Mayssa Karaa knows how to seize the moment.
Whether delivering a breakthrough performance on the soundtrack of the Oscar-nominated film American Hustle or shaping the next generation of talents as Berklee Abu Dhabi’s artistic director, the Lebanese singer-songwriter relishes the big occasion.
And, on September 30, she will deliver her biggest gig yet as part of the opening ceremony of Expo 2020 Dubai.
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She describes her Expo participation as the perfect distillation of her career, thus far.
“I have always tried to use music and, really, my expression as a way to reach out to others,” she tells The National.
“Whether it’s performing internationally or singing in various languages, my whole goal has been to build bridges with other cultures and the Expo is an ideal opportunity to do that.”
Karaa’s performance will also carry a regional resonance, with the singers representing three generations of Arab music talent.
“I do believe we were chosen for a particular purpose in that Al Jassmi and Almas show the current and new generation of talent in the UAE,” she says. “I am there, in a way, to represent the wider Arab world and how we all link together.”
A message of unity
That message is exampled in This Is Our Time.
Produced by Canadian Grammy Award winner Greg Wells, who was behind the 2019 Special Olympics World Games Abu Dhabi official song Right Where I Am Supposed To Be, the Expo 2020 Dubai anthem is a lush and dramatic number that attempts to capture the multicultural flavour of the event.
All three vocalists sing English and Arabic lyrics with Karaa's section imploring us to take our chances: "This is our time / This is the moment we have to decide."
She recalls the song being recorded rapidly. “We got the track in May and we all recorded our parts separately,” she says.
“All three of us met for the video shoot in July at the Expo site. While it was an intense shoot, we did manage to have some moments together and really appreciated our time.”
A new kind of orchestra
The opening ceremony will not be Karaa's only involvement with the Expo.
She also played an instrumental role in setting up the Firdaus Orchestra, which will feature throughout the event. Conceived by Grammy Award-winning Indian composer AR Rahman in 2019, the all-female ensemble comprises talent from across the region.
“It is not a typical symphony orchestra,” Karaa says. “We did auditions to get as many diverse people as we could find because the music they will play, provided by Rahman, will be eclectic, representing the international nature of the Expo.”
Ties that bind
Karaa’s career is a case study in forging such international ties. She was born in Beirut and her vocal talents were first spotted by a music teacher when she was 9.
Impressed by her performance of the Fairouz classic A' Ismak Ghaneit, Karaa's teacher asked her to sing the folk song at the school's end-of-year school concert. She received a standing ovation.
Upon graduating from the Conservatory of Beirut a decade later, she toured North America and Canada with Italian tenor Pasquale Esposito and Palestinian American composer Simon Shaheen.
The surrounding hype made its way to Hollywood with Karaa granted a prized slot singing an Arabic version of Jefferson Airplane’s White Rabbit in the Golden Globe-winning 2013 film American Hustle.
The international acclaim eventually reached the ears of Rahman who enlisted her to feature on the track Hayati, taken from the hit 2018 Tamil film Chekka Chivantha Vaanam, directed by acclaimed filmmaker Mani Ratnam.
With the duo collaborating again on the orchestra for Expo 2020 Dubai, Karaa owes a lot of her career success to strong partnerships.
“This is really what musicians, artists and all creatives can really get out of the Expo,” she says. “It is place to be inspired, get together with other like-minded people and make something happen."