Grammy Award-nominated producer Dawn Elder on bringing the sounds of the Middle East to the US: 'I still want that Grammy'

Elder has worked with the likes of Quincy Jones, Carlos Santana and Sabah

Lebanese producer Dawn Elder at the Sound Studio in Hollywood, California, USA 20 June 2018.
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Why are we here? What is it that we want to achieve? Are we creating something that matters?

This is the series of questions Grammy-nominated producer and songwriter Dawn Elder asks aspiring and seasoned artists when they enlist her services.

It also forms the outlook of a three-decade career that ushered in the sounds of the Arab world to US stages and Hollywood studios.

"The music from the Middle East and North Africa is so vibrant, rich and exciting," Elder tells The National.

“Those who come from that region understand this. But I wanted to share these treasures with everyone, not only the diaspora communities but the world.”

Making those cultural connections has been Elder’s life work.

The result is numerous pioneering feats such as founding the International Friendship Festival in 1996; co-organising the inaugural Arab-American Music, Arts and Literature (AMAL) Awards in 1998; and producing North American tours for the likes of Algerian singer Cheb Khaled, Iraq's Kadim Al Sahir, late Lebanese singer Wadi Al Safi and Syria’s Assala. Elder was also responsible for bringing Enrique Iglesias to Egypt in 2014.

And that’s only her work outside the studio.

Inside the recording booth, Elder's keen ear (she is an accomplished pianist) and inclusive philosophy of fusing eastern and western music has seen her produce breakout albums for a host of Arab artists including 1997's Delali by rai singer Cheb Mami and 2001's Raoui by Algerian singer Souad Massi.

Her Grammy Award nomination arrived in 2015 for her work on the soundtrack for American Hustle, starring Robert De Niro.

Elder's contribution was co-writing and producing a new version of Jefferson Airplane's 1967 track White Rabbit, complete with Arabic lyrics sung by Lebanese star and Berklee Abu Dhabi artistic director Mayssa Karaa.

"I still want that Grammy," she says, on the eve of International Women's Day on Monday. "The fact that a woman has yet to ever win Producer of the Year in more than 60 years, when there are so many great women out there, just shows you the problem that we have to overcome."

While her pedigree and industry contacts allow Elder to work with her pick of pop stars, her collaborations are not driven purely by commerce.

“As I get older I find myself more selective and in which jobs I take,” she says. “I really need to feel that whatever it is I am doing is going to make some kind of difference.”

It’s more than falafel

Elder was born in San Francisco to parents of Lebanese and Palestinian descent.

It was a cultural household, underscored by the fact she was named (through English translation) after the late Lebanese chanteuse Sabah.

Elder describes her childhood as both creative and rigorous. She loved listening to rock 'n' roll and also studied classical piano.

At university, she took a double degree in biochemistry and music. That mix of the creative and analytical, she says, made her both a natural people connecter and organiser.

It was an ability demonstrated with her first major gig, setting up the International Friendship Festival alongside Michael Sembello, the singer behind 1983 hit Maniac.

“At the time I was part of this collective called The Bridge and we conceptualised a festival that would represent all the different cultures in Southern California,” she says.

“Now, part of my job with that is to meet all the different communities and invite them to get involved and showcase their stories.”

Elder was particularly keen to meet representatives from the area's Arabic communities, but many of the initial ideas for the festival were weak.

“What they were thinking was 'let’s have a carpet, hookah, a restaurant selling falafels and a couple of belly dancers',” she recalls. "This was just not going to happen. I realised I had to make some phone calls.”

Meeting her namesake

After running through her contact list of musicians and diplomats, serendipity struck.

"I remember just waltzing into the embassy asking the Lebanese consular general if we can bring Fairouz to the festival to perform for free. He just looked at me and then started laughing," Elder recalls with a chuckle.

“But he did point to some friends he knew that were helpful.”

One of those friends was Simon Shaheen, the Palestinian-American oud virtuoso who would go on to become a collaborator (Elder produced his acclaimed 2001 album Blue Flame) as well as a mentor for understanding the depth of classical Arabic music.

She was also put in touch with a Lebanese community leader who knew Sabah. Coincidentally, at the time of the festival, she was performing in Los Angeles.

In a career which has seen her working with the likes of Quincy Jones, Sting, Lenny Kravitz and even meeting the Dalai Lama, it is the encounter with her namesake that remains the most memorable for Elder.

“I will never forget it. We were backstage at this venue and she was wearing her make-up, had on her platform shoes. She had her big blonde hair and her laugh was just infectious," she says.

"When I told her about the festival and its message, she said she would do it. She got the band together and played an amazing show.

“And you know what? She didn't take a cent because she believed in what we were doing. She remains the only artist in the festival’s history to do a free show for us."

Lebanese singer Sabah performing at the 1996 International Friendship Festival. Courtesy: Dawn Elder
Lebanese singer Sabah performing at the 1996 International Friendship Festival. Courtesy: Dawn Elder

Sabah’s performance was a revelatory moment for Elder.

“To see Sabah in the same context as Sembello, alongside rock, funk and other artists, was powerful. I remember thinking that this event could be a role model moving forward,” she says.

“Arabic music in the US and Europe has this reputation for only being played in nightclubs and with belly dancers. I wanted people to know that we have singers on the scale of performing in theatres for international audiences.”

Raising the bar

This view has defined her approach in the studio, too.

Elder’s production is known for its fusion of cultures, from instruments to languages.

A good example is 2005's Love to the People, a multi-lingual Latin-Arab hybrid pop track in which US Mexican guitarist Carlos Santana teams up with Algerian singer Cheb Khaled.

Elder also managed to convince Iraqi crooner Kadim Al Sahir to sing in another tongue.

In his first and only foray into the English language, 2003's Love and Compassion, co-written by Elderis a seamless blend of Arabic folk and Latin pop with Sahir sharing vocals with US singers Paula Cole and Karina Pasian.

Elder's free-wheeling approach requires artists to “lean in” to their doubts and step out of their comfort zone.

"The way to do that really is to give them confidence and support," she says. "I do that by ensuring I get the best musicians together because the arrangement is the key to any successful song.

“In that way, I am kind of an old-school producer. I want the best people in the same room, working together. I am absolutely meticulous when it comes to creating the best vocal performance.”

The same can be said of Elder’s concert productions.

In her efforts to raise the standard of Arabic international live performance, her shows are often lavish spectacles.

In 2009, Syrian singer Assala found herself performing in the historic MGM Grand arena in Las Vegas alongside Khaled and Iraqi singer Rida Al Abdulla for the Sahra gala event.

Co-produced by Elder alongside the National Arab Medical Association, the benefit concert raised funds for Children's Medical Aid in the Middle East.

Abu Dhabi also got a taste of that glamour in 2015 with the When the Music Matters concert.

A highlight of that year's Abu Dhabi Festival, the eclectic concert demonstrated how Arabic music can fluidly engage with other genres including rock, jazz, funk and Latin.

More representation, less ego

While Elder’s work has inspired mass audiences, that success has often felt solitary.

As one of a relatively small pool of female music and concert producers in both the US and the Arab world, she says nearly all her projects involve tackling initial gender stereotypes producing music that redefine our concept of Arabic sounds. She hopes her story can inspire other women to break into the music industry.

"The only way we can change things and have more representation in the industry and at awards like the Grammys, for example, is to have more women entering the industry.

"As a producer, who happens to be a woman, I do face these initial doubts not only from men, but women as well. I find that once I get them in the studio and they really see how things gel together, all those thoughts melt away.

“For me, it has never been about ego, but the quality of the work.”