- Dana Dajani
If the rest of the 21st Liverpool Arab Arts Festival is to be judged by the standard of tonight’s launch, it’s going to be a fabulous week. The mayor, bright lights from cameras interviewing the great and the good, and the fabulous food in the intimate environment of the Royal Court Studio show this is something big. However, even with all the pre-show schmoozing removed, the quality of the performances tonight is so high it can hold its own wherever it’s staged, whoever is watching.
Mustapha Koriba, the affable and engaging chair of Liverpool Arab Arts Festival, offers a warm welcome to those assembled, before the artist in residence for this year’s festival, DANA DAJANI, performs three pieces with a natural confidence and warmth. Her presence on stage and delivery is hypnotic and is well worth searching out.
Then there is the main event: JULIANA YAZBECK. Tonight is the UK premiere performance of her debut record, 2018’s SUNGOD, which examines power, identity and gender inequality, while some traditional Arabic songs are retold, reimagined. SUNGOD is an album comprised of ideas that challenge expectations through lyrics delivered with spirit. LAAF’s explanation hits the nail on the head describing it as an “unlikely but mesmerising fusion of spoken word, otherworldly electronics, and haunting Levantine vocals”.
Yazbeck is poised on stage. While in stature she is diminutive, she commands the room; her voice is powerful and has a purity and clarity which is absolutely beautiful. She sings in Arabic and English, sometimes switching between the two in the same song. She performs her favourite song from the album, White Roses, adding she knows she isn’t meant “to have favourites”, but it’s clear why it’s this one she loves most. The lyrics and their delivery are testament to her great talent and skill.
When she speaks, she is warm and engaging, and the audience hang on her every word, every note. She regales them with anecdotes such as how she wrote the lyrics for one song as part of her Lebanese exam when she was 17, and was subsequently accused of plagiarism, such was its accomplishment. She also speaks animatedly about how her first visit to Liverpool has seduced her and opened her eyes to its many charms, adding that she would love to move here.
Without exception, her band are talented musicians; they stand out without overshadowing the voice, complimenting each other despite their differences in tone; the throbbing bass and distorted synth contrast against the purity of her voice. It’s perfect combination. The sound mix and volume is perfect, especially considering the space is relatively small with a layout that could potentially hamper acoustics. This is a group who’re well drilled, refined, and obviously know what they are doing.
While the majority of the audience are familiar with her work and music, for those for whom this is new, it is a wonderful introduction to the artist. The gig is the perfect length – leaving people wanting more and with the intention of listening to more as soon as possible. A perfect springboard for the rest of the festival’s programme.