Using the term sensual is an understatement in describing Laila Sabbagh’s music. For a significant portion of the time she’s singing, she smiles slightly and her eyes are closed. Her hands wave slowly in the air like she’s playing a floating, invisible piano, except for the times she pushes her curly black hair away from her face.
Laila’s voice has the ability to transform the chic, contemporary Maestro bar in the Webda neighborhood into a scene from a 1950’s movie set in Cuba. Her Spanish weaves around the guitar, cello and congas like an undulating thread. Laila and her band of the past 3 years, the Candeza Group, worship the intimacy of the ¾ time signature all evening, and the patrons in the bar sway dutifully to their sound. Afterwards, Laila speaks smoothly but quickly when I talk with her; it’s clear the adrenaline coursing through her from being on stage hasn’t completely dissipated as we speak.
Laila, 27, was born in Galilee, in northern Palestine. She started singing when she was three. “Since I was a little girl I listened to Latin music. We had no Internet, nothing, it was 25 years ago. There was a program on the radio that played world music, and whenever they played Latin music I recorded it on a cassette. So I had a small repertoire of about 20 or 30 songs [on tape], it was a lot at that time. So after that I was dreaming all the time.”
As a student, Laila decided she wanted to study medicine; it’s the kind of decision that would thrill any parent. “The good girl, the smart one who has high marks in high school,” she describes herself. “But I just couldn’t make it, I didn’t like it. I didn’t start [Medical school] even.” It was one day before her University exams when she decided to cancel everything give her dream a shot. That’s the kind of decision that’s better summarized as a leap of faith. “I could imagine myself only on stage… but I’m so lucky to have parents that are so open-minded, they trust me [and] they know I’m a strong woman.” Laila was 20 when she decided to dedicate herself to a career in music.
Laila worked to make her dream come true, taking baby steps. She began working as a music teacher, but the experience quickly became quite enough for her. “Because if I’m a music teacher I have to be committed to the school, university or the college, so it’s not so easy to travel around the world, only on the holidays. Music needs so much sacrifice, so I just quit my job as a teacher and I’m performing now.” She describes her first two concerts as nerve-wracking, but she experienced the excitement in the crowd, it gave her the strength to continue and give more with each performance. “As an Arab woman, it’s not so easy to be a professional singer. Working at night, dancing on stage and singing, especially to be a musician it’s not easy… It’s a nice thing that Ammani people are so open to the word music…. I’m trying to be more flexible with the mentality of the new generation and to hold on to the traditions that we were taught.” Sabbagh has performed all over Jordan in numerous festivals. She’s performed in Norway, Romania and Spain as well. She quips: “The only Spanish singer in the Arab world… I think.”
Spanish flamenco and Arabian music are tied because of historic Islamic influence in Andalusia. “They have three scales, in Arabic it’s called nahawand and there’s kurd and hijaz as well. And these three are used in Spanish music. But the Latin music has nothing to do with Arabic music, it’s so distant, she says. “But as a salsa and Latin dancer– I’m a dancer too– my passion was taking me more to the Cuban and Latin music, not the Spanish one. The Spanish music was because I’m more similar with it; it’s closer to my music. I was a classical Arabic singer at the beginning. I started singing with an orchestra of 40 or 45 people playing music behind me. Then I chose to make this mixture between the Latin, Spanish and Oriental music into something that looks more like me.”
Laila’s personality reflects the cultural crossroads she now strives for in her music. Everywhere she’s traveled, she’s had to fight for her music. It’s taken enormous patience and stubbornness to continue her dream of making and performing her hybrid music, and she’s done it with tact and charm along the way. “I’m a fighter, but I’m smooth. A smooth fighter,” she says, laughing.“I’m not aggressive… as an Arab woman that has chosen to perform only, in the Arabic world… I have to be respectful at the same time. This is the hardest part.”
She describes her main struggle as being an artist attempting to open doors in a closed musical and cultural environment.
Laila released an album rooted in Arabic music last year, Ayqithini. “It’s an album with classical Arabic with a bit of fusion… the rhythms are a bit of a mix between the old classical Arabic and the new generation.” Currently, Laila has two singles “under construction”’ one of the two is a collaboration with a Danish-Palestinian friend who is also a composer. He’s written English lyrics while she’s written Spanish ones. The description alone sounds spectacular. “As we say in Spanish, soy una mujer Palestina con un alma Latina, it means I’m a Palestinian woman but with a Latin spirit. So I’ve tried to make this make this mixture between both and people started to like it, to accept it and to ask more and more.”