All roads lead to the Abu Dhabi Festival for Mayssa Karaa. The 25-year-old Lebanese singer will close this year’s event tonight with a performance that blends Arabic classics with more modern tunes from her upcoming debut album.
Along for the ride is an all-star band featuring musicians who have performed with big-name stars such as the Foo Fighters, The Wallflowers, John Fogerty and Christina Aguilera. “This show is a world premiere and absolutely important to my career,” Karaa says.
“The show is divided into two sections, with the beginning focusing on traditional Arabic music, but that’s done in a more contemporary way. The second half will incorporate more fusion and rock elements because of the band I have. It is really about transporting the audience from one land to another.”
The concert will complete Karaa’s transition from talented newcomer to full-blown world-music artist. The process began in 2013 with a midnight phone call while the singer, who lives in Boston in the United States, happened to be on holiday in her native Lebanon. On the line was Dawn Elder, the renowned American producer who has worked with luminaries such as Quincy Jones, Sting and Lenny Kravitz.
Aware of the industry buzz surrounding Karaa as a young touring performer in North America, Elder offered her the chance to contribute a song to the soundtrack of the Academy Award-winning movie American Hustle. There was a catch though.
"She wanted me to sing the movie's main song, White Rabbit by Jefferson Airplane, and she needed a demo as soon as possible," says Karaa. "They were going to make the final decision within 24 hours."
After abruptly cutting short an outing with friends, Karaa frantically called her music-industry associates in Beirut – but none of them felt like opening up their recording studios for her in the middle of the night.
Determined to give it a try, and with a hefty dose of fatalism about her prospects, Karaa decided to record her vocals on her phone and send them to Elder.
“I didn’t think it was going to happen anyway,” she says. “They had plenty of people to choose from back in Los Angeles and I was all the way at the Middle East at that moment.
“So I recorded in my father’s office. My sister thought I was nuts and I was like, well, I wasn’t going to get it anyway so why not?”
However, the DIY recording was enough to convince the film’s producers of her talent and, three days later, she flew back to the States to lay down a more professional take in the studio.
The end result was a totally different interpretation of the 1967 psychedelic song. Sung totally in Arabic, Karaa’s version is more sensual and perfectly captured the menace during a key scene in the film featuring Robert De Niro as mafia heavy Victor Tellegio.
The success of the film helped to fuel Karaa’s growing career as an international touring artist and she performed it at premières around the world, including at the Dubai International Film Festival.
Hollywood movie premiers and world-music festivals are a far cry from her beginnings.
Born in Beirut, Karaa's vocal talents was first spotted by a music teacher when she was nine. Impressed by her performance of the Fairouz classic A' Ismak Ghaneit, Karaa was asked to sing the folk song at the end-of-year school concert.
“I remember returning home with an A in biology and the lyrics to the song,” Karaa recalls. “I am blessed in that I didn’t have parents who weren’t supportive of music. A lot of artists I know have that and they do it anyway to prove them wrong. My parents encouraged me straight away.”
Karaa’s school performance went down so well that she sang the song three more times as an encore before being allowed to leave the stage to a standing ovation.
She went on to enrol at the Conservatory of Beirut after high school and gigged locally before the 2006 Israel-Lebanon war forced her family to relocate to Boston, where Karaa continued her studies at the Berklee College of Music.
When she graduated, she picked up North American and Canadian support slots with the Italian tenor Pasquale Esposito and Palestinian American composer Simon Shaheen, in addition to solo gigs, all of which was enough for her to attract the attention of industry heavy-hitter Elder, who signed up to manage her.
Reflecting on the journey that has led to Abu Dhabi and her biggest concert yet, Karaa says she has learnt how self belief is integral to success in the music industry. “Sometimes it’s all you have and that’s all you need,” she says. “Never stop believing and never give up.”
• Mayssa Karaa will perform at Emirates Palace tonight. Ticket prices start at Dh125 and are available at www.abudhabifestival.ae