It's a Thursday evening in Aarhus, Denmark, and at a large concert hall called the Musikhuset an intimidating crowd of dignitaries has gathered, expecting to seeing some inspired alternative rock. Instead, a small Arab woman strides into the spotlight, takes a seat at the front of the very wide stage and, after a dramatic pause, proceeds to tap a goblet-shaped drum. As Simona Abdallah walks triumphantly away five minutes later, with applause still echoing around the building, her progress is halted by a mustachioed, slightly manic stranger intent on curtailing her post-performance bliss.
"The guy ran after me," Abdallah recalls. "He was very stressed out, and said: 'Hey Simona! We love your music. Would you please play with us?'" The man, it turned out, was Casper Clausen, the leader of the hugely popular Danish rock/electronica collective Efterklang, whose headline show was due to start a few seconds later. There was little time for rehearsal, then. "I was saying: 'Er, but which kind of genre is it? Can I prepare for a little bit?' But they were just about to go on. I said: 'OK, let's do it!' The thing is, none of the other 10 guys on stage knew about it, so when I came on drumming they were going: 'What is going on here?' But it was an amazing experience. I love to challenge myself."
There have certainly been a few obstacles in her career to date. Born in Germany to Palestinian parents and raised on the gritty outskirts of Aarhus, Abdallah has been forced to forge a path away from the eyes and ears of her own community. The gifted percussionist is a rare female player of the ancient Arab hand drum the darbuka, which is "very masculine", she concedes. "I think the reaction would be different if I was sitting there playing a piano."
And yet, away from the pretty Danish city, Abdallah is much in demand, her rhythmic talents helping to highlight an unsung facet of her adopted country's culture. Efterklang aside, most outsiders equate Danish music with Europop, and are certainly unaware of any Middle Eastern influence - as, indeed, are most Danes. Crossing cultural borders is the prime focus for Abdallah, who uses both Arab folk musicians and modern house music to accompany her live beats. She plays with belly dancers and breakdancers, indie bands and immigrant collectives, and is about to tour the world with the Middle Eastern crossover diva Natacha Atlas. A solo tour of Africa is also lined up, as is a move to San Francisco once her debut album, the aptly titled Navigator, is complete. In fact, the only place Abdallah is nervous of playing is her hometown. "I keep a low profile in Aarhus," she says. "People want me to play here, but it's very challenging."
As a teenager she would practise the darbuka in her bedroom and happily perform for family and close friends, who were "so excited because it was so unusual". The word spread, and she was asked to perform at a wedding party for a family the Abdallahs barely knew. Unfortunately her mother took the call. "After she hung up she was freaking out: 'I don't want the Arab people to say that I have a daughter who has a drum!' She was really upset, so from that day on, no drumming. I practised when I was alone in the house."
Eventually she moved to Copenhagen, and surreptitiously began building a career. "But for the first 20 performances I was scared because my parents didn't know about it and I have a huge family here. Huge." While Abdallah generally avoids Aarhus gigs, this latest event was too important an opportunity to miss. The Musikhuset concert was the curtain-raiser for SPOT, an annual music festival and meeting place where international music executives rub shoulders with local fans and artists. Most of the latter acts are of the dominant indie-rock or electronica persuasions, but SPOT has widened its net this year and dedicated a stage to Denmark's eastern voices.
Abdallah was a late addition to the opening-night extravaganza. Her main performance took place the following evening at the smaller Archauz venue. The Kurdish R&B project Li Dine, the Turkish folk-pop quartet Grup 2000 and the Palestinian wedding singer Houssam Zamzam, all of whom are based locally, also appeared. It was an intriguing selection of artists, initially discovered by a novel Aarhus-based night called Real.
Conny Jorgensen, who runs both Real and this festival stage, says: "We walked around vegetable stalls, we talked to cab drivers, and we said: 'Listen, if we wanted to put on an act playing Lebanese music or Kurdish music or Turkish music, who would you recommend?' We found that a lot of people recommended the same artists, again and again." Abdallah was in the stalls for Zamzam's act. Earlier, she'd given him advice about building a wider audience. In truth, he has a successful career already as leader of one of northern Europe's most popular Arab party bands, and a fervent fan base. The half-full Archauz crowd took a while to warm up to his synthesizer-based pop, but eventually there was some movement.
"Danish people don't dance as much," Zamzam laughed afterwards. "Arab people would all be up together." Abdallah is more familiar with mixed crowds. She also works with a collective called Missing Voices - "a group of immigrant women from Denmark and Holland who show that no matter where you come from you can be professional" - and this link led to her first professional gig in Aarhus, several years after she'd left. The tour show was to be promoted heavily around her hometown, so it was time to confess her career, to her mother first. It didn't go well.
"She said: 'If you are going to play those drums you are not my daughter any more,'" she sighs. "Then I called my father, and he was very silent. I said: 'I'm performing in Aarhus and I'd love if you'd come and support me.' So I come out, and sitting very close to the stage is my father. He got up, came up to the stage, then took out his camera. He kissed my hand and began to dance in front of the stage, while the rest of the Danish people are just sitting there. I was really touched."
Since then her mother has also been "accepting it a little", Abdallah smiles weakly, but two older siblings still offer "no supportive energy". Thankfully, her more positive younger brother showed up for the Archauz gig, and the moral support was welcome. With better-known acts appearing at other festival venues, there is always the fear of playing to an empty room, not that Abdallah would admit to it.
"I have no expectations from the crowd," she says firmly. "I get completely lost, living in my music. Sometimes I look so sad on stage " That night, though, she positively glowed. Every seat was filled, people lined the walls, and some even danced. As the set concluded and a standing ovation began, Abdallah just rose from her stool, raised her arms skywards, kissed her darbuka and walked away. This time there is no stopping her. Goodbye Aarhus, the world awaits.