Lebanese music star Tania Saleh: ‘Being a woman has been a blessing, not a problem’

Tania Saleh has flourished as an independent musician in the Middle East. (Photo supplied)
Updated 04 March 2018
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Lebanese music star Tania Saleh: ‘Being a woman has been a blessing, not a problem’

DUBAI: Surviving as an independent musician in the Middle East takes a level of determination and, occasionally, stubbornness that many would reasonably feel was just too demanding. Tania Saleh has survived for more than two decades. Not just survived, but thrived.
Saleh, who first gained recognition in Lebanon in the late Nineties, when support of any kind for non-mainstream art was practically non-existent, is now hailed as a pioneer of the alternative Arabic music scene. She’s lauded for her singular, emotive vocal style and her heartfelt, unflinchingly honest lyrics that have tackled both the personal and the political. And she has made her name without the backing of a label, or even a manager.
You might expect Saleh’s struggle to have been all the greater because she’s a woman. But, as she tells it, that’s not the case. If anything, as an artist, she feels it’s been a blessing.
When she spoke to Arab News on the eve of her appearance at Wasla music festival in Dubai in early February, Saleh had recently attended a workshop in Sweden about how women in the MENA region are making themselves heard in the music industry.
“Sometimes (at these events), the conversation veers into ‘Oh, poor woman. It’s so tough …’ But, in my case, I never felt like I was mistreated because I was a woman or I didn’t get certain offers because I was a woman,” she said. “I always felt that I wanted to be a good musician before my gender even came into it.
“So, I never felt like being a woman was my problem,” she continued. “I felt that the market was the problem. The people were the problem. People were used to listening to a certain kind of music; either the traditional, like Fayrouz or Umm Kulthoum — old but good material — or the mainstream on TV or the radio. The majority of people didn’t want to look for something new, but those who did found us. And they realized there was something there.”
The real struggle for independent artists in the region, Saleh feels, is unrelated to gender. It’s simply the restrictions on self-expression.
“In general, in this region, it’s not as easy to express yourself, because of religion, because of society, because of how people view you as an independent person,” she explained. “When you can’t express yourself, whether you’re a woman or a man, it’s a problem. And it’s not because you don’t have enough guts, it’s because whatever you say isn’t going to be accepted.”
In her latest project, the album “Intersection,” released in October last year, Saleh uses classical Arab poetry, and also produced a number of street-art pieces around the region, to examine some of these themes. It is, she said, “an ode to the Arab streets.”
It started with one of the two tracks from the LP for which she wrote the lyrics herself, “Show Me The Way.”

Lovely meeting you @majaz_music from #bahrein at the @waslamusic backstage

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“The song is a question about the Arab world. Like, ‘Is this really the Arab world? Are you still brothers? Or are you killing each other?’ That’s the main question,” she said. “So I chose poems and poets related to this topic. Poets who talked about their societies and their streets. And nothing has really changed. If you hear these poems today, you’d think they were written today.”
Setting the words of legendary poets including Khalil Gibran, Mahmoud Darwish and Nizar Kabbani, among others, to song was, Saleh said, “a big responsibility.” It was also a chance to bring a feminine perspective to traditionally male-dominated Arabic poetry (although, she pointed out, most of the poets she selected were “very open to their feminine sides,” and two of the poets featured — Nazik Al-Malaika and Joumana Haddad — are women).
For Saleh, the importance of a female perspective in art cannot be overstated.
“Man is a hunter. In every way. Hunting food, war, women … The woman is not a hunter, and that shows in her way of expression,” she said. “Women can bring something to poetry — to art of all kinds. The ways women express their emotions are different from men. That’s why it’s so important to have more songwriters who are women. It’s not because of feminism, or equality, it’s because the feelings we bring in are different. The way we see things is different. Particularly when we become mothers. And it’s important to see that perspective on things.”
The guiding principle behind Saleh’s long music career has been integrity. The emotional honesty of her vocals and lyrics is mirrored in her actions. And sometimes in her lack of action. Like turning down big-money offers to perform for, say, “a TV show that supports stupid stuff.”
“It can be a statement to say no,” she said. “When you see how your image has remained intact because of all those decisions you’ve taken, you’re fine. And you know people will remember you how you want to be remembered.”
It’s the reason she still fights to control every aspect of her career. “I’m not making a lot of money, but I’m fine,” she said, while admitting she’d “maybe” like to own a small boat one day.
“I don’t dream of having a lot of money. I don’t like expensive stuff. To me, it doesn’t matter,” she explained. “What matters is how I feel and the integrity of my work, and having honest relationships with people.
“After all, you write your own story,” she continued. “You don’t want someone else to write it for you.”


Middle Eastern art exhibition celebrates life and work of Kahlil Gibran

Updated 16 August 2018
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Middle Eastern art exhibition celebrates life and work of Kahlil Gibran

LONDON: What is it about the work of the famed Lebanese poet, writer and artist Kahlil Gibran that touches the hearts of so many people across the world today, decades on from his death in 1931? An exhibition of art inspired by his writings held this month at Sotheby’s in London provided an opportunity to consider that question
“Kahlil Gibran: A Guide for our Times” was organized by the peace building movement, Caravan, and co-curated by Janet Rady and Marion Fromlet Baecker. It featured work by 38 artists from across the Middle East. The vision for the exhibition grew out of a recent book on Gibran titled “In Search of a Prophet: A Spiritual Journey with Kahlil Gibran” by the Rev. Canon Paul-Gordon Chandler, Caravan’s founding president.
Chandler is committed to breaking down cultural, racial and religious barriers. Through the Caravan initiative he has hosted numerous exhibitions using art to build bridges between the Middle East and the West. He sees the message contained in Gibran’s 1923 book “The Prophet” as profoundly relevant today.
Speaking to Arab News at the packed-out event, he said: “All the artists in this exhibition are trying to express how they have been inspired, challenged and encouraged by Gibran’s themes of peace, love and harmony for all of humanity. The thread running through all the work is the unique role that Gibran plays in reminding us that we are one family.
“The idea of the Caravan movement is that we are all journeying together, regardless of background, tradition or religion,” he continued. “The arts have a unique role in peace-building between the Middle East and the West.”
Lebanese-Syrian artist Rana Chalabi, who was raised in Lebanon, said she first read “The Prophet” at school, but made a point of re-reading it several times before starting work on her contribution to the piece, “On Giving.”
Her painting shows a throng of people gazing upwards at a transcendent figure — the Prophet — who seems to shimmer above the multitude in hues of gold.
“To me, Gibran’s Prophet represents an enlightened mystic,” she explained. “He was so ahead of his time and such a spiritual person.”
For Chalabi, Gibran’s work continues to resonate. “The wisdom of Gibran is very much needed today,” she said. “He could explain his ideas in a simple way to people. In his day he was misunderstood and branded a heretic by those who missed the essence of what he was saying and took his teachings at a very superficial level.”
Chalabi was clearly pleased to have been invited to submit work to Caravan’s exhibition.
“I believe in what Rev. Chandler is trying to do,” she said. “We have to bridge the differences in the world and try to understand each other’s religions, cultures and perspectives.”
Bahraini artist Lulwa Al-Khalifa showed a striking painting of a woman, titled
“Blind Faith.” The starkly expressive figure looks perplexed and stares out from the painting with an abstract and tense expression.
Al-Khalifa said: “There are a lot of emotions I wanted to convey through this work. I was exploring the concept of faith and how sometimes people have to abandon some of the ideas that give them their own sense of identity and take a leap of faith. I consider the question ‘How much of you are you prepared to surrender for your faith?’ Faith is surrender with cause but without proof. Sometimes people have to face ambivalence, fear and anxiety on this journey.”
Al-Khalifa also stressed how relevant Gibran outlook remains today.
“I love how Gibran explored many aspects of many themes. His thought process is very fresh and modern — even today,” she said. “It is not rigid, but very hopeful and expresses love and acceptance.
“I really believe that all people are united as human beings. But we try so hard to separate from each other, even though in reality we all have the same concerns and loves and hates. We should come together,” she continued.
Lebanese artist Christine Saleh Jamil echoed Al-Khalifa’s sentiments. “Gibran means so much to me. Reading his book ‘The Prophet’ taught me a lot about life, how to live peacefully and accept things in a harmonious way,” she said. “His message is very important today.”
Jamil created “The Wanderer,” a captivating image of Gibran as a child, for the exhibition. Her work, she said, was based on a photograph and inspired by Chandler’s book, which, she said, “took me back to my childhood in Beirut.”
“That’s why I chose to represent Gibran as a child and in this image you see his face set among birch trees, as he loved nature,” she explained.
Lebanon’s ambassador to the UK, Rami Mortada — a special guest at the event — spoke to Arab News about Gibran’s legacy.
“The interest shown here tonight and the big turnout is an indication of how the message he stands for is relevant, badly needed and timely in our world today,” Mortada said. “It is a message of harmony and peace, of removing barriers between nations and cultures, and of interfaith dialogue. This is what Gibran encapsulated. If I had to sum up his work up in one word, I would say (it is) inspirational.”
Another ambassador, Dr. Alisher Shaykhov from Uzbekistan, stressed that Gibran’s work is of truly global significance.
“Gibran’s fame extends far beyond the Middle East. He is a person who has succeeded in transferring the spirit of the Islamic people in a harmonious way,” he observed. “One of his most important messages is that of the unifying elements, rather than the differences, between religions. He has a gift of being able to express the feelings of the people. The artists here, imbued with his spirit, have transferred his message through their artworks in their own personal way.”
Art enthusiast Mira Takla said she had attended a number of ‘Caravan’ art events and always found their message very persuasive.
“As far as I am concerned these events do more for interracial understanding and comprehension and tolerance of different cultures than many other such initiatives,” she said.
Another guest. Anthony Wynn, gave a good example of Gibran’s cross-cultural appeal, pointing out that he had often heard Gibran quoted at weddings in the UK — particularly a verse from “On Marriage” from “The Prophet”:
“Love one another, but make not a bond of love/Let it rather be a moving sea between the shores of your souls/Fill each other’s cup but drink not from one cup/Give one another of your bread but eat not from the same loaf/Sing and dance together and be joyous, but let each one of you be alone/Even as the strings of a lute are alone though they quiver with the same music.”