Lisa Said combines her musical passions on new EP The First Time, Long Time
When Lisa Said embarked on her new, cross-cultural recording project, the singer was well aware that its clash of sounds might perturb some listeners. Those concerns were eased, however, by an early test audience who were definitely not fans of Said’s previous work: her family and their friends.
“I didn’t share with them the music I was making before – I didn’t think they’d like it,” says Said, a Tennessee native, with North African roots. “The new record, I tested it with Egyptian families I saw over a holiday back in September. I was watching them and they reacted like: ‘It’s Arabic music,’ and that, to me, was validation. Their shoulders were moving. That was nice to see.”
Now based in Washington, DC, the Egyptian-American singer-songwriter is finally fulfilling her distinctive musical destiny, after years of performing in regular pop-rock groups. Those bands were fun, but something was missing: the beats of her heart.
On her debut solo EP, First Time, Long Time, Said brings her musical passions together, adding traditional North African percussion to classic American folk-rock. Will US audiences accept this fusion?
“Maybe it’s jarring, but I fought for it,” she says. “Egyptians, we’re very rhythm-based. Those rhythms need to engage us.”
Said’s parents moved to Tennessee from Cairo “about 1970” and her upbringing included a spell in the blues-rock hotbed of Memphis. Local sounds made an impact, while “most of the Arabic/Egyptian music we got was from tapes. When I went back to Egypt in around 1996 I started collecting tapes from my cousins. They told me who was cool”.
The aspiring musician also acquired “a tabla from Cairo and a doumbek”, but learning to play those traditional drums was “a disaster”, she admits – classical tutors were on completely different wavelengths. Eventually, last year, she found Andrew Toy, a versatile drummer schooled in Arabian percussion, who shared her enthusiasm for experimentation.
“It was a revelation – he can play a drum kit with a doumbek attached, so the sound is happening all at once,” she says.
That clash of styles is immediately apparent on the EP’s opening track, Been Around, a melancholic folk-rock song backed with frenetic Arabic beats – think of The Eagles, if Hossam Ramzy replaced Don Henley on drums.
The EP was helmed by notable punk producer Don Zientara. He also embraced the East/West crossover approach - the collection contains occasional splashes of sitar.
“It’s what Americans might expect,” says Said with a smile, “a comfort instrument that’s eastern, rather than an oud, which ideally I would have included – but I don’t know any oud players, yet.”
She hopes the EP will act as a calling-card to other open-minded musicians, in advance of a full album next year, the next stage of a very positive experiment.
“I don’t know yet what will work, with my voice,” says Said. “But I’d love to find an accordion player, oud and other drone instruments. That’s the hope.” Her family will almost certainly approve.
• The First Time, Long Time EP is out now
Updated: December 2, 2015 04:00 AM