Refining the Underground: The U.S. Debut of Lebanese Singer/Songwriter Mike Massy’s Quirky Cosmopolitan Sound
At Merkin Hall, April 25, 2013
Lebanese pianist, composer, and singer Mike Massy has an inborn agility that springs from his unique heritage: Classically trained in both Western and Middle Eastern canons, enthralled with the cosmopolitan worlds of jazz, chanson, and good old pop, the young artist has carved out a space for himself and for a different sound in a tough scene. And done so with striking delicacy.
Massy is one of a small handful of “underground” Lebanese musicians just winning a foothold in the regional mainstream. His songs can move from an elegant string quartet (“Khalasna Ba’a”), to a sultry call-and-response between piano and his soaring voice, from distinctly Eastern Mediterranean pulse to slow-burning ballads.
“I am mostly influenced by my musical background in Classical and Baroque music, from my conservatory training, but inspiration also comes from the radio,” Massy explains. “Lebanese people listen and dance to everything. We’ve been occupied by France, by the British, by the Ottomans, and all these influences come naturally as a heritage for my generation. I didn’t have to figure out how to mix it. I simply refined what was already around me.”
This distillation of Lebanon’s multifaceted music is coming to the U.S. for the very first time, as Massy performs with a backing trio (piano, percussion, upright bass) at Merkin Hall on April 25, 2013 (presented by the John Paul II Mission). In a program combining Massy’ originals with Arabic classics, jazz standards, and even an unexpectedly gorgeous, Middle Eastern-inflected Madonna cover (“Frozen”), Massy will give American audiences an introduction to an overlooked, increasingly creative, cosmopolitan scene that has defied war and hardship.
Despite childhood spent in bomb shelters and dire poverty, Massy still managed to gain a broad, rigorous musical education, beginning with piano lessons as a boy. The radio provided solace and, at the same time, a constant reminder of war, as harsh news broke through the French and American pop, the Arab classics that make up the musical landscape of Lebanon.
Later, Massy trained at the conservatory, studying Arabic Opera. He became fascinated by both Western Baroque music and melodically complex Arab-Andalusian mouwachahat songs. This training, combined with the natural sonic multiculturalism of Beirut, drove Massy to bring his many musical loves together.
He can sing in Arabic with jazz-inflected polish, or turn a pensive standard like “Nature Boy” into an evocative, filigree statement, thanks to his lithe tenor and thoughtful use of ornamentation, instrumentation, and mode. While drawing on deep emotions, Massy often uses quirky imagery—both in his lyrics and his music videos—and isn’t afraid to poke a little fun at Lebanese traditions. One of the English-language pieces Massy will perform in New York, “I’m Wise,” gently satirizes the Lebanese dabke linedance, launching into a humorous account with the traditional exclamation of joy and excitement, “owf!”
The combination has garnered an enthusiastic response, one Massy says he never expected, in a country where concert culture is still emerging and alternatives to cookie-cutter pop are few and far between. After the release of his album Ya Zaman (2011), he won the Murex d’Or, the top award for musicians and actors in the Middle East and North Africa, and he has taken the airwaves by storm.
Regardless of the genre or approach, Massy takes his cues from the greats, like Fairouz, whose music has impacted young singers across the Arab world and whose restraint proves instructive and inspiring.
“You need a lot of maturity not to oversing and try to show everything you have,” reflects Massy. “It takes a lot of effort to search for the point where the song becomes central, not the technique or beauty of the voice. Fairouz is on stage to sing and not to show people how beautiful her voice is. That’s true artistic maturity.”
Massy makes sure his ornamental and vocal virtuosity are in service to the songs themselves, whether he’s discovering new sides to familiar international tunes or seeking the right arrangements for his own works. “You have to find the balance between innovative, interesting arrangements and compelling songwriting,” notes Massy. ”My sound is really different from the other music on the Lebanese scene. My songs are not trendy; I try to find the strongest, simplest approach and let it speak for itself, in hopes of creating something timeless.”