For Gaida, morning in Damascus meant melodies: waking to the sound of her father’s radio while he shaved, the predawn intertwining calls to prayer bursting from mosques across the world’s longest-inhabited city. Strains of Umm Kulthum and Fairouz
rose from radios and stores as horses clopped and cars purred by. The age-old harmonized with the modern.
These sounds shaped the gorgeous and thoughtful Syrian singer’s impeccable musical intuition and velvety yet crystalline voice, now channeled into the stunning live performances and bluesy originals of Levantine Indulgence
, a set of songs as rich and subtle as the Fertile Crescent oasis of ancient Levant. With her voice as a common denominator, Gaida has found the soulful sweet spot where complex Levantine rhythms synch up with breezy hints of bossa nova, pounding belly dance beats, and that certain swing found only in jazz.
Gaida’s songs, refined over a decades-long journey, unite the elegance of Arabic poetry and the refined ornamentation of Middle Eastern vocals with the sophisticated urbanite sensibilities of her adopted home. They translate the elevated tarab (ecstasy) into the indulgence of a personal passion that drove the girl from Damascus to defy her beloved father and find her voice, meanwhile moving from intimate clubs to prestigious national venues like the Kennedy Center and major feature films, including Jonathan Demme’s 2008 drama “Rachel Getting Married.”
“For me, indulgence means giving yourself a treat,” explains Gaida, who is now based in New York. “When we perform as a band, we give ourselves the freedom to create something beautiful. We indulge ourselves. If I want to improvise, I improvise. I forget myself.”
Gaida comes by this indulgence honestly, having gotten a primer in Middle Eastern song and improvisation from toddlerhood. “My mother would sit with me in the living room and teach me the song word by word,” says Gaida. “Then I would sing it back to her. That’s really where my musical training came from.” Soon, Gaida was writing down favorite songs on slips of paper, tucking them into her schoolbooks for safekeeping. Looking in a mirror to aid her first improvisations, Gaida began crafting her own highly personal versions of Syrian folk classics like “Almaya.”
Damascus itself conspired with Gaida’s warm and musical family, with their large record collection and love of musical get-togethers, to create a sonic foundation for the singer’s future art. Gaida fondly recalls the complicated chance harmonies that appeared as the city’s muezzins performed the calls to prayer.
“The call to prayer has been stuck in my soul since I was a little kid. Four o’ clock in the morning, when Damascus was so quiet, all the mosques were calling for prayer, and you hear the collection of them in the most unbelievable harmonies. Mostly I would hear the mosque next to our house, where they used to improvise from one maqam (melodic scale) to another. And improvise beautifully,” Gaida reminisces. “I think this is where I get a lot of the melodies in my head and why improvisation comes easily to me. You can throw me in any band and I invoke the sounds around me and mix them within me.”
Gaida had a chance to do just that, when her studies took her to Detroit to get a degree in biology. Her pursuit of a career in the sciences was encouraged by her engineer father who was opposed to his daughter becoming a professional performer. “I only know how to sing. It’s the only thing I do naturally. It’s like an itch. An itch that I can’t stop,” Gaida reflects. “When my dad did not encourage me, I felt like I had something wrong with me. Yet it increased my desire to do it. The more someone wants to stop you, the more you want to sing and make music!”
The itch led Gaida to her university’s music school and to a new world of American jazz, blues, and rock bands. Soon, she found herself performing a regular gig at a local Lebanese restaurant. “My eyes were always on the door worrying that my dad might come in. Even though he was in Syria!” she laughs.
Coincidentally, during her first restaurant concert, famous Lebanese poet Maroon Karam happened to be in town and caught the show. He was so taken by her voice, he gave her the bittersweet poem of separation that became “Ghayeb,” featured on the new CD. He also filed a story in the pages of a Lebanese magazine about his adventures in Detroit, praising Gaida as one of the best Middle Eastern voices he had ever heard. Gaida’s nightmare came true. “My family saw the article. Usually when families see something like that they are proud of you. But my mom called and said, ‘What are you doing? You are going to give your dad a heart attack!’” recalls Gaida. “I felt so guilty instead of proud. I stopped singing.”
Yet nothing could end Gaida’s passion for music. Melodies began appearing in her head when she least expected them. When her younger brother Ammar got married, she and her brother and musical collaborator, Adel, wanted to create a song together, but Gaida developed a frustrating case of writer’s block: “It was getting close to the wedding date and I still couldn’t come up with anything,” Gaida recounts. “Adel called me and said, ‘You are not going to do it; I’m going to do it.’ And I said, “No I will do it!” and hung up the phone and started singing a song. I called my brother back and started singing for him. He said, ‘Oh my god, that is it. That is it!’ The siblings recorded “Ammar” in Adel’s tiny bedroom studio in Queens. Breakthrough recordings of “Ammar” and “Ghayeb” from this mid-1990s period form the backbone of their respective final versions on the new album.
The next breakthrough came when she moved to New York and began hanging out in the city’s increasingly vibrant Arabic music scene—one that, like Gaida, is evolving a unique voice and sound. After a concert at Alwan for the Arts in Lower Manhattan, Gaida found herself jamming with oud player Najib Shaheen, which caught the ear of percussionist Johnny Farraj. Soon, Gaida became a fixture at Arabic jam sessions around the city, where she met Iraqi-American jazz trumpeter and santoor player Amir ElSaffar. Gaida would improvise melodies for ElSaffar, and he in turn would create a filigree of jazz-inspired arrangements for songs like “Kaifa Uhibuka.” The two bi-cultural musicians were coming from opposite ends—maqam and jazz—and meeting in the middle.
These new musical connections marked a rebirth for Gaida, who is also a trained speech therapist that works with Arab children and professional vocalists, a field that gave her scientific knowledge to back up her impeccable vocal technique. Her unstoppable passion for music led to a revelatory realization for her father: His daughter had become an amazing and respected artist, as well as a talented health professional. “Now I don’t feel guilty if I’m singing,” Gaida muses. “I did what my dad wanted me to do professionally."