The distinctive beat and bassline of Grace Slick’s “White Rabbit” filled the underground auditorium at Emirates Palace Thursday night, signalling the long, slow crescendo of a song first released by Jefferson Airplane in 1967. Lebanese singer Mayssa Karaa launched into the familiar opening lines, rendered alien by the sibilance of her native Arabic.
The song marked a clear demarcation in the middle of Thursday’s concert, “When Music Matters,” the finale of this year’s edition of the Abu Dhabi Festival, an annual arts and culture showcase that aims to promote cross-cultural understanding and support regional cultural production.
Born in 1989, Karaa grew up in Lebanon, where she studied piano, music theory and vocal training at the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory. She later enrolled at Berklee College of Music, where she studied both Western and Oriental music.
The young singer aims to create her own style of music by fusing Oriental melodies and classic American rock. Her performance was carefully crafted to showcase her talent in both arenas, beginning with classic Arabic numbers and moving into more Western-oriented rock and pop.
Those expecting Fairuz in leather trousers or Debbie Harry in an abaya were likely surprised by Karaa’s stage persona – and outfit – which evolved in keeping with the music. During the first half of the show, as Karaa belted out classics by beloved Arab stars including Fairouz, Sabah and Asmahan, she wore a shimmering pale blue ball gown – a dress fit for a fairy-tale princess.
The young singer’s powerful vocals were arresting, but the promise of a rock‘n’roll edge was lacking from these opening numbers, during which she was accompanied by an ensemble of Arab musicians on saxophone, violin, cello, qanun and Oriental percussion.
Her sassy, sexy swagger didn’t make itself known until the second half of the concert, during which her repertoire was more rock-focused. Class in a dramatic black gown with a petrol-shimmer, she seemed to adjust her demeanor along with her dress.
Thursday’s concert in Abu Dhabi marked the first time Karaa performed tracks from her upcoming album, including the songs destined to be released as her first two singles. Karaa’s rich voice was supported by an ensemble of Middle Eastern musicians led by Lebanese nay and flute player and director of the New York Arabic Orchestra Bassam Saba, and the All-Star Band, made up of Grammy-winning American musicians.
Among those flown in to perform with Karaa was British singer-songwriter and guitarist Marcus Nand, who specializes in flamenco-rock fusion. A duet between the two from Nand’s latest album, “Time and Tide Wait for No Man,” in which Karaa sang in Arabic and Nand in Spanish, formed one of the highlights of the evening. In “You Become My World” the duo achieved the rare feat of creating a genuinely successful fusion number, blending Oriental and Western instrumentation and melodies.
The line-up of U.S. musicians included drummer Kenny Aronoff(whose list of past collaborators includes The Rolling Stones, The Smashing Pumpkins, Jon Bon Jovi and Bob Dylan), guitarist Michael Fish Herring (Prince, Celine Dion and Christina Aguilera), percussionist Luis Conte (Madonna, Ray Charles, Santana, Eric Clapton) and Moroccan-American pianist, composer, producer and Foo Fighters keyboardist Rami Jaffee.
An instrumental number driven by Jaffee’s masterful exploitation of the keyboard, during which the Western and Oriental musicians each had a chance to solo, proved another high point.
Karaa marked the switch in attitude – and costume – with her rendition of “White Rabbit” midway through the concert. The song likewise marked a defining moment in her career. It was when Karaa successfully auditioned to sing an Arabic version of “White Rabbit” for the soundtrack of Oscar-nominated movie “American Hustle” that she came to the attention of Grammy-award winning songwriter and producer Dawn Elder, who masterminded the Abu Dhabi show and is working with Karaa on her debut album.
The veteran talents in the All-Star Band - led by Jaffee, a man so cool he kept his sunglasses on during a pre-concert talk in the hotel’s air-conditioned basement - provided a flawless support system for Karaa, whose strong voice was able to match their high energy performance. With a remarkable range and rich vocal tone, Karaa managed to shine both in husky, softly voiced numbers and emotion-drenched power ballads.
Choosing to switch into English for the climactic verse of the Jefferson Airplane hit, she followed it up with an accomplished rendition of Bob Sieger’s “Turn the Page,” singing each verse in Arabic translation and the chorus in English.
Karaa accompanied a live rendition of her first single, “Over Again,” with the debut screening of the newly minted music video. A tuneful rock ballad about having the strength to pick yourself up and start again after a fall, the track aims to speak to women in particular. The Western aesthetic of the music video, the rock overtones and the English lyrics give the song a decidedly American feel, also apparent in the second single, “Stop Me Going in Circles.”
Both numbers seemed calculated to appeal to international audiences, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, the Abu Dhabi audience responded more warmly to Karaa’s Arabic numbers.
The concert closed with a rendition of “One Planet, One People,” during which a troop of local children were shepherded out onto the stage. The boys dressed in white robes and turbans, the girls in brightly colored silk dresses, they side-stepped gamely in neat rows, their voices raised in song but inaudible to the crowd, due to their lack of microphones.
Dedicated to Abu Dhabi and people all over the world, the cheesy but heart-warming spectacle, which included verses sung in Arabic, Spanish and English, appeared to be a crowd-pleaser, drawing Karaa’s first major regional appearance to a successful close.
A talented singer and charismatic performer, Karaa’s voice and stage presence belie her age. It would be interesting to see the Lebanese singer transpose some of her rock swagger into her Arabic numbers, and something of the Arab spirit into her rock. Perhaps that will come in time.
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