It is common to lament the implosion of the big-name music industry, which provided a certain amount of stability and support for orthodoxy in the art. There is no denying that this situation has resulted in some uncertainty and financial difficulty for some, but it has also opened up a plethora of new ways of thinking about music. As a result, many new opportunities have arisen for those who have abandoned the confines of narrow niche and genre constraints and who wish to take advantage of the rich cornucopia of musical traditions that thrive on our planet. Some have exploited it to create bland “world music” that bleaches out any individuality and risk, while others creatively expand their own art to selectively embrace other traditions. Among the latter one must surely count the Syrian-raised New Yorker Gaida.
Gaida’s career and life are emblematic of the internationalization of life and art. Born in Germany, she was raised in the ancient metropolis of Damascus, a Syrian city whose history can be traced for millennia. Damascus was always a place of great interchanges, as it has thrived as a major trading center, but it is also a very traditional site, in many ways untouched by the commercial trappings of modern life. From this rich background Gaida moved on to the Western world and settled in Detroit, where she studied classical singing at Wayne State University.
She began singing in public in the Motor City, but then moved to New York, where she began to truly expand her musical horizons, embracing new idioms, including jazz, avant-garde improvisation, and Brazilian music. In New York she encountered players such as cellist Rufus Cappadocia, who has long experimented with combining elements of Near Eastern and Balkan musical traditions into the world of creative improvisation. Perhaps most importantly, she made connections with the Iraqi-American trumpeter Amir ElSaffar, who comes out of the world of modern jazz, but whose music changed dramatically when he went back to the land of his ancestors to study Iraqi musical traditions.
Gaida’s music is kaleidoscopic in nature. She can sing traditional popular Middle Eastern music, paying homage to her great predecessors, the vocalists Umm Kulthum and Fairuz, but she never directly imitates either of them. She can then switch to an enchanting bossa nova-style song, rendered in Arabic rather than Portuguese, combining guitar and trumpet with Middle Eastern hand percussion. She may follow this with an up-tempo jazz tune or a bluesy ballad. There is a danger in such eclecticism, which can result in an exploitative smorgasbord of unblended tastes, but Gaida offers a centered musical identity that allows her to bring together seemingly heterogeneous styles and traditions in an original and convincing manner. Her traditional vocal education serves her well, providing her with a strong technique, but this is just the foundation of her art, which encompasses a rich personal sound that somehow combines melancholia with exuberance, perhaps enriched, in its roots, by the “breezes of Damascus,” as she herself puts it. Gaida will be doing two shows at the Kerrytown Concert House on August 14.