song was first performed by Lebanese singer Nahawand (Laurette Keyrouz, 1926-2014) who spent a large part of her life in Iraq while singing across the Arab world. In the hands of Younan, this originally lengthy monophonic composition becomes a shorter and bright tribute to Arabic traditional music sprinkled with a dash of harmonies meeting the needs of modern listeners.
Still remaining in the older compositions, Younan then moves to a famed tango Ya Zahratan Fi Khayali (Oh Flower in My Imagination) by a late Egypt-based Syrian singer and composer Farid Al-Atrash (1910-1974). This 1947 composition has attracted the attention of a Russian singer Vladimir Troshin who in the early 1950s presented the song as an 'Arab Tango' – with Russian modified lyrics – immediately turning it into one of the big hits of the former Soviet Union. Arab Tango continues to be sung in Russia to date and proved equally successful in France, followed by many international singers including it in their repertoires.
In her rendition, Younan probes the composition’s international musical potentials and Western harmonies – the same that attracted a global light onto it – while infusing the song with a signature Arabic traditional segment. “We must perform this song live,” Younan comments after Zahratan Fi Khayali ends.
As the recital continues, Younan sings Sheddi 'a Albi from the A Sea Between Us album. With music by Khaled Rezk, the song is homage to Younan’s pained motherland Syria. “You don’t age, you don’t get any younger. Your madness doesn’t compare to any other... Syria we are now far away but you are still the joy in my heart. Love is like death and death doesn’t die,” the lyrics by Mahdi Mansour say.
Syria returns in a big part of Younan’s repertoire. Born in 1992 in Al-Malikiyah, a small city near the northeastern border of Syria, she was four years old when her family moved to Damascus, then Aleppo. The latter city has strongly influenced Younan’s creative development and even if at the age of 11 she moved to Sweden, then pursued studies in Scotland, she wanted to return to the Arab world and dedicate her time to singing. With Syria being shattered, since 2015 the young singer gradually started settling in Lebanon and focusing on building her career.
Throughout the years, Younan remained faithful to her country’s culture and in the online concert she returned to yet another accent that takes us to her Assyrian lands.
Undeniably, it is in her famed Ohebbou Yadayka, that she longs for Syria the most. “Your eyes are my big dream, a dream as big as tired people's dreams, as big as the goodness of my country,” she sings Mahdi Mansour’s lyrics to music by Rayan Al Habre. Younan’s first single and a big success of 2015, the production of Ohebbou Yadayka was fully crowd funded, a fact that made her enter the Guinness World Records as the first middle eastern artist to crowd fund her debut song.
A journey to Syria continues with Falaytaka Tahlou from her Tales of the Heart album where her yearning comes to the surface again with lyrics saying: “It’s fine if my drinking from the Euphrates is an illusion.”
Younan then gives her listeners more songs from the same album: Ghanni (Sing) that introduces a more vivid color to the afternoon, before a dreamy Yemken Nesi (Maybe He Forgot) composed by Younan and with lyrics by Adnan Azrouni soothing our senses gently with a captivating dialogue between the saxophone and kanoun, and Younan’s modulated silvery voice.
She then closes the concert with Ya Qatily, with music by the singer. “You, who kill me through passion. You make me feel alive, through feeling lost. Every song is meaningless, if you are not in it.”
As Younan sings the last note, we can only notice that the sun behind the window began setting down covering Beirut’s buildings with an evening blanket. The songs presented in the live-streamed concert leave the listeners with many thoughts. While many songs that Younan presents speak of her home country, their meanings are applicable to all countries and people in crises. Even the songs that have a purely romantic character are in big part born from human emotions living in challenging realities.
Younan, the exceptional large green-eyed talent invites us to revisit the heritage of Arab music through her voice that pays tribute to its richness while weaving in Western musical influences, to look into the warmth and beauty of Levant, to think about scarred Syria, to carefully ponder the people who live and love and eternally search for one another. At the same time, Younan is offering us a priceless gift of music during this time of isolation, which though results from the pandemic, it can also refer to many seclusions brought upon us by a variety of social and political torments.
Above all however, the sincere lyrics about human condition are wrapped in music that expresses the deepest emotions coming from one of the most remarkable voices of the Levant.
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