Tania Saleh is one of Lebanon’s sweetest crooners. Not only is she a talented singer and performer, but she is also an extremely talented songwriter. Her passion for music is only matched by her passion for the causes she supports. Thus making her lyrics a reflection of her views on society and politics. A timeless, beautiful sound, coming from an authentic musician whose work has delighted listeners for years. We met her before he concert at the Cairo Jazz Club and had a little chat.
More alternative musicians are coming out these days and you’ve been in the business for a while. How does this make you feel?
When you say a while, it’s actually the past 25 years. It feels wonderful that this kind of music is being appreciated by more people. Independent music doesn’t mean that we’re all the same. We have different styles, but the thing that connects us all is that we don’t want to be mainstream and we’re not doing it for the money. The past 4 years have delivered a lot of bands, singers, and artists – in many fields not only in music – who want to express themselves more freely. And I think it’s going to transform into something beautiful and this is going to affect the whole society.
There’s plenty of satire and cynicism in your lyrics. Has it ever gotten you in a situation where you were in trouble with the government?
No, never, because in Lebanon, you can say anything you want as long as you don’t talk about religion or the President. Otherwise, you can say anything you feel like saying. You can write articles, and you can make films and songs. The thing is, they let you say whatever you want but they make sure that if you are willing to start like a revolution or you want to really change the system, it’s not going to happen.
“A woman cannot give her citizenship to a child if she’s married to a foreigner, she’s beaten to death without a law to protect her. What kind of freedom is this country about?”
Do you think talking could make a difference?
Not talking is horrible. Talking at least makes you feel like you did your duty. At least you have a feeling that you’re paying your dues to society and alarming people when you feel like you should. And in time I think there’s a lot of potential in Lebanon if we could have a civil law then all the 18 sects will be catered for. And also both genders, because in Lebanon women are not equal to men in their rights. A woman cannot give her citizenship to a child if she’s married to a foreigner, she’s beaten to death without a law to protect her. What kind of freedom is this country about? There’s freedom that women can go to the beach and wear bikinis, and that’s it.
What is the difference between performing in Egypt and performing in Lebanon? Do you feel a difference in the audience?
I think the Egyptian audience is the best audience you can ever have, because they are very kind, and at the same time they appreciate music. They know when something is out of the tune, or not. They know when something is well written or not. They appreciate art. They are it’s an artistic country in every way. You go in a taxi and the driver turns out to be a poet. They are nice people. They are warm and kind and loving. This is my impression I don’t know I might be wrong. You don’t say this about your people. Coming from Lebanon, I see it in a different way. Just like just like when someone comes to Lebanon from abroad and says it’s beautiful, we’re cursing it all the time. Then somebody comes from abroad and reminds us of the beauty of where we come from.
“Sometimes when you put too many females in a room for a long time they tend to become dangerous”
What about the difference between working on your music on its own and working on the soundtrack of something like Halla’ Lawein? What do you enjoy more?
I don’t think we can compare because working on the score of the film did not take much time actually. It took me two months to finish all the songs, but with intensive work. In the case of my songs, one song might take four years because I don’t get satisfied easily. I also use the slang Lebanese language which is not used in Lebanese songs anymore. The languages used in Lebanese songs is either Egyptian, Khaleeji, or this “white dialect” they call it, which doesn’t make sense because it’s not the way we talk, the way you talk, or the way anyone talks.
Until now music is a male dominated society even though women are very creative. What are your views on that?
It’s changing. There are a lot of female singers who are songwriters also in Egypt like Dina Elwadidi, Mariam Saleh, Nancy from the metal band Masscara. And in the Arab world in general it’s becoming more common to have females in the business. I don’t think it’s dominated by males; the music industry is different. We find ways to communicate because music brings us all together. The problem is with society to be able to accept that yes I am a female, I have ideas, and I’m not stupid.
Do you enjoy working with other women more than you work with men or does it differ depending on the person?
Yes it does. I don’t have preferences for women. On the contrary I have more male friends than female friends. I love my female friends, but I have more male friends than female because we connect with men better I think. And we like to be friends with men because we need them in our lives. Sometimes when you put too many females in a room for a long time they tend to become dangerous. (laughs)
“yes I am a female, I have ideas, and I’m not stupid”
What do you think would happen if women ruled the world then?
God forbid! (laughs) No it shouldn’t be women ruling the world, they should be ruling together, 50/50. Let’s share it, let’s not rule it, let’s do it together.
You said you’ve been in the business for 25 years. Would you ever consider changing your style to be a bit more mainstream?
No, not at all, because I don’t like mainstream. It’s a personal preference. You can’t always be dressed the same way, sing the same words, use the same instrument to orchestrate the same song for 30 years.
Why do you think a lot of people like that kind of music?
Because a lot of peope like to see a meowing cat on YouTube and they don’t like to see something cultural, about history of the Egyptian art for example, anything that needs them to think a bit or dig more. That’s why mainstream is so popular, because people want something easy to digest.
Growing up, did certain artists inspire you and if so who?
So many! How many pages will this interview be! I was raised on folk, funk, rock, and Arabic music both Lebanese and Egyptian. It’s a mix of all of that. As I was growing up, I discovered jazz and Latin, Mexican, Iranian, world music! Every kind of style I could lay my hands on. Music is so vast there’s three billion zillion possibilities of things to be done and words to be said and it never ends. It’s timeless, and it’s a universal language. There’s one particular artist that has kept me interested all this time and it’s Joni Mitchell.
” I was raised on folk, funk, rock, and Arabic music both Lebanese and Egyptian.”
You mixed all those influences in your music. Were you ever asked why don’t you follow a certain genre?
They asked, but so what! There’s like a mixer in my head, those ideas went in, they were mixed and this is what came out. I’m not forcing it to come out like this. This is my true self, I’m being honest with myself. I’m not imposing anything on anyone. If you don’t like the mix don’t listen to it. I also get bored with myself. I don’t want to stay on the same style and that’s why I like Joni Mitchell and people like Sting or Fathy Salama from Egypt, because those people are not satisfied with one style. They always want to reinvent themselves, they always want to challenge themselves and this creates more beauty.
A lot of fans get upset when musicians change their style, though. Have you ever faced that?
Yes, of course, all the time. You shouldn’t listen, because if I listen to each comment I might quit. It’s not a democracy; it’s dictatorship with music, and people either follow or overthrow you.
So music is a dictatorship.
I think so, because you can’t take everyone’s opinion. So you tell them sorry this is how I think it should be done you should either like it or not like it and that’s it. And there’s no one on earth that all people love.