Paired with an arresting jazzy production of off-kilter percussion and lurching bass lines, her first single Ghurba created a buzz among Arab indie circles
Iraqi Canadian singer-songwriter Nova Emad on her debut album
Among the glut of high-profile Arabic albums released over the past few weeks, ranging from Lebanese music stalwart Fairuz and veteran Egyptian singer Mohammed Mounir to Syrian chanteuse Assala, it would be easy to skip Nova Emad’s debut album.
You’d better get to it: not only is Khayef Aleh, released through the Dubai-based major label Universal Music Mena, an exquisite collection of oriental folk songs, but it marks the arrival of a new talent who also happens to be the daughter of a famous and influential Iraqi musician.
Born in Basra, the “late 20-something” Emad is the daughter of Seta Hagopian, known as the ‘Warm voice of Iraq’, a singer who made her name during Iraq’s golden cultural age in the 1960’s and ‘70’s and fused western elements like jazz and pop melodies with Iraqi folk songs.
“That was a totally different time. One of her first songs she sang was using guitars and drums instead of a lute, and those things in Iraq were like a revolution,” says Emad.
“And she was always talking about love and passion. Her songs are full of life and hope. It was a time when Iraq was at the peak of everything,” she adds, almost wistfully, from her home in Toronto.
“When I started to sing, I came at a time when Iraq had been already through wars. It has been through the Gulf War, the Iran-Iraq War and the United States invasion. I don’t have family in one place. I have family all over the world and nearly everybody I know is away from people in Iraq. So there is much anger and agony. My mother and I are from two different generations and we have different stories.”
Indeed, where Hagopian helped to introduce a new sound to a united Iraq, Emad is, instead, channelling the country’s famed folk tradition to appeal to an Iraqi diaspora torn apart by war.
Emad herself has been touched by conflict. After her father, a director for television programmes, couldn’t find work to sustain the family as a result of the first Gulf War, they relocated to Doha, in 1997. After the second Gulf War led to the demolition of their house and the death of friends and relatives, Nova abandoned plans to return to her homeland and instead joined her sister to forge a new life in Canada.
Singing from a young age – “I used to mimic my mum’s voice,” she recalls, it was a gnawing sense of dislocation that pushed her into songwriting full-time. “I think I was just trying to make sense of my situation,” Emad says.
“I was just working different jobs, but that never really affected me. I mean, life is life and you have to get on with it. The hugest part was knowing that a few of my friends died in war, or knowing that this person who used to give lectures for my biology classes was killed because he was a translator, or knowing that our house was demolished in a missile attack. I found that difficult to deal with.”
The emotions came to the fore in 2007 when Nova heard her parents were denied a visa to Canada, scuttling a five-year family reunion. “It was done in the last minute. There is a saying in Iraq when something like that happens, and that is “It swagat el dunyah bi wajhi”, meaning “Everything just turns to black.”
Distraught, Emad composed her first single, Ghurba (Longing) in 2012, in just one sitting. Using a line from the 19th century Iraqi folk standard Shemali Wali, the evocative track introduces us to Emad’s lyrical technique, by which she pens a fictional story to express her turmoil.
“That original song is basically about someone who feels alone and without someone to look after them,” she says.
“I asked myself that if I take this one line from the song and apply it to what I am going through today, how would I express it? So I wrote that song in a way that talks about a longing for home and missing my family.”
Paired with an arresting jazzy production of off-kilter percussion and lurching bass lines, Ghurba created a buzz among Arab indie circles.
That reception also encouraged Emad to further fuse her husky Levant vocals with various musical styles, ranging from funk (Diferente) to flamenco (Kilma) and trance, as in the club-ready Emotions.
With such sonic adventurism on show, the deep sounds of Khayef Aleh may come as a shock to some of Emad’s fans.
The serene opener Ya Teir drips with tasteful qanoon riffs and yearning strings, while Qarraret Ansak is almost cinematic with its restrained percussion and the smoky sounds of the ney. On top of it is all is Emad’s vocals, which are as agile as they are hefty. It’s the kind of music that requires the listener to lean in and be patient in order to admire the riches.
The enigmatic appeal of the album also lies in Emad’s use of the dynamic Iraqi dialect, a language style she feels is deeply underrated.
Most of the songs find Emad adopting a Baghdadi accent, which she says is smoother. However, for the title track – a real left-turn due to its spacey keyboards and stuttering drum patterns – and the up-tempo swagger of Atanish’ha, she adopts a Basra dialect “because it is punchier and more rhythmic”.
“People get scared when you use the Iraqi dialects.
“They complain that it’s not elegant enough, unlike, say, the Lebanese or Egyptian dialect,” she says.
“But I find the Iraqi dialect has much more to give you, as a singer, because of the way we use the words. We can use different words in different meanings. We have our own unique way of showing emotions.
“One word, you can show happiness and sadness just by the way you say it and by the way you pronounce it.”
Emad disagrees with the suggestion that in Khayef Aleh she is embracing a more conservative sound. She explains that all her songs are signposts in an artistic pursuit to find herself among various cultures. More importantly, while she remains away from her parents and Iraq, Emad says Khayef Aleh is the sound of her finally finding and making some sense of her surroundings.
“When I started I didn’t want to be compared to my mum in any way. I wanted to do my own thing and make music that would appeal to someone that had left Iraq 20 years ago, with their children growing up in Europe or Canada or the US, and who basically cut their roots to the Arabic music,” says the singer.
“Now what I want to do is connect the dots where I bring in my culture, mix it or fuse it with the music that’s here. I want it to be music that not only a western audience can hear and enjoy, but if you’re an Arab and grew up in an Arab home, you can also understand it and say, ‘Oh, I grew up listening to something similar to that.’”
Khayef Aleh by Nova Emad is out now on Universal Music Mena. You can also stream it online at www.anghami.com