Why Palestinian singer Elyanna wants to make Arabic pop songs great

Musician is trying to 'raise the bar' on expectations

Elyanna's Arabic songs are inspired by her Palestinian heritage and classic singers from the past. Photo: Universal Arabic Music
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Elyanna wants Arab artists to be part of the global music conversation.

The Palestinian singer is certainly doing her bit, having achieved a star-making appearance at last year’s Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival in the US where a majority of her set was sung in Arabic.

Last month, she made her US television debut on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, proudly donning the Palestinian keffiyeh headscarf amid a vivid backdrop illuminating reams of Arabic poetry.

The medley featured Mama Eh, from her new album Woledto, and marked the first time a song was performed entirely in Arabic in the Emmy-winning show's 31-year history.

Part of Elyanna’s growing fan base also includes none other than Lana Del Rey, with the US pop star becoming the unofficial stylist of her 2022 music video Al Kawn Janni Maak.

Speaking to The National from her home in Los Angeles, Elyanna says striking a friendship with Del Ray on set in Madrid remains a career high point.

"That happened because her sister (Caroline "Chuck” Grant) directed the video and Lana wanted to be part of it. She is the one that picked the dresses I wore and even the way my hair was styled,” she says.

"To have someone who I have been inspired by since I was 10 years old on the set was insane. I was very professional during the whole shoot but at the end I cried and told her how much she means to me. They say don't meet your heroes because you might get disappointed and this wasn't the case at all.”

Elyanna, full name Elyanna Marjieh, also has industry clout behind the scenes, with The Weeknd's manager Wassim Slaiby in charge of her affairs and music collaborators Nasri Atweh, the Grammy Award winning Palestinian-Chilean producer who worked with Justin Bieber and Shakira; and Lebanese Canadian singer-songwriter Massari. Her brother Feras is her artistic director.

All share a vision, Elyanna notes, of making modern Arabic pop music resonate beyond the region.

"When you are doing something new you need to surround yourself with believers because it is a lot of effort. For example when Massari found me I only had 3,000 followers on social media and no music out and he still wanted to be on a song with me,” she says.

"What we are all trying to do is raise the bar because I do feel there are low expectations when it comes to Arab music artists when it comes to success. I feel that it's my responsibility to help change that.”

That quest is even more personal and urgent in light of the Israel-Gaza war, which has killed more than 35,000 people since October.

While more global pop stars are making their voices heard in calling for an end to the suffering, Elyanna’s is the most resonant due to her being born and raised in Nazareth.

In addition to her The Late Show with Stephen Colbert appearance, the Palestinian keffiyeh was also prominently featured in her Coachella set and last year’s powerful track, Ghosn Zeytoun (Olive Branch), is viewed as one of the first songs to speak of Palestine’s anguish since the war began.

Performed as part of the opening ceremony at Egypt's El-Gouna Film Festival, the stark Arabic ballad moved the star-studded audience to tears with Arabic lyrics calling for peace: "Words aren’t enough, what else can I say? My tears have dried out, and my heart is broken. I'm far away, but I’m praying for you. And I’m sending peace, on an olive branch.”

Elyanna reveals the song was written quickly and was a form of family therapy.

"It was created by my brother, mum and myself and it came from this really sad place. What I find strange is that I don't fully remember how it all came together. My brother was on the piano finding the melody and I was writing the lyrics with my mum,” she recalls.

“But what I do remember is that I wasn’t interested in singing about anything in El Gouna. I was really emotional and I was feeling heavy and I had this urge to sing a song about my people and my culture.”

Born in Nazareth to Palestinian parents, Elyanna's Chilean heritage is linked to her paternal grandmother who she would frequently visit during her childhood.

Elyanna was considered a vocal prodigy from a young age.

"It was my brother who was the first to discover my talent and my family was behind me all the way. My mother sent me to a vocal coach, who I still work with, when I was 10 and my sister used to style me when I would perform local shows or in school,” she says.

“I had a big belief that I wanted to be an artist and I would sing at every opportunity that my brother would find for me, whether its local schools or competitions. It was mostly English songs by people like Adele and some jazz by Etta James.”

Her switch to singing in the Arabic language arrived after migrating with her family to the US city of San Diego aged 15.

It was in one of the weekly recording sessions in Los Angeles where she would meet Atweh, Massari and Slaiby.

A result of the early recordings was the ballad Ana Lahale, which appeared on her debut self-titled 2020 EP.

"It was the first song I recorded in Arabic and I remember not feeling comfortable singing that way,” she says. "I remember feeling sad and almost in tears because it was so out of my comfort zone, but I went with the flow and kept it moving.”

The breakthrough arrived long after with Tata (Freestyle), a stand-alone track released in 2019, where Elyanna's vocal prowess is in full flow over a pensive hip-hop trap beat.

"That was when I felt we could be up to something here,” she says. "There I am sounding swagged out in my Arabic with my Palestinian accent talking my stuff. It opened my eyes because it sounded so different.

Her first full album Woledto, released in April, has Elyanna fully embracing the approach with a set of ultra modern mostly Arabic pop songs laced with elements of RnB, hip-hop, dance music and jazz.

Songs by classic Arabic artists also receive a new spin.

Lead single Al Sham with its scintillating electro-fuelled dabka beats samples N’ta Goudami by Algerian rai-music pioneer Cheikha Rimitti, while the lyrics come from Syrian singer Sabah Fakhri’s 1970 song Khamrat El Hob.

While the bilingual Callin’ U (Tamally Maak) is a fresh version of Danish group's Outlandish's Callin U – which itself is a cover of Tamally Maak by Egyptian pop star Amr Diab.

These songs, Elyanna notes, are indicative of the freewheeling approach of the recording sessions.

“We would have a mood board in the studio and playlists that we would listen to for inspiration. I would just freestyle certain lyrics or melodies and we would match them with different beats to see what works,” she says.

“Nothing was planned and everything had to come naturally and a lot of it was recorded together in my living room, with my father on the couch listening to it while smoking his shisha. It was a vibe.”

With a summer tour in the works, it’s now the world’s turn to listen to the latest sounds from the Arab world.

"I can't wait to go out there and spread my message to the world,” she says. "I feel blessed to have a God given talent but at the same time I need to put the work in,” she says. “I am a Palestinian who had this dream since I was seven years old. Now that I have that opportunity to make it happen, I am going to take it.”

Updated: June 03, 2024, 11:25 AM