Lebanese songstress Abeer Nehme: 'I haven't sold out'

The 38-year-old tells us why going mainstream is more about art than it is money

Lebanese singer Abeer Nehme is back with a new pop-music release. Courtesy: Universal Music Mena
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Pop is not a dirty word – if musicians do it right. And that's a point of view held by Abeer Nehme, one of the region's most esteemed.

After making a name for herself throughout the Arab world as a technically adept singer – with songs encompassing traditional folk, opera and Maronite hymns sung in the Syriac language – the Lebanese artist, who recently dipped her toe into the world of commercial music, is now venturing into pop. But she is not creating mere escapist fluff.

Nehme's latest single Waynak, her debut release with Dubai record label Universal Music Mena, is a stylish and classy ballad packed with its fair share of symphonic flare. A lovelorn song centring on an unsatisfying relationship, Waynak makes use of Nehme's husky and undulating vocal style as it's paired with exquisite strings and oriental instrumentation, including percussion and qanun. But this is a more commercial affair.

So Waynak has a satisfying chorus to warrant repeat listens. The 38-year-old chanteuse is known for her eclecticism, though. She frequently performs internationally as part of operatic and orchestral groups, and explains that the move towards a more mainstream sound has more to do with art than commerce. "It was more down to me challenging myself," she explains. "This is how I often go about my career. A lot of my projects began with me competing with myself. It is all about the challenge of working on something that is better than the last project."

What makes a good song

When it comes to the radio-friendly sound of Waynak, Nehme says the challenge wasn't about nailing the vocals – in fact, she says the tune was "relatively easy to sing". Nehme, who has clearly studied her craft, says that instead, a good pop song is more about the whole than the sum of its part. "And that can really apply to most music, in that a good piece is often defined by how its different elements work together," she says. "You need to have a good voice, well-written lyrics and sophisticated production. These are often the characteristics that make a song successful, no matter what style it is."

Nehme was born in the municipality of Tannourine in northern Lebanon, where her musical talent was spotted from an early age. She enrolled into various music institutions and graduated from university with a degree in oriental singing.

Those skills were put to good use, with Nehme being enlisted to work alongside one of the Arab world's most acclaimed composers Elias Rahbani, who gave her the lead role in two operettas, Andalusia, Jewel of the World and Eela in 2007 and 2010 respectively. Nehme followed this up with further career milestones, including performing at Paris's Festival Les Orientales and the World Sacred Music Festival in Fes, Morocco. She credits her musical education for arming her with a curiosity that has always informed her work. "I have always viewed what I did as a form of research in a way," she says. "Whether I am singing traditional or sacred songs, I am always interested in what makes them be. I am always looking for those fine details of the song that perhaps others may not focus on."

But Nehme doesn’t lament the fact that a new generation of singers are finding success through shortcuts such as television talent shows. The expertise of an artist, she says, is ultimately defined by personal experiences rather than professional development. “Not all the great singers went to music school. They are who they are by what they went through in life,” she says. “The interesting thing about Arabic music is that it doesn’t teach you to sing, but instead how to listen. You learn to appreciate the different styles and schools of singing, and once you know that, you can go on to find your own sound. What the conservatory taught me is that you should always and ultimately realise that you are not the only one with a good voice. It teaches you to be more aware; less ignorant.”

Lebanese singer Abeer Nehme is back with a new pop-music release. Courtesy: Universal Music Mena
Abeer Nehme Nehme is known for her eclecticism, having performed in operas and with orchestras around the world Universal Music Mena

This perhaps explains why Nehme – who released the folk album Aroma of My Prayer in 2009 with a small independent label Tibel Music – has taken her time to sign with such a major record label as Universal Music Mena. And she has taken stories of her peers being stuck in overbearing contracts as cautionary tales. "I never want to be categorised because I've always felt that music can be sung in different ways. The worst feeling I can have as a singer is to feel creatively choked," she says. "So I took my time and I think I have found the right collaboration with this label, in that it allows me to make music that will reach more people, but still have it sound different in its own ways."

And Waynak is merely a taste of what Nehme has in store. She says that a pop album is presently in the works and should be out by the end of the year. Her more esoteric fans will also be pleased to know that Nehme is collaborating with master Lebanese composer Marcel Khalife on another project, too. "It will be an album where all the songs are composed by him, which I am really excited about," she says.

“I like the fact that I am working on various things at the same time and how my music can be of different zones. I am very proud of that.”

Waynek by Abeer Nehme is out now through Universal Music Mena.

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