Mayssa Karaa’s future is fusion-powered

Wrapping up the Abu Dhabi Festival, the Lebanese starlet took the audience on a dazzling journey through various styles,

Mayssa Karaa at Emirates Palace. Christopher Pike / The National
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After a month of delicate strings and intricate orchestral performances, the Abu Dhabi Festival rocked the house as it concluded on Thursday.

Young Lebanese starlet Mayssa Karaa made all the right noises as she premiered her new concept show, When Music Matters. Split across seven sections, the concert went a long way in clearing up a few lingering preconceptions.

The first of these was the notion that “taking an audience on a journey” is a groan-inducing prospect – this was indeed a journey of discovery wrapped up in an enjoyable, well-paced show.

It began with classic songs from the Levant before travelling to the western Mediterranean with some flamenco sounds. Finally both elements came together to receive a full-bodied rock-music treatment.

Such combinations could have fallen prey to overreaching ambition, but they were held together thanks to Karaa’s eclectic vocal talents and an all-star band that included members of the New York Arabic Orchestra and musicians who have played with a who’s who of the music world, including Bruce Springsteen, Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder.

The only downside to the show's pioneering approach was that the audience were a bit slow to catch on at times. In a region where certain Arab artists are almost sacred, some of the crowd baulked at hearing Fairouz's Bi Karm el Loulou and Dalida's Helwa Ya Baladi mixed with flamenco rock by guest artist Marcus Nand.

But after a few hard stares at the beginning, both tracks eventually won the crowd over, thanks in no small part to Nand’s evocative guitar work. He gave the elegant and, let’s face it, sometimes dainty original orchestral compositions a welcome sensuality.

In Jefferson Airplane's White Rabbit, the passion was strictly Karaa's alone. Featured prominently on the soundtrack of the Academy Award-winning film American Hustle, the song was Karaa's calling card to the world. Her smouldering Arabic delivery for the first half of the song, as it appeared in the film, recalled Nancy Sinatra's Bang Bang, before she switched to the original English language in a raging delivery that the original singer Grace Slick would surely have approved of.

Bob Seger's Turn the Page, also sung mostly in Arabic, sounded effortless, the chief reason being that the 1972 ballad was composed in minor keys that were well within the palette of Arab music. It's a realisation that should provide welcome encouragement to other aspiring Arab artists in the audience, which is precisely the point of the whole affair.

The audience was also treated to the first live rendition of a couple of Karaa solo tracks from her upcoming album.

While the soaring power ballad Over Again was well delivered, worryingly it lacked the freshness and ingenuity that have increasingly become a hallmark of her sound.

This returned with the second debut track, Stop Me Going in Circles, which was a skilful mash-up of Arabic melodies and a delicious blues riff.

The track served as a welcome example of musical fusion, preconceptions about which Karaa successfully challenged in her show. Fusion has been long derided – in some cases rightly so – for being lazy, bland stuff best listened to in coffee shops; Karaa and her band gave the audience the welcome opportunity to hear it executed well.

When this is the case, as it was for most of the concert, the music often transcended the barriers, to prove good art can be appreciated by all.

With such a vision, Karaa’s future career looks bright.