The Jordanian Singer-Songwriter Ruba Saqr

Against Self-censorship in Arts and Music

Ruba Saqr sings her self-composed folk songs as authentically as her vocal improvisations inspired by Islamic mysticism. She is one of Jordan's most promising musical talents. Martina Sabra met her in Amman

Ruba Saqr (photo: Ruba Saqr Facebook)
"Let's just produce our songs and see what happens!" Says 33-year-old Ruba Saqr

​​ Some refer to her as the Jordanian Joan Baez. Others are reminded of the Algerian-French songwriter Suad Massi. Ruba Saqr, born in 1975, has nothing against such comparisons, but she would rather be seen for what she is: "First and foremost I'm Ruba Saqr. I have my own stories to tell with my own music."

One of Ruba Saqr's own stories is, among others, the Sufi tradition of her family, which she recently worked into a musical programme. Since summer 2008, together with her mother, the poet Zulikha Aburisha and the pianist Zeina Azouqa, Saqr has been presenting songs and vocal improvisations inspired by Islamic mysticism under the title "Three Women Only".

Roots of Islamic mysticism

Religious and non-religious audiences have reacted in a similarly enthusiastic way to the texts and the vocal improvisations. "I'm not religious myself but Islamic mysticism is part of my roots," explains Saqr.

"My grandfather was a Sufi sheikh from Syria; my grandmother was one of his students. Because I spent a lot of time with her as a child I sort of grew up with this tradition. As a teenager I wasn't that interested in it. But at some point I began to interview my relatives in order to find out more about my family history."

Ruba Saqr's greatest strength is her directness. When she sings about the minor and major emotional catastrophes of every-day life – from love woes to religious doubts to the fear of a bomb attack – there's no emotional distance between her and her audience.

Exaggerated fear of repression?

"I'm a sad lily in your garden/a window open in the wind/a child's toy dipped in a puddle of blood," one of her songs goes. Saqr's texts are based on clear, memorable images. "When I do a song, it's the feeling that comes first," Ruba Saqr says about how she works.

photo: Martina Sabra
Ruba Saqr in August 2008 at a concert in Amman. The year before she won the UNESCO music prize for "Best Innovative Performance Bridging Traditional and Contemporary Traditions"

​​ "I usually write a song when something special happens to me. Then I stay home and lock myself up until the song is finished. I never work from my head; my lyrics come from my heart."

The most important thing when writing songs, she says, is not to shackle oneself to content. "Some socio-critical or politically-oriented texts aren't that bold at all. But the writers are really afraid of being offensive," says Saqr. "I think the apparent threat only exists in their minds. Most of the time, being afraid of being censored is exaggerated."

Ruba Saqr would like to see more courage: "Let's just produce our songs and see what happens!"

Limited possibilities at home

The 33-year-old Ruba Saqr is not new to the music scene in Jordan. As early as the Eighties she gave her first performances of folk, rock and heavy metal in Amman. In 1997 for the first time she performed her own compositions at the prestigious Jordanian Jerash Festival. Later she toured solo and in various formations throughout Jordan, the Arabian world and had individual shows in Europe.

Skyline of Amman, Jordan's capital (photo: dpa)
Culture and public life in Jordan's capital Amman is blossoming again

​​ Yet despite her continual work as a musician and the positive feedback she got from many of her colleagues and producers, for a long time Ruba Saqr couldn't make the decision to become a full-time musician: she earned her living as a journalist.

"On the one hand my family didn't agree that I should perform in public as a musician," she says. "On the other, I never had the technical means in Jordan to produce an album of internationally compatible quality. I simply couldn't imagine living from music full time."

Successful musical support

That in the meantime Ruba Saqr has given up her job and is dedicating herself entirely to music mainly has to do with "Music Matbakh" (Music kitchen), an ambitious project of the British Council in Amman. As part of this project Saqr received the first opportunity to work with international Arabian-born musicians in 2006, such as the Moroccan rapper BIGG.

"Although the group was put together externally and we didn't get together on our own initiative it was still a fantastic experience" Saqr says. For the first time I realised what I'm capable of and that I didn't want to do anything else but make music."

One other encouraging factor is that technical resources in Jordan are slowly becoming more accessible. Ruba Saqr now wants to invest all her energy in a project that her fans have been waiting a long time for: her first CD. The album is to be released in spring 2009.

Martina Sabra

© 2008

Translated from the German by Mý Huê McGowran

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