Beirut's window on Rio

Even though the 45-year-old singer Tania Saleh never led the life of an underground artist, she hasn't trodden the comfortable and straightforward path of pop music either. As a young woman, she explored her talent and gained valuable experience in Beirut's rock scene. By Stefan Franzen

By Stefan Franzen

The scenes are simple, those of a city waking up in the morning: a fisherman casting out his nets, a young woman straightening her headscarf, an elderly couple eating breakfast in the kitchen, and a tattooed jogger looking up longingly at a passing plane.

These images are part of the video to the song "Beirut Windows" from Tania Saleh's new album "A Few Images". In just under four minutes, the video provides a deeper insight into the city than could ever be learned from spending the same amount of time reading a travel guide. The lyrics, embedded in a sentimental ballad, speak in powerful, poetic images of the Lebanese capital. "She stands there in the early morning, with eye shadow on her beautiful eyes; the sea with its ebb and flow is never tired, and no matter how old it is, the sea is the only neighbour that truly cares for her."

In spite of her ability to compose such delicately structured songs, Tania Saleh's music is for some reason classified as "Underground" in both the Arab world and in the West. "It is the usual story of people confusing underground and independent," she explains in an interview. "The term I would use for my music is 'Indie Alternative Arabic' – I am independent, work apart from the mainstream, and I sing in Arabic."

"I was never interested in traditional Arab music with its fixed patterns and the classical instrumental line-up of oud, qanun, riq, and violin – the kind of music typically played at weddings. Instead, I was enthralled by the voices of Stevie Nicks from Fleetwood Mac, Grace Slick and Joni Mitchell. I also began to listen to Jazz," recounts Saleh. "Music was a way of escaping from the everyday horrors of the civil war. Music offered so many happy moments. When we crossed the borders of the divided city with the bands, we could see how the media had filled our heads with so much nonsense. Those on the other side – who were supposed to be my enemies – were just as loveable as the people in my immediate surroundings."

Broadening horizons

In her youth, she broadened her horizons by living on a houseboat on the Seine in Paris for a year. Having been raised in Lebanon's francophone society, she felt quite at home in the city and let herself be inspired by strolling through the streets. She once again took up studies in art, which she had begun in Beirut.

Upon returning home, she started work in the advertising industry. "I have always been interested in combining music with the visual arts. Through my work in advertising, I learned how to create a concept for every song, to tell as story with colours, so that the music comes to life for as many people as possible." At the same time, she began to work with the dramatist Zaid Rahbany and, in 1996, she recorded her first solo album.

Since then, she has remained true to both worlds – that of the ear and that of the eye. This balancing act has resulted in some wonderful creations, such as "Mreyte Ya Mreyte," the title song for Nadine Labaki's film "Caramel," and the music video to the song "Ya Wled," in which the faces of well-known politicians are jumbled up to signify their interchangeability. "Lebanon is ruled by a corrupt band of brawling children, who have whipped up hatred between the different religious communities and cling to power. You cannot trust any of them, regardless of the party to which they belong, and that's not real democracy."

Telling it like it is

Even though she says of herself that she isn't clever enough for politics, Tania Saleh has no qualms about speaking frankly about the things that don't work in Lebanese society. This is also true of her new album "A Few Images." To the playful dance rhythms of her song "Reda," Saleh takes the side of a woman harassed by her husband, a pasha who is never satisfied. The song realistically portrays the chauvinistic society in which she lives.

"There is still a long way to go until we achieve equal rights, even though we live in one of the most progressive Arab states and are allowed, for instance, to wear bathing suits on the beach. But when it comes to marriage and inheritance, the law is always on the side of the man. An abused woman still has no means of bring charges against her husband."

"My heart needs to be repaired," laments the woman in "Reda". A giant mechanical wind-up heart is portrayed on the inside cover of the CD.

Tania Saleh dispels the male perspectives of love that have traditionally prevailed in Arab culture. She counters the sweet, languishing songs of unrequited love with those of self-aware femininity. In "She Doesn't Love You", Saleh offers the poet Mahmoud Darwish the opportunity to slip into the skin of a woman and to break a taboo. Here, it is the woman who decides whether she loves the man or not, or perhaps only some aspects of his personality.

The Bossa Nova beat that pervades so many of the songs on her new album gives the CD a very special sound. It is rare to hear such an elegant combination of styles, even though Tania Saleh is no pioneer in this respect: Fairuz and the Rahbani Brothers as well as the Egyptian Abdel Wahhab all experimented with Latin colours in Arab music decades before Tania Saleh.

"In no other country in the world are there as many Lebanese as in Brazil – three times more than in Lebanon itself," says Saleh, who loves Bossa Nova because of its polished harmonies. "I would really like to test this album on the Brazilian market. I can imagine that the Lebanese there would recall their homeland with nostalgia if they could sing along in Arabic to one of my Bossa Nova melodies!"

Stefan Franzen

© 2015

Translated from the German by John Bergeron