BEIRUT: If a singer says her favorite place to sing is her grandmother's stairs at her two-story house; a place where she felt like a star when she was young, then that’s a project of real stardom.
It’s an adventure of a genuine musician, bridging gaps through her tunes in a divided world. That’s what her latest album “Broken Lines” and hit “Call me a stranger” symbolize.
The American rock band Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” from 1967 also has its share in Karaa’s music career. In fact, being sung by Karaa in Arabic and nominated as part of the hit film American Hustle’s soundtrack to the Grammy awards is no little thing in a world full of commercialism in art.
From a young girl learning music at Jamhour school in Lebanon to being the youngest student at The Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music, Karaa, a Grammy-nominated singer, grew up to find her bliss through composing and singing music, and touring the world with her alternative music, mixing oriental tunes with American pop.
7-year-old Mayssa singing at school.
A ZAKI NASSIF DISCOVERY
The unique artistic training started when she first sang alone at her school Choir. At 7 years old, Karaa’s music teacher requested that all children stop singing, keeping the little girl singing alone. “He asked me to approach the microphone and sing alone,” she tells Annahar, passionately explaining that “the only song I memorized back then was Fairouz’ “A’ ismak ghannayt”, praising Lebanon’s glory.
Though Karaa timidly asserts it, a Lebanese music legend was behind letting Karaa into the Lebanese Conservatory.
After the 8-year old paid a visit with her parents to Zaki Nassif’s “sad” house, as she describes it, the influential composer and singer, who called Walid Gholmieh, the director of the Conservatory back then, maintaining to him “I have a future project for you.”
Karaa’s piano, music theory studies, and vocal training at the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory were later followed by a move to Boston, in 2007. Brilliance in Math studies led her to major in civil engineering.
10 year-old Mayssa sings "A' ismak ghannayt".
DIFFERENT TREBLE CLEF
An unconventional move was ahead of the music talent.
While Mayssa Karaa speaks about her “big yet gifted shift,” her eyes glow, manifesting her huge love for music.
Although coming from a family of engineers, her father Andree Karaa being the designer of the renowned Samir Kassir fountain in downtown, Beirut, Karaa’s engineering studies came to an abrupt end when she opted to continue music as a career for life.
As the student, Karaa wasn’t sure that music was going to be her life time career, “because it doesn’t have to do with talent only, and there might be many things that I need to know in order to adopt it as my only job,” she says, she preferred keeping it as a hobby.
Music for life was accomplished due to her father’s support, and questions such as “Don’t you think about enrolling at Berklee College of Music? You pass by it every day, and music is your passion!”
Karaa was totally reluctant of the idea, as she didn’t want her father to pay more money.
Something worthy of noting is that the now-international singer kept enrolling in the same music class for two and a half years while studying engineering at university.
Her parents realized music was her talent and happiness.
What made Karaa think more seriously about turning her talent into more professional studies, and a career, was the phrase “What will you do with your gift?” by a French conductor she worked with, pointing to her melodic voice.
Karaa’s father filled out his daughter’s application, paving the way for her studies at to Berklee College of Music in 2008.
Two weeks later, Karaa auditioned and after several years of assiduous studies graduated in 2012. At Berklee, Karaa studied both Western and Oriental music.
“It’s an emotional rollercoaster. You go through lots of struggles,” she answers when asked how her music career feels like until the moment.
Though she would have had a stable life, “one opportunity would make me feel it was worth every change,” she says.
A musician’s whole character matters to the audience. “No matter what your music is, people should feel connected to you,” Karaa explains.
She adds: “They should feel that you represent them, so it’s all about a connection with yourself physically and emotionally.”
On stage, all of the musicians’ baggage and stressful everyday matters should be left elsewhere, she says, explaining how the mental state is very important. Personally, Karaa takes long walks and contemplates in order to get rid of any negativity.
IPHONE HOLLYWOOD AUDITION?
Now many might ask how did Mayssa Karaa got to sing American Hustle’s White Rabbit in Arabic? As a Lebanese getting access into a Hollywood movie, this should be a big thing.
After Karaa applied to audition, she was contacted as soon as she got to Lebanon. Since most of the decisions in Hollywood are taken in 24 hours, as the person over the phone told her, Karaa had to submit a voice audition as soon as possible that day.
What an opportunity! At midnight in Lebanon, no studio was available to do a proper audition. What Karaa did was auditioning through her iPhone in her father’s home office. “I just did it and went to sleep,” she says, knowing it was “so crazy!”
The iPhone audition was enough for Karaa to fly three days later to Los Angeles. American Hustle’s entire soundtrack being nominated to the Grammys opened more opportunities for the promising talent.
She went to various premieres, and the Grammys made her more legit, especially that she comes from the Middle East, she indicates.
Mayssa at the launching of her new album.
FAVOURITES, KEY COLLABORATIONS
Annahar asked Karaa to list some favorites, and here they are:
Three favorite songs she sang: You become my world, Ya beirut, and Call me stranger.
Favorite musicians: Sting, Whitney Houston, Fairouz, Majida Roumi, Pink Floyd, Florence and the machine, Peter Gabriel, The Beatles, and Aziza Mostafa.
With a target audience mainly including young adults coupled with a contemporary and fresh music style, Karaa flies like a music sheet breaking lines.
In her latest concert in Abu Dhabi, she collaborated with great names from the music industry, including guitarist Michael Fish Herring, who has played with Prince, Celine Dion, and Christina Aguilera; drummer Kenny Aronoff, whose previous collaborations included The Rolling Stones, The Smashing Pumpkins, Jon Bon Jovi and Bob Dylan; percussionist Luis Conte who worked with Madonna, Ray Charles, Santana, and Eric Clapton.
After singing “White Rabbit, Karaa met Saxophonist Scott Page, thus producing a work of art out of Pink Floyd’s Comfortably Numb, in Arabic.
After that, she collaborated with David Bowie’s music director.
An ongoing collaboration with Bollywood’s Ar Rahman is a key point in Karaa’s career.
“He’s like the Michael Jackson of India,” she says about him.
Hayaty, the song they collaborated in was featured in a famous Bollywood movie, and it is now ranked top 5 in that region.
PERSIAN SONG, CALL ME A STRANGER, BROKEN LINES
“The Passion of Rumi - Mayssa Karaa and the Berklee World Strings” is just a melodic adventure a huge number of youtube audience watched. Karaa toured with Berklee college orchestra.
Through that song, however, she wanted to sing Persian “perfectly”. To accomplish that, she was assisted by her uncle’s wife (Persian), because Karra wanted to “feel what she’s saying, and to gain more understanding of the language."
People’s feedback in 2012 was amazing while watching her performance and listening, she says. “I felt that they were feeling the music, and the arrangement was beautiful”.
Call me a stranger has a different story. “You know that I’m no danger. I could have been you, you could have been me,” part of the lyrics say, as if Karaa, who co-wrote the song, just like she wrote most of the songs in her new album, was portraying the concept of inclusion.
One might feel that she’s inspired by John Lennon’s Imagine when listening to the song.
“It was an expression of a feeling I had and it was mainly about assumptions we have, I didn’t expand about borders, but wanted to sing about having far away horizons to know more about people and have an understanding of them.”
She continues “It was more about me at first, but then became more of a peace song. It’s not a world anthem, but it might turn into something along those lines very soon,” she says. Something similar to the “Arabian Dream song."
Karaa’s distinctive music style accompanied by an amazing voice manages to mix oriental melodies with classic American rock. Listeners hear the oud (an oriental instrument), violin and cello (which are considered Western instruments) in a great way!!
Doing so was “a challenge” for her, as she wanted to be seamless, and the way she had to do this is to work with musicians that understand both worlds.
She just introduced parts of her own world to a whole new world, and through open-mindedness, it just worked.
Karaa’s album took two and a half years to finish. She’s really excited about the release of it “finally”.
There is no ultimate aim of stardom for her, although it’s not totally absent. The young singer prefers to have a clear conscience and remain happy with everything she’s doing. She feels self- content doing her best.
When it comes to support, though, artists become vulnerable “and it’s nice to have the support and people to remind you of the achievements you’ve done,” she says.
An inspiring person touring the world, telling her story through music that aims to reflect her identity crisis. She was a bit lost and it took her a while to discover who she is. She struggled to know who she is and what she wants.
Mayssa Karaa at the launching of her new album at Capitol studios. (Photo taken from Mayssa's Facebook page).
Her dream is bigger than herself and bigger than a place. It’s like a state of mind and she’ll go wherever the chances lead her. Karaa is very open and very much in touch with Lebanon.
“Call me a stranger”, the first song in her album was launched at Capital Records a place where the world’s biggest artists launched their albums.
The album’s campaign was called “Simple cure”. The moral out of it, she explains, is that we’re always looking for a cure, and blaming people in your life. Yet, we’re responsible for the energy we attract. We are our own cure.
During the launching of the album, which was a private release, was a live band, album signature, and celebrities.
Started with “Call me a stranger”. Who’s the target audience? Global style, it’s more like alternative, dramatic, we’re calling it alternative and new age. There are a couple of indie pop rock.
Music such as “You Become my World” being sung in the US or other places in the world, shows hunger in the audience towards anything related to the Middle East. Karaa realized “how much we haven’t paid enough attention to our image outside our region.”
“I want everyone to witness the beauty of the countries of the Middle East,” she says.
She accomplishing this goal, through working with like-minded people.
ART FOR A CAUSE
Karaa has a cause through her music.
She feels like anyone from anywhere in the world can relate to it, no matter where they are and where they come from. She tries to make it inclusive for everyone.
She has worked with sesame street in the UAE. They brought “iftah ya simsim”, an Arabic version of Sesame Street to the Arab world.
Through this project, there is now an Arabic Alphabet song. There wasn’t any common anthem before.
There were three videos and songs as part of the project, and it is now touring refugee camps, with Sesame Street characters’ Arabic version promoting better education to refugees.
Karaa is also the ambassador of Masterpeace, an organization collaborating with UN. It aims to promote peace through music. One of the concerts she organized with them brought 15,000 people to Amsterdam. All the organization's’ funds, however, go to underprivileged countries.
SOCIAL MEDIA, INTERESTS
Karaa, followed by thousands of fans on social media, sees that it is a great way to talk to people and connect. “That’s how American Hustle discovered me,” she says.
She is also interested in promoting a message to Lebanese expatriates for them to reconnect with their roots. “ I am portraying this message through my song “Call me a stranger,” she says.
Welcome to “Naya,” the newest addition to Annahar’s coverage. This section aims at fortifying Lebanese women’s voices by highlighting their talents, challenges, innovations, and women’s empowerment. We will also be reporting on the world of work, family, style, health, and culture. Naya is devoted to women of all generations — Naya Editor, Sally Farhat: Sally.firstname.lastname@example.org
Naya on Social Media:
An-Nahar is not responsible for the comments that users post below. We kindly ask you to keep this space a clean and respectful forum for discussion.