For over 10 years, Lebanese singer May Nasr has made a name for herself performing well known Arabic folk songs that dwell on the pain of dispossession and war while also driving at a hope for a better world.
Accompanied by a guitar, her voice unpicks the sadness in any heart that listens and shares a part of what the songs evoke.
In November she released her first CD of original compositions, “Lilghaly (To the Precious), but that has not dimmed either her passion for performing live or her appreciation of the classics that she made her name singing.
“When I sing live, my feelings come out more honestly when it’s me and the guitar, this is what I’m used to and how I began, Nasr told Daily News Egypt on Friday, few hours prior to her concert at El Genaina Theater.
“When I sing on my own with the guitar, I feel as though it is my heart that is singing.
Like the first time?
“It is always like the first time. If there is a band, the sharing is nice, we learn how to sing together and find a group dynamic. For example when I launched the CD in Beirut and Syria, there was a band with me and it was great, but when there are other instruments my voice isn’t as distinctive as when I’m on my own. I’m still not used to it [performing with a band]; I don’t think I will get used to it.
“The type of songs on the album isn’t far from the type of songs I used to sing – Marcel Khalifa, Fayrouz, Zaki Nassif, Ahmed Kaabour, Julia Boutros. They are not different in the manner of music and words; it’s not like, for example, I flipped to jazz, you know. I remained on the same line. Also in my concerts, after the CD came out, I didn’t even think to stop singing Fayrouz’s songs because those are the songs I love to sing, people like to hear them in my style on the guitar . Nothing has changed because in the end it’s not my goal that I’ve sung all these songs over 10 years, made a CD, that’s it, now I can forget them and just sings the songs on the CD.
It was this mix of familiar and new that a full house at El Geneina Theatre experienced in her first concert in Cairo. Requests were shouted out, songs were clapped along to and when it was appropriate, silence filled the theater, as if it was pouring out of the attending hearts.
When she sings in “Shams El Aghani (Sun of the Songs) “Laji’, sam’aouny laji’ (Refugee, they call me refugee), you can easily feel the pain of which she sings. Her voice and guitar alone fill the night’s air. It is rare to see a performer truly strip a part of herself bare and exposed on the stage. But for Nasr, singing is about more than performance.
She began singing more for the feelings in her heart that needed to be let out than the actual songs themselves. “The original feelings, all my life I wanted to let out, express myself, relax, remove what was in my heart. We were living in the Civil War in Lebanon, and I was always listening to music, foreign music, Abba were my favorites, Bee Gees, Bony M. In the War in 1982, when Israel invaded Lebanon, there was a guitar at home and this was a long period when we just sat at home, no school, no work, nothing.
She picked up the guitar and found an outlet to express her anxieties. As well as being an outlet then, it’s a way also of not forgetting. “Music opens feelings, feelings we have forgotten. if it isn’t the solution (to the problems of which she sings), it’s a big part of the solution.
Having performed to non-Arab audiences in Europe and America, where she has toured every year for the last three, Nasr has seen the value of music in transcending borders and language.
Last year in San Antonio, she performed with the Puerto Rican singer Lourdes Perez who herself sang a song by Ahmad Kaabour, “Unadeekom (I Call Thee) in Spanish.
“We got to know each other and did a concert together in San Antonio, she sang in Spanish, I sang in Arabic and we switched with me singing Spanish and her in Arabic, Nasr said. “With music you don’t have to understand the language, the lyrics; music covers all the feelings and sensations and feelings don’t have a language they have music.
As for singing in the future in other languages, she is open to the idea as long as “there is something suitable and has an essence I can feel. The importance of there being this essence comes across during the concert when in a switch of tone she performed a medley of old love songs with Egyptian singer Tony Kaldas.
A restlessness in the audience betrayed their feelings as Nasr’s voice seemed to be following the words rather than her heart. This brief foray into flatness reveals just how striking and vital her voice is to her performance. And for that voice to be vital, it needs to draw from the flesh of a meaning in the songs that she can relate to and bring out.
“No good work happens unless there is meaning to it, for me, the motivation was sadness. But at the same time there are moments of happiness which I also learnt to express through song. In life, the two complete each other.