BEIRUT: A sound like the whud and thump of helicopter blades was gradually overlaid with a muted sonar ping, oscillating between two notes like the siren on an underwater fire engine.
With a burst of lung power, Maryam Saleh leant into the mic, her voice husky and brimming with attitude as she made her way through the track “Islahat” (Reforms), spitting out the words in a style somewhere between rapping and singing.
Egyptian singer-songwriter Saleh took to the underground stage of Hamra’s Metro al-Madina Wednesday night for a concert with two Lebanese collaborators, musician, vocalist and producer Zeid Hamdan and multi-instrumentalist, producer and composer Marc Codsi.
Her hair pinned back on the right side, falling forward to shield the left half of her face from view, Saleh ruled the small stage. Clad in black skinny jeans and a simple black strap top, her charismatic bearing overshadowed the quieter presence of Codsi and Hamdan, who each flanked her with a guitar and a wall of electronic equipment.
Garbed in his characteristic long cargo shorts, tinted glasses and a T-shirt, Hamdan occasionally punched the air in a laid-back dance as he fiddled with knobs and levers. Saleh, pacing the stage between numbers like a caged feline, was a ball of raw energy, drumming on her thighs, swaying and thrusting at the microphone as she sang, and breaking away during instrumental passages to dance, cheered on by the clapping crowd.
The trio recently completed a short European tour and is currently putting the finishing touches on an album. Featuring tracks written by Saleh and Hamdan and mixed by Codsi, it is due to be released at the end of the month.
Made up of the material destined for the upcoming record, Wednesday’s playlist was an eclectic mix, divided evenly between Saleh and Hamdan’s own compositions and classic numbers by Egyptian composer and singer Sheikh Imam – a beloved musical force among the performers and audiences who frequent this particular venue.
A close family friend, Sheikh Imam was the inspiration behind Saleh’s early forays into singing, she told The Daily Star after the show. Filtered through Saleh’s youthful vocal cords, his catchy, politically-infused songs – many of which employ socially engaged lyrics by colloquial poet Ahmed Fouad Negm – are almost unrecognizable, transformed into upbeat electro-pop numbers.
Saleh’s own strongly political lyrics employ satire and black humor to poke fun at the human condition. Nevertheless, she stressed, the messages they send are deeply serious. “It seems like a joke,” she acknowledged. “But we’re not joking.”
Perhaps that explains the singer’s lightening emotional shifts. Accompanied by Hamdan’s poppy, synth-heavy backing, Saleh alternated between moody, downbeat vocals like the trip-hop infused opening track, passionate, anger-fueled outbursts and more sarcastic numbers, in which she appeared to take on jokey personas, raising and lowering her pitch and employing a mocking tone of voice as she sang.
Punctuated by childlike giggles and relaxed asides to the intimate seated audience, Saleh’s set veered in just as many different musical directions. From catchy, hummable pop choruses to trip-hop, elements of funk and feedback-heavy, electric guitar-driven rock and noise pop – unpinned by Hamdan’s steady bass guitar and driving electronic percussion – the performance elicited an amusing variety of responses from an audience that seemingly had little sense of what to expect.
Saleh and Hamdan’s contemporary interpretations of Sheikh Imam’s canon departed sufficiently from the source material to leave some audience members in the dark as to which numbers were original compositions and which covers.
During one of the more famous tracks, the older members of the audience whooped and clapped, before lapsing into bemused silence when Saleh launched into the more experimental “Islahat.” Those who had come for the singer’s distinctive, edgy vocals in turn sat up and took notice.
Saleh’s relaxed stage presence made the slightly shambolic performance feel endearing. Her apparent innocence belied the adult anger that occasionally erupted through in her voice.
The disparate musical influences may have divided audience opinion, but with a little more work Saleh and Hamdan’s collaboration promises to bear interesting cross-cultural fruit.
For more information about Zeid Hamdan and Maryam Saleh’s collaboration, please visit www.lebaneseunderground.com/music/arabic-electro/maryam-saleh.