BEIRUT: Sae Lis' grew up in a house of music. Her mother, a choreographer, played everything from gospel to Bob Marley, Fairuz and Nina Simone, while her father preferred classical music and opera.
Born and raised in Togo and then Paris, Lebanese Lis then studied in Los Angeles before moving to Beirut three years ago.
With her nomadic nature, Lis' hadn’t planned to stay here this long, but says the country affords certain opportunities to independent artists not easily found elsewhere.
On a trip to Lebanon to visit family, Lis had a chance encounter at a jazz bar with renowned musician Ziad Rahbani (and Fairuz’s son), who asked her to sing with him.
“So I thought, ‘OK – I go back to LA and work as a waitress and I audition or I come to Beirut and I work with Rahbani as a singer and I get experience, what do I do?’”
Also, while “it’s good not to belong anywhere because you build yourself and you’re versatile,” she concedes that “sometimes you need a base, you need to be grounded.”
Her first album, “The Quest,” was released in May and combines her love for Motown and soul with reggae and funk. In English and some French, Lis’ tracks meander from bluesy, almost haunting lyrics, to upbeat ska sounds.
While she looked at local record labels here, her genre did not quite fit with their commercial styles, so she decided to produce it herself. “It’s very difficult, I’m not going to lie. But it feels right.”
“I am my manager, my agent, I do my PR, communications, marketing, I do my flyers ... I had to put up a website.” This doesn’t leave her much time to concentrate on her music, but, she adds, “I do it for the journey. Of course I want the outcome to be positive, but I’m learning, I’m discovering. And that’s what makes it interesting.”
And while she has to take on all these different roles, because Beirut is “flowing with artsy and creative people,” there are often many people volunteering to help out, as she discovered when she made her first music video, for her song “The Way You Treat Me.”
Whereas in Paris or LA, she says, you have to already be an established act to get people interested in what you do, in Beirut, on top of help from family and friends, “also people who don’t know me, they say, ‘Sure, you need somebody to hold a mirror for 12 hours? I’ll come on your set and do it.’”
The small music community in Beirut can be cliquey, Lis' says, with “People kind of living in their bubble here. They’re rockers, or they’re jazz players, or they’re indie.”
But places such as Radio Beirut – a newish venue/radio station in Mar Mikhael – help to break these barriers down, she says. “They help us bond and meet. I know here that I have my little family: All the hip hop, soul and underground artists come here and hang out. It helps. We are missing things like this.”