Youmna Saba: Between Moon and Stars

Born in Beirut, Youmna Saba is a singer and songwriter. She started in 2006 “by accident” playing music at an opening of an art exhibition in Beirut. This was the first time she started playing in front of an audience and this was the first time she delved into songwriting. In 2014 she released her third album Njoum (Stars) which has not only enriched her musical journey but tells a story in itself.

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Home to great musicians like Fairouz and Omar El-Zenni, Beirut has a very rich and diverse music scene and is one of the main cultural centers of the region. Now in recent years it became home to bands and musicians such as Mashrou3 Leila and Zeid Hamdan. This is the enviroment where Youmna Saba finds herself in. To make things clear from the start, they all sound very different from each other.

In the beginning there was art

In the beginning she always had a passion for playing music and singing songs and she used to play the guitar with very basic chords but 2006 marked the beginning for Saba’s musical journey. Three days before the exhibition Saba was asked to play original songs. She started to write songs, and wrote her first two songs. This marked the beginning, and she told me “This is how I started writing songs and exploring music. It was very spontanous.“ she did not have much time to think about which direction she would choose.

“I have my guitar, I can sing, and it was easier for me to write in Arabic so that is why I chose to express myself in my own language.”

People reacted to her music very positively, although she did not have much experience in song writing yet. They liked what she was playing and this was the marking point for her from where to continue her journey in song-writing and expand on that.

Focusing on Music as an Art and a Subject  

At first she used to play out of her feelings and did a lot of improvisations, later on she structured and reflected more on the things she was doing.

This was the time when she learned to focus more on the language and theory of music. She started studying musicology at the Antonine University and entered completly into the matter. Her studies in musicology are reflected in her artistic development, although she focused on classical arabic music and its connection to visual arts. Being a student of musicology it made her understand better the structure and the reasons behind music.

In an interview with Alex Roxwell from Now she mentioned that her song Madd w Jazr (Ebb and Flow) on Njoum is a “clear combination of maqam bayati played on the oud and counterpoint, which is a Western way of composing.” Maqam Bayati  is a mode which  is  quite common especially in the Levant.

Concerning her studies at the  Antonine University  Saba explains that

“My studies gave me the knowledge of many different musical traditions and the tools to analyze music. Whenever I write something, I can go back to it and understand the process of what I actually did, and this makes it much more  interesting“

Influences and Music-Making

Usually, for a musician not only one genre or artist is influencing the musical development. This is the case with Saba as well. A lot of traditions and musicians have influenced her music, which is reflected in her own music. Regional Music from the 1960s and 1970s, to which she was introduced during the 80s, influenced her a lot. Although classical music doesn’t appear in her music, she was influenced indirectly by western classical composers such as Chopin and Mozart as well as by French song writers such as Barbara whose real name was Monique Andrée Serf (1930-1997).

 Telling a story Through Music: Njoum (Stars)

Her third Album Njoum is the culmination of her work until now and of her musical journey in general. The process and structuring behind Njoum is different because it actually tells a story not only by the lyrics but by the music she composed to it as well. She explained that it is “a much further advanced point  in the evolution of my music making. The song writing is different. Njoum is conceived as one piece .” The Story behind Njoum is a conversation between the moon and the stars, in the Arabic tradition the moon has an important symbolic meaning and is part of many poems and songs. In her own words Saba explains the story of Njoum: “It is the story about a girl who makes a deal with the moon. The moon promises her that her dream may come true but he will not deliver the promise. I use my voice to represent different characters and as the narrator of the story.”

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Using electric guitars, the oud and different sounds the music of Njoum is a quite dreamlike experience and it pulls you into music straight from the beginning and only lets you go at the end of the last note. It has more instrumental parts in it than words but the music itself is telling the story with the perplexing sounds of the various instruments she is using in the album alongside her strong voice.

This Album was actually developed during her stay in South Korea, where she worked with gayageum player Park Kyungso. During that time she also worked with Polish composer Piotr Kurek who influenced her music making for Njoum.

In addition to her collaboration in South Korea, she also worked with  Fadi  Tabbal. He helped her to record and mix her second CD Hal Bent Aabalha Tghanni (This Girl feels like Singing) which was a “series of experiments in home recording.” but they were recorded at Tabbal’s Tunefork Recording Studios in Beirut. Later on she mixed Njoum with visuals because she has a background in visuals herself and this works well for the overall representation of the Album. These were animated by Joe Elias, and Rana Rmeily with illustrations by Joseph Kai:

A Scene in Flux and Future Projects  

The music scene in Beirut has experienced several developments in the past years and especially now new bands and musicians are emerging and engaging with each other (See for Example the Band The Great Departed). Music can be a tool to give people hope and help to improve the way how to look at the world. Saba acknowledges this in saying that

“Music is an excellent tool to connect people, and the focus now should be on workshops and projects that target younger musicians from different backgrounds and establish connections between them; it would certainly impact society and how we interact with each other.”

Saba is not only making music, but she teaches music as well which gives her the chance to help students to understand the importance of music. To collaborate with other musicians and artists is important to her own musical journey and she wants to expand on this and wants to keep on learning as much as she can. She is currently working on her next Album which she hopes to release soon.

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