Tania Saleh: Sugar-coated medicine

Candor distinguishes Tania Saleh and her music from her contemporaries. The biting criticism in her lyrics throws you off-guard, attacking social conventions via sarcastic comments set to sweet melodies.

The Genaina Theater is packed on Thursday night to witness her performance that opens Al-Mawred Al-Thaqafy’s Ramadan Hayy program. Incongruous to her unconventional music, Saleh appears in an elegant strapless evening dress.

Her sarcasm is harder to see as she plays further to norms, dancing baladi-style to her music. Much of the time the crowd is pleased — as on any other musical night in Cairo — to clap hands, whistle along, and even let out an ululation (zagharuta) into the night. An untiring, enthusiastic admirer calls “Tania” out between songs.

Yet, to those listening, Saleh’s words make her songs truly distinguished. Some indeed are following their purport, singing along to her songs, occasionally making requests.

“Bala ma Nsammi” (Let’s Not Name It) carries her trademark style along with some strong advice on raising children: “Don’t give it a name / Let it grow up a thief.” Saleh told Daily News Egypt that the song was written during pregnancy when she wondered why she was bringing a child into this world.

A similar bitter cynicism belies many of Saleh’s songs. It is more gently and humorously presented in “Al-Jeel Al-Jadid” (The New Generation). Her voice carrying hints of the beguiling sweetness of Egypt’s Aida Al-Ayoubi, she sings, “We are the new generation / we have the lowest of reputations.”

So naturally, upon talking to Saleh, one is taken aback even more after realizing how far from a cynic she is as in person.

“I am a romantic. I just don’t sing about it,” Saleh tells Daily News Egypt.

She reveals her love of Egyptian greats who sang incessantly of love. Om Kolthoum’s ability to sing the same melody in a variety of ways is one that Saleh considers “divine.” She also admires Abdel Halim Hafiz for putting his heart and soul into singing, for singing with his entire body.

“You have to really be in love when you sing a love song,” says Saleh, for whom songs need to be lived onstage.

“How can you sing about what you never experienced?” she asks, explaining why she does not indulge in producing albums replete with rosy love songs.

Two of the songs on her new album are about the end of love and betrayal. “It’s love but it’s a different kind of love from [what] we are used to listening.” It’s closer to her own experience, she reveals, with a frankness that is generous and surprising, but endearing.

Saleh admits that she was influenced by Lebanese icon Ziad Rahbani with whom the singer worked earlier in her career.

Rahbani, also known for his cynical take on Lebanese society, provided a beacon for Saleh that signaled there was hope the world may accept you on your own terms, despite the criticism you may fling its way.

While often compared to Rahbani at the beginning of her career, Saleh is pleased to say that she has outgrown Rahbani’s shadow. When she last appeared at his concert, she was invited to present her own song.

In her unflinching honesty, Saleh admits that she does derive inspiration to write in her darker moments. “When I’m happy … I’m busy being happy.”

Some of her songs, such as “Lazim,” express in breathless rap her frustration with the “must do” dictates of society, which she intersperses with a melodic reprieve. Midway through the song however, she expresses her frustration by theatrically roaming all around the stage.

“Must take a breath,” go her final lines, as she finishes the concert, “I must end this song now.”

Other songs are prescriptions to the Arab world. “Omar we Ali” is a song directed to two Iraqi boys who have had a fight. Metaphorically, it is addressed to the Sunni-Shia divide in the Middle East which Saleh considers the region’s greatest weakness. “Get up, Omar,” order the lyrics, “Talk to Ali … shake his hand.”

Saleh does not expect music to change society, but to make people think. The fear is that with its current sugar coated presentation many will mistake her music for a different flavor of candy.

Tania Saleh’s latest work is co-composed with guitarist Miran Gurunian, drummer Jad Aouad, and bassist Haytham Shalhoub. Her website is slated to be activated soon.

Originally published online at Daily News Egypt, August 20, 2010.

About CK

i sleep, i wake, i write chitra[dot]kalyani[at]gmail[dot]com
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