Dropping a song on YouTube is akin to sending a message in a bottle – you never know who it will reach or whether they will appreciate it. That was the case for Palestinian aspiring singer Lina Sleibi in 2015, when she posted a cover of Dalida's 1979 hit Helwa Ya Baladi to the site, accompanied by a no-frills video shot on a rooftop in Bethlehem.
While the original track was sprightly and full of strings, Sleibi's version is heartfelt and tastefully stripped down. The instrumentation is understated and Sleibi's rich vocals are more laboured and include a few jazz inflections.
"I really had no big intentions when I did that song," she says. "I simply did a version of it because I love it. It is a beautiful song and it talks about things that we can all relate to. She talks about love of country but it can also be about all of the other kinds of love. A lot of people related to it in their own ways and I think that because we are living in uncertain times in the region, the song really connected with people on that deeper level."
The song was a relative hit in online terms – it received more than eight million views. With that success came a legion of new fans who asked when Sleibi would be visiting their city on tour, despite the singer only being in the early stages of her career.
At that stage, Sleibi – who studied at the Edward Said Conservatory of Music in Ramallah – was performing at regional fairs and music showcases, all the while building a strong collection of YouTube videos in which she performed cover songs in various genres and languages, from French and Aramaic to Hindi. But the reaction to Helwa Ya Baladi was a surprise to the singer. It also resulted in a career-changing offer – the chance to star in a tribute concert to Dalida, the Egyptian-French singer who arguably became the region's first international star during a three-decade career that began in the mid-1950s.
That initial offer was made a little more than a year ago and Sleibi is set to channel the spirit of Dalida, who died in 1987, with a lavish tribute show at Dubai Opera on Thursday, October 10.
While the nerves are there, Sleibi, 27, says she is looking forward to taking the stage. Her performance will come at the end of an intensive eight months of preparation for the concert, during which she studied Dalida's extensive catalogue, as well as travelled regularly to Bahraini capital Manama to rehearse with the backing band.
Thursday's event will be more a concert than a theatrical presentation. Backed by a band of nearly a dozen musicians, Sleibi will perform many of Dalida's biggest hits – such as Bambino, Salma Ya Salama and Paroles, Paroles – and "a few surprise choices".
"The challenge with Dalida is that she did so many things in her career," Sleibi says. "She sang songs in so many different styles and languages – even Japanese. So when you are doing this kind of tribute, what we are really trying to do is represent how rich her body of work is."
It was a challenging experience, Sleibi says, even though Dalida often made it look easy. Her mastery was clear in her choice of which vocal tone and emotional approach to adopt for each track. "That requires a certain skill and an understanding of your art," Sleibi says. "One challenging song was Je suis malade. It is a beautiful and sad ballad and if you listen to it carefully, you can really hear the many different kinds of emotions that Dalida gives to this song. Trying to capture that is difficult."
Given how difficult it is to emulate Dalida, how can a tribute concert ever succeed in doing her justice?
Dalida's songs were often informed by her tumultuous personal experiences and it is tough to channel the heartbreak and despair in tracks such as Je suis malade unless you have been in Dalida's shoes.
While Sleibi says she agrees that it is a tall order to get that authenticity right, the fact Dalida still went out there to perform despite her emotional turmoil is a testament to her strength as an artist. "And that's what I want people to also know," Sleibi says. "That she can live through these difficult periods and turn it into great songs and art that touches people."
While she says she doesn't want to think further ahead than the Dubai performance, she admits that the show has the potential to tour internationally, with offers from across the region and Paris. If that comes to pass, the Dalida concert will join a growing list of tribute shows dedicated to the region's renowned musical talents. Last year, Dubai Opera also hosted a tribute show to famous Egyptian crooner Abdel Halim Hafez by Britain's Harfoush Jazz Band. Meanwhile, Palestinian pop star Mohammed Assaf is also preparing an album and tour dedicated to the great Arab singers of the past.
"We do need more of these concerts," Sleibi says. "They are a reminder of the richness of Arabic music and it allows us to understand what is really quality when it comes to what we are hearing. These artists are the originals who made Arab fusion songs and they introduced us to other cultures. We still have a lot to learn from them."
A Tribute to Dalida takes place at 8pm on Thursday ,October 10. at Dubai Opera, Downtown, Dubai. Tickets start from Dh150. More information is available at www.dubaiopera.com