Naima Shalhoub’s first album of original material, Siphr, covers a lot of emotional, geographical and musical ground. It plays like a suite and includes arrangements that draw on Middle Eastern and American modes. It also includes her reinvention of “Lamma Bada Yatathanna,” a song from Moorish Spain that’s more than 1,000 years old. The music was recorded in San Francisco, but Shalhoub said the idea behind it began brewing a few years before, during a trip to Lebanon, her parents’ birthplace.
“I went to Lebanon on tour in 2017 and connected with several grassroots organizations. I visited Roumieh Prison, with the help of Zeina Daccache of Catharsis, an organization working for justice in Lebanon. I facilitated a music session with 52 incarcerated men, similar to the work I’ve been doing in the women’s prison in San Francisco.
“We wrote lyrics together to blues based on how they felt about being incarcerated. I put it to a melody which became one of the songs on the album, Roumieh Prison Blues. I returned the next year to visit with family and start researching and exploring the themes for the album. The idea for Siphr was born in an apartment in Beirut.
“When I got back to Oakland, I reached out to my friend, Excentrik (aka Tarik Kazaleh, a Palestinian American multi-instrumentalist and producer, one of the founders of Arab-American hip-hop). I told him what I had in mind, and he said, ‘Let’s do it!’”
With the help of a grant from the Women’s Audio Mission in San Francisco, Shalhoub and Excentrik went into the studio, just prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. They planned the album release for March 2020, which had to be canceled due to the shelter-in-place order.
Siphr opens with “Remembrance,” an instrumental built around Excentrik’s oud and percussion improvisations and Shalhoub’s wordless vocal hook. The guitar lines on “Rivers in the Desert” are based on the rhythms of Gnawa music from southern Morocco. It’s a slow, soothing tune, a dream about bringing water to the desert. It’s sung in Arabic, with Excentrik’s guitar echoing softly in the background.
“My dad helped me arrange the melodic line. He has a way of singing, with traditional Arab tonality, that is very indigenous to the region he grew up in Lebanon. I don’t have it, since I grew up in the States.”
Bass player Marcus Shelby adds his propulsive bassline to “Distraction Suite.” It’s a blend of free jazz, R&B and funk that features Shalhoub’s scatting and piano playing and Excentrik’s inventive drumming. The song delivers a prayer for serenity in the midst of global discord.
Excentrik overdubbed layers of oud, guitar and percussion to mimic the sound of an orchestra on “Lamma Bada Yatathanna.” The song is in 10/8, with Shalhoub’s lilting Arabic vocal dancing around the beat. Politics take center stage on “Arab Amerikkki.” Its hip-hop rhythm supports a rapped dialogue between Shalhoub and Excentrik that describes the insidious way racism permeates the hearts and souls of the oppressed.
“As I was working on the album, the word ‘siphr’ kept coming to mind. It’s an Arabic word that can be translated as ‘zero.’ In mathematics, it’s the foundation of everything, a historical Arab contribution to the world that rarely gets acknowledged, but it also has a spiritual meaning to me. Grace, or the zero still point, is the foundation of everything one thinks or believes, the things one can’t see, but can feel. Excentrik helped to bring that vision to life with his deep understanding and musical knowledge of Arab and American music.”
Although she was surrounded by music since childhood, Shalhoub had no intention of becoming a performer. Her Lebanese parents played Arab music on the stereo, while she gravitated toward R&B.
“I took piano lessons starting at four, but stopped in middle school. I taught myself guitar in freshman year of college, but I can read and write music and had a foundation in theory from my early lessons. I was in a competitive vocal jazz ensemble in high school that sparked my interest in jazz, but due to other personal reasons I didn’t pursue music as a profession until I was in grad school. That’s when I wrote my first song. I started performing at concerts to raise money for victims of the earthquake in Haiti in 2010, and did many concerts to support a Free Palestine, so my activism and music were together from the beginning.”
With a master’s degree in postcolonial and cultural anthropology, she began working in the schools of the East Bay and became a restorative justice coordinator for the Oakland Unified School District.
“I saw the linkages between racial and economic injustices intersecting with schools and other institutions. Restorative and transformative justice brings us together to heal and change systems of oppression. Colonialism isn’t just something in the past, but continues today. I’ve always been moved to collaborate with Indigenous justice movements that focus on building power, remembrance and co-creating the systems of liberation we all deserve—to be able to love and be loved, to live on lands with dignity, honor and joy.”
A few years ago, Shalhoub began holding weekly “Music and Freedom” workshops for the women at the San Francisco County Jail. After a few months, she built a rapport with many of the women and suggested making a live recording of the songs they were singing. San Francisco was leaning towards the progressive side back then, and the sheriff gave Shalhoub permission.
“I invited my band, including Excentrik on Oud and guitar, Aaron Kierbel on percussion, Marcus Shelby on bass and Isaac Ho on keys. I opened with a freedom song—‘Keep Your Eyes on the Prize’—that I rearranged and sang a few originals. Some of the women who wanted to recite poems and tell their stories came on stage with me. It became my debut album (Live in San Francisco County Jail, released on her website and the usual streaming platforms). That experience got me thinking about making a record of my original songs and finally led to Siphr.
“Art is always growing and evolving, as is culture. I want to continue to build a wide community through my music and community work—in the Bay and beyond.”
Siphr is available at naimashalhoub.bandcamp.com and on the artist’s website: naimashalhoub.com.