Interview with Faia Younan

A voice of the Levant

Diala Aschkar, Art Director at Orient Palms, France

She is a diva, an activist, a young Syrian beauty that sings and inspires millions. Faia Younan is one of the new voices of the Levant, a beautiful deep voice with a message that goes beyond the Levantine countries as people in the whole world identify with her plea for peace. It all started in 2014 with a video entitled “To Our Countries” — recorded with her sister Rihan — that went viral with 4 million views on Youtube. Now, two years later, she is releasing her debut album: “A sea between us”.

I interviewed Faia in Beirut and Joulan Aschkar took wonderful photos of her in Dhour el Choueir.

All photos: Joulan Aschkar for Orient Palms

You grew up in Aleppo. Tell me about your city…

I was born in a village called Al-Malikiyah, near the North-East border of Syria, but we moved to Damascus and then Aleppo when I was about 4 years old. So I consider myself a daughter of Aleppo. It gave me so much. It’s a very cultured city, there is interest in music, in art, in sports… and of course food with such a rich diversity. By the way, it is said that the chefs and cooks in the Turkish Sultans castles were all from Aleppo, because of their creativity and ancient food heritage.

What Aleppo holds for me
Video by: Catherine Ward & Houssam Abdul Khalek
Music Producer: Houssam Abdul Khalek

In terms of music, during history, Aleppo and Egypt were the two cultural hubs where music used to be produced. When someone wanted to sing in Aleppo, there was a jury to decide that. So from generation to generation music education was refined and it is part of everyday life in Aleppo. I guess that I absorbed as a sponge this kind of good music, meaning tarab (a form of entrancing arab singing) and artists such as Sabah Fakhry, Adîb al-Dayikh, Sabry Mudallal, Shadi Jamil

I grew up in a house where everybody sings, even though none of them is a professional singer. Dad always sings the songs from Wadih el Safi with a good voice. He made us listen to old songs. My mother used to sing to us before sleeping, and I still think she has the most beautiful voice, it’s emotional.

When we were kids, my sister Rihan and I used to take old tapes and record our own talk shows and programs. We even gave each program a name and a broadcasting time: this was probably the first version of “To Our Countries”! Rihan would present the news and it went something like “Our brothers in Palestine are killed everyday…” and you would hear that she was just a child saddened by the situation (Rihan Younan is now a journalist hosting her own show, “Metro”, on Al-Mayadeen TV). Then she would say:“and now an artistic break”, so I would come in and sing “Tik tik tik yammi Sleiman…” (a popular Fairuz song with a children’s choir) with my little bird voice. These tapes are still in Aleppo. We cannot go to our homes and bring them back.

You know what I also used to do in Aleppo? I would open the interphone and sing, so that the passers-by in the street would hear my voice. It was my first Youtube channel! One day, one of our neighbors was entering the building and I had already been singing for ten minutes, so he hears me and says in the interphone: “what a beautiful voice”! I closed the interphone in a hurry and got scared that he would know who I was.

So I suppose it wasn’t difficult for you to begin singing in public?

Yes and no… in some ways I was a shy kid. But I was very outgoing when singing.

At the scouts, they used to do mini talent competitions which I loved. When I was nine years old, I participated in a national competition in English language and won the first prize. So the following year, I was very confident when I participated in a singing competition.

I was good in school, so my teachers would tell me to participate in this or that subject: they didn’t expect that I wanted to compete in the singing category! I won over 10 schools but did not make it to the national level. This shows that the general standards for 5th graders (10-11 years old) were so high because all participants knew how to sing well: they could sing on key with a strong voice, they were all well trained, many of them doing Quran readings.

I was 10. My first rejection in life (laughs).

And at 11 you moved to Sweden… You kept on singing?

At my cousins weddings, I used to go on stage and sing, or in family gatherings. But never in concerts, though I participated in school activities.

When I lost my brother in 2008, I was sixteen, and singing was my remedy to heal my own soul in my room, even if there was no one listening. I used to lock myself up, play on the keyboard, try out melodies while singing. It was a way to sort out my sorrow because I was so mad, so angry, so sad that I couldn’t understand why this had happened.

You think of all the memories, you have to deal with your sorrow, so I found a creative way, and I thought that music was all I had. Of course there were persons I could talk too, but I felt safer with music.

In 2010, my friends at school created a Facebook group to push me to apply to “Swedish Idol” and when they gathered 5000 likes I thought, OK I need to go… I went to the audition and didn’t even pass the first part of the 5 stages. It was so funny, I was shocked: “Am I that bad?” For a week, each time I wanted to sing I couldn’t, I was so disappointed (laughs). But you know, when you get a no, you should give yourself time to be sad. It’s ok be sad, to understand that not all the doors will be opened. But when deep inside you believe in it, you will find a way to keep going.

You did your university studies in Scotland? And did you apply for a job after that?

Yes I graduated from the university of Glasgow in Economics and management. My first job was at Sony music in Sweden, in the sales department, at the reception: aspiring artists would send me demos of their music.

It must be a sign…

Probably! Anyway, while still working, I applied to a talent show with the MBC (Middle-Eastern TV channel) three years ago. I sent a video and they were interested and told me to come. I thought then that I want to dedicate my time to be a singer and that this talent show was my chance. I came from Sweden to Beirut for the casting, travelled on my own expenses. I was so sure I was going to be taken because I had started my Youtube channel and there were already people supporting me and pushing me to apply. It was my circle of friends from Sweden and Aleppo and their friends.

But I didn’t pass.

The next year the MBC was producing another talent show, and they saw the success of “To our countries”, so they contacted me and tried to convince me to apply again.

But I said no thank you and I went my own way.

Anyways… in 2014, for 6 months, before “To our countries”, I started participating in festivals in Sweden. I was a volunteer at the Red Cross and we used to do a lot of activities for integration. I used to participate and sing in these events with one or two songs.

After the progress of the far right in the Swedish elections, we wanted to show that we were here as immigrants, so I went and sang at this special event. I used to do things before “To our Countries”. Things I believed in.

When they do elections in Sweden, they organize huge concerts to engage the youth to vote. They call it “Rock the vote”. It’s originally an American concept, and they did a version in Sweden. I was known as a local artist in my city and in Sweden. People would see me as this girl who sings for causes, not as a singer. I used my voice but I wasn’t a singer. After “To our Countries”, what was great is that Swedish people were asking me to sing in Arabic.

The “To our countries” video was such an incredible success. Tell me the story behind it…

It was during the summer of 2014. The atmosphere was loaded and hopeless. At that time Israel was bombing Gaza, in Lebanon ISIS had kidnapped Lebanese soldiers, in Syria the war was continuing in different cities, and in Iraq the citizens of Mosul were leaving their homes. So these four countries were all over the news.

It was suffocating to see the countries we care about the most, ravaged, and we were so far in Sweden and we couldn’t do anything. I was demotivated to go to work. I would write diaries instead of working because I felt so mad, I felt that silence itself was a part of these crimes.

One night I was sitting with my family in the living room watching the news, and all channels were reporting the same things the exact same way. We turned off the TV, there was a moment of silence, then Rihan, my sister, said: “you know I’m going to do my own version of the news…”, and she started: “And in Iraq, it has been the same for 10 years… and in Syria for 3 years…” Instinctively I sang Baghdad (a famous song by Fairuz from the late 1970s), she kept talking and I kept singing, we were overlapping, she talked about Lebanon, I sung Li Beirut (“For Beirut”, another iconic song by Fairuz). It felt good, we felt we had a voice.

To Our Countries
Rihan & Faia Younan,
September 2014

The next day, I thought that we needed to share it with others; I told Rihan “we have to do this”. She wasn’t convinced, worrying about how we could execute it.

But at work at Sony music I couldn’t get it out of my mind, so I called a friend, George Hanyrabedian, and asked him if we can borrow his studio at 6pm. I called Rihan, told her she had two hours to write a text. She sent it to me via Facebook (I still have the first draft). She wrote four parts about the four countries, and the hardest was about Syria.

I called my friend Nadine Jazzar; she came to see me at night, at 11pm, asking about this idea. Next day, she got her camera. We were looking for a place to film and remembered that my father — who is an engineer — was constructing a villa. We asked him if we could film there. He accepted because it wasn’t yet painted. The walls were still raw; it suited us. And there were no windows or doors, so the wind was blowing in our hair as if we had put a fan. Everything worked out. I told my friend Rana Torany, who plays on the piano, which parts to take from each song, and which ones work well together in terms of tone. We went to the studio and recorded with the help of Fouad Yaghmour.

Then we travelled for the holidays to the United States and forgot a little about the recording. But Rihan told me we still need to edit it, saying she doesn’t feel like posting it. My mother encouraged us, asking everyday when we were going to post it. So finally we edited it with the help of Samer Wastin and posted it in October.

And we both went back to work. In the evening it was an explosion. The first day, 30.000 views. The third day, 250.000 views... TV stations in Sweden and the Arab world wanted to interview us. It was trending on BBC radio social media… It all happened so quickly, we weren’t ready, we were surprised, not understanding what was happening. Imagine you do something and then you get thousands of views and comments and messages from people you don’t know.

So how did you deal with it?

I was happy but it became too much. I didn’t have time to answer everyone. There was pressure and stress from the media all through October, November and December. We recorded various talk shows in Syria and Lebanon on different channels.

Rihan, Georges (who played on the cello), Nadine (the filmmaker) and I went to Tunis for the opening of the Carthage film festival. The event was broadcasted live: my parents were watching me on the Tunisian national TV.

The Syrian embassy was closed in Tunis. And as our country and our flag were marginalized we were touched to be representing Syria in this opening act of a big festival in Tunis. The reception was amazing. The Tunisians are very cultured, they follow the news in the Middle-East and are supportive of the Palestinian cause. They are all activists, and they want to be with us with all their hearts. I am happy I will go back to Tunis for a concert in December.

But even after this success, you decided to continue your own way…

After “To our countries” I got offers from production companies and producers and I met with them. I was this excited young girl and told them very clearly that my dream is to create good music. But I discovered quickly that they only do commercial music.

Then I met my future manager, Houssam, during a visit for a talk-show in T-Marbouta, a restaurant in Beirut; he used to manage a band I like in Damascus. Then I went back to Sweden. I wanted to sing but I didn’t know where to start, so I asked Houssam if he had time to manage me. He had just finished his contract with the other band and had applied for a PHD in Australia and got a rejection. So he told me “Come, let’s work together”. Everything happens for a reason.

I Love your Hands
June 2015
Music Producer: Houssam Abdul Khalek

I wanted to do my first single, and had no money for that so we turned to crowd-funding. It was a way to engage with the people and to show them that I want to sing with them, for them, with their help because I’m not going to turn to big labels and production companies who would make me sing their own songs, their own music. So let’s get together and do music that resembles us.

In the Arab world, very few people do crowdfunding so they were asking what it was, but finally it worked and people were telling me happily that they are producers in “I love your hands”.

Sleep, my darling, sleep
December 2015
Lyrics: Mowafak Nader
Music: Mohannad Nasr
Music Producer: Houssam Abdul Khalek

So “I love your hands” was your first single in 2015. When did you settle in Lebanon?

At the time I was travelling back and forth from Sweden to Lebanon. Houssam was following-up on things here in Lebanon. My parents were so worried for me to be singing, because we don’t have professional singers in my family. And we didn’t know anyone in Lebanon. I will always be their baby, so I wanted to make it easy for them. Coming two weeks to Lebanon, going back one month in Sweden. Then two months in Beirut, one month in Sweden. Gradually. One day my mother asked me: “Did you move to Beirut? You’re so sneaky, you did it so slowly.” I said it was just for one song, then just for one concert. And now just for one album…

You had a busy summer: you toured all northern Europe with Damon Albarn and the Orchestra of Syrian Musicians, and you recorded your album…

Yes, the album is the project of my life right now. It is my biggest investment. My biggest passion is to create music because everybody can sing. It’s not about your voice. Your voice is a gift. It’s about what you do with it. The biggest challenge these days in the music industry is to do good music because there are so many good voices. Many people can sing, take lessons have vocal coaches. You can see this in our Arab talent shows. Each season, there are hundreds of voices, so many good voices. What is the challenge? It’s not about singing Oum Koulthoum. It’s about making music. We need music to have a renaissance in the arts. We have a recession in the societies of the Arab world, but we can overcome it with good music because it’s a circle: Art is affected by war and regression. It’s the reason we have bad music in the mainstream. No focus on the lyrics. And for me, the lyrics are more important than the melody. The lyrics are the idea.

A sea between us, first single from the album
Written by: Khaled Haber
Arranged by: Rayan Haber
Music Producer: Houssam Abdul Khalek

All the texts in the album are so heartfelt that when I read them, I need to fall in love with them, because if I don’t do, they won’t reach the people in the same way.

We picked songs that suit each other in the album. There is a red thread connecting all in the lyrics style. 9 songs in Arabic, half of them in classical Arabic, half of them in Syro-Lebanese dialect. I like classical Arabic, it gives weight, and at the same time colloquial Arabic is close to people. Many of the songs are about Syria but they are suitable to all countries as so many are in pain today. Even the romantic songs have patriotic themes. I tried to balance, making it half sentimental half patriotic, but couldn’t. I found myself choosing instinctively the patriotic songs because I feel we need this right now.

For example, I fell in love with the text of “Belt yourself with my scent”. I felt that the melody was already in my mind, I just needed to sing it out. I felt it had a lot of fierceness and resolve: belt yourself with my scent, belt yourself and fight with my scent. We usually speak about exploding belts. I felt the military rhythm and said we are going to call it the Levantine woman’s anthem.

Belt yourself with my scent

Most of the poets and composers in the album are Syrians still living in Syria. They are resisting the war with literature, art and beauty. It’s not just that I want to support them. I want their voices to be heard. They reflect so much of what the Syrian people go through whether they’re living inside or outside of Syria. That is why I chose to work with them. Some of them are known, others are new but they are really really talented.

The person who is doing the arrangements for all the album is Rayyan el Haber. He is Lebanese. He has been with me since day one. He arranged “I love your hands” and composed it. We’re such a good team, on the musical part he knows exactly what instruments work on my voice, the speed of the songs, everything… He’s just a magician. Also a lot of people worked with love on the album. Like the Graphic Designer Diala (laughs)… And of course Houssam Abdel Khalek, the music producer. He is in every decision, every detail.

And he wrote one of the songs: “Zenobia”. She was the queen of Palmyra. It was at her time that they had brought the stones and constructed Palmyra. When ISIS destroyed so many things in Palmyra we were all devastated; it is our heritage… So Houssam wrote this song about Zenobia the queen who didn’t bow down to the Romans. She died for her country. We all have Zenobia inside of us. We will not die and no terrorist organization can take over our country. Zenobia is not in the stone, she is in the people. If we are still here we can rebuild everything.