No plan B: UK-based Palestinian singer Ruba Shamshoum’s jazzy journey

No plan B: UK-based Palestinian singer Ruba Shamshoum’s jazzy journey
Shamshoum’s genre-hopping blend of Western and Arabic influences is distinctive and striking. (Supplied)
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Updated 13 May 2021

No plan B: UK-based Palestinian singer Ruba Shamshoum’s jazzy journey

No plan B: UK-based Palestinian singer Ruba Shamshoum’s jazzy journey
  • The Palestinian singer-songwriter discusses her new EP, ‘Risha,’ and its ‘spirit of love, unity and exploration’

AMSTERDAM: UK-based Palestinian singer-songwriter Ruba Shamshoum has just released her second solo record, a five-track EP called “Risha.” It is, she explains, a record about “different shades of love.”

“Not the traditional love that we talk about in mainstream Arabic music,” she clarifies. “We usually just talk about romantic, sexual love. That doesn’t represent all that love is. There’s so much more: Love for a newborn, a partner, for unity and nature. Or self-love — going on the necessary journey of understanding yourself and not allowing anyone to dictate who you are. I really wanted it to be different shades, but all with the same spirit of love, unity and exploration.”

Shamshoum’s exploration of music began after finishing high school in Nazareth. Inspired by the acts she saw in MTV, she was a singer in a rock band. But when she started university, studying English literature, one of the modules was “Jazz in American Literature.” One day, the lecturer played Louis Armstrong’s version of “When The Saints Go Marching In.”

“I was, like, ‘Oh my god! This is so playful. This is so happy.’ I just fell in love,” Shamshoum says. “It’s like the colors of the voice just appeared to me there. It made me realize a singer can do many things.”

Her association of ‘colors’ with voices and music is something that continues today, she explains. On the new EP, she says “Manara” is “a very dark, nocturnal forest kind of a song. It takes you into the woods,” while the title track is “pink-ish — it has more childlike qualities.”

After graduating, Shamshoum began studying music. And when her husband landed a job in Dublin, Ireland, she took the opportunity to sign up for a degree in Jazz Performance there. It was a big step. At the time, she didn’t play any instruments (she now plays keyboards) and knew nothing about music theory.

“It was a very demanding course,” she says. “But it was life-changing in so many ways. It was the first time I got real criticism, which is so important. A lot of musicians don’t get the privilege of getting good criticism of their work. That helped me a lot.”

Shamshoum’s genre-hopping blend of Western and Arabic influences is distinctive and striking. Its originality — the fact that it wasn’t a ‘safe’ sound based on things that were already popular — meant it required a certain degree of conviction from its creator, which Shamshoum says she may not have had without that “good criticism.”

“It really made me more resilient and confident in what I do, knowing that the people who were criticizing me wanted the best for me. They didn’t want to destroy me.”

Indeed, many of them helped her record her well-received first album, 2017’s “Shamat.” For a debut, it’s a remarkably self-assured work, on which she displays real faith in her own talent.

“I think since I wrote “Madeline” (released in 2015) — which was about dealing with self-loathing, and saying we’re not black-and-white, we are so many things, and that’s OK — I found my voice,” Shamshoum says. “When you see that other people are connecting with that, too, it gives you the confidence to say, ‘OK. I need to see what else is in there so more people can feel like they’re reflected in music and art.’”

The new EP builds on that record’s innovative take on Shamshoum’s influences, introducing electronic sounds and “tribal beats.”

“This record is definitely more groovy, more primal,” she says. “I would say it’s more upbeat, as well. We added a lot of layers, trying to get that celestial, atmospheric sound.”

The ‘we’ includes Grammy-nominated German-Turkish producer Alev Lenz.

“She really did an amazing job of connecting the dots (with musicians based in different countries). I feel like she took what I was doing and elevated it. It turned out much more powerful than I envisioned. It was such a beautiful journey.”

It’s a journey that began with that bold decision to take a music degree; a decision not everyone understood at the time.

“My mother was worried that I needed to start making money,” Shamshoum says. “I mean, she was right: There’s no money in music — especially as a niche artist singing in Arabic. In the West.” She laughs. “So she was worried about my future. But I have a partner who is really supportive. He was, like, ‘Don’t take half-steps. Just do the thing you want to do.’

“And with music, you either do it all the way or you don’t do it at all,” she continues. “You have to be committed. It needs to be part of your identity. Not your plan B.”