After two hours stuck in a car bemoaning Beirut's traffic, I finally get to the incredibly scenic mountain town that is home to Tania Saleh. It feels like I've finally emerged out of the noise and into something that makes sense. In a way, that is what Saleh's music feels like: less noise, just beauty.
Saleh is a Lebanese musician known for her irreverent, socially conscious songs and, of late, as a calligraphy-dabbling street artist. Her distinct style of fusing genres — she's used everything from bossa nova to Arabic poetry — and work with noted Lebanese creatives helped her become known in the world of independent music. With highlights like the riotous "Hashishet Albi," a song about space cakes and love that she wrote for the 2011 film Where Do We Go Now?, and contemplative reflections like "Shababeek Beirut" ("Beirut Windows"), Saleh's music takes its cue from Lebanon's cultural motifs: hardwired sarcasm, urban life, conflict, religious divides. Saleh just released her fifth album, Intersection, an audiovisual album that combines street art, modern Arabic calligraphy, and verses by celebrated poets. Her interpretation of poetry in a contemporary social context is a stark contrast from the overtly manufactured pop music dominant in the Middle East. Saleh offers a much-needed, introspective look at society and love from a woman's perspective.
I met Saleh at the picturesque garden of a local hotel, and we talked about music, poetry, and the politics of street art.
Saba Imtiaz: I've read that as your family was fleeing the Lebanese civil war, you remember your mother listening to a song by Fairouz. How did that influence your relationship with music?
Tania Saleh: The song I heard while we were fleeing Lebanon is "Roudani ila Baladi'"("Take Me Back Home"). The idea of listening to this song while you're going the other way was extremely hurtful. It touched me and still does. Apart from the great voice of Fairouz and her interpretation, the fact that someone was able to write these words and the music that made me feel like this — at an early age, I discovered what songwriting was about and its influence.
SI: How did you get into music and visual arts?
TS: I studied art, but you can't become a painter in this part of the world, because first of all, the idea of an artist is a prostitute. They used to call the prostitute artiste — a singer, writer, dancer. So this idea has been cursed in my mind. Art is [considered] something you do on the side, like butter! I knew I had a lot of ideas visually, but I didn't know I wanted to get into music. When I worked in advertising, I was always asked to write jingles. I saw that I could do visuals that could go with it. I started associating visuals with music. One day my creative director said, "Why don't you write songs?" I thought he was joking. He insisted, and that's how it started. I did a single and a music video and then I started on an album.
SI: How did you get into street art?
TS: I decided to do street art to illustrate the poems [on Intersection]. For two years, I worked with artists in Lebanon and Egypt and in Brazil and other places. I found that street art is the only kind of contemporary art that can be associated with my way of thinking. It's true, realistic, ephemeral. It looks like the world that we're living in and you don't need to be posh, go to a gallery, and pay money to watch it. That represents the way I think about art, that it should be accessible to everyone, it's something you're proud of.
SI: Have people been offended by the art?
TS: I drew one [that] to me it's a funny statement, to them it was not. It's an image of a woman and her daughter, both of them wearing a burqa. She's holding a cigarette, and the young girl is holding an ice-cream cone. None of them can eat or smoke with this burqa on. To me, it's a comedy. But I also don't want to offend them. They are my cousins and sisters-in-law. These are people I know, people who are veiled. I cannot mock them. I did one — it's a veiled woman who is wearing a dancer's clothes. This is what happens. If you want to be veiled, it's because you want to be natural and humble and simple. You cannot wear all this makeup. That's not the point. I don't like hypocrisy in religion. Do whatever you want, just don't be a hypocrite.
SI: You did this song "Omar and Ali" [the names of the Islamic caliphs revered by Sunnis and Shias]. A lot of people would be scared to do that. [Note: because of the schism between the Islamic sects, talking about religious figures is often contentious.]
TS: My mother was Shia. My father was Sunni. When they got married, there was a very big problem between the families. I lived this for my entire life, and I thought, How can I hate one and love the other? I cannot, but love them both. This is my mother, and this is my father. Why don't you guys reconcile? So I thought about doing a song, there are two kids, Omar and Ali, and I'm trying to make them reconcile. But people who are with Omar thought I was with Ali, and the people who are with Ali thought I was with Omar.
SI: How does the culture of quick consumption impact your work?
TS: They don't want to hear my music on TV or radio, because it's something that makes people think, it can't be controlled or sold. I don't want castles and cars and bodyguards. I want to be appreciated for the effort I'm making. People think I'm egocentric, that I think I'm good and want my music to be heard, but I want people to know about the reality. The songs I grew up listening to were about what was really happening. How come we have so many wars and things are shit? How can you be thinking about love all the time?