Artist of the Month #5: Maysa Daw
Taking off with the firebrand: all-star collaborations and the glory of deadlines
One of the most remarkable figures to have emerged from Haifa’s indie music scene in recent times, Maysa Daw is a versatile musician with unswerving talent. As well as her solo work and the release of debut album ‘Between City Walls’ in 2017, her collaborations with top musicians from the Levant such as DAM, The Synaptik, TootArd and Ministry of Dub-key, have brought her to new audiences across the world. Recently, she has lent her unique sound and energy to the exciting Swiss-Palestinian collaboration called Kallemi.
Marsm had the opportunity to catch up with Maysa and hear some of the stories behind her jet-propelled music career. The musician and singer (‘not only a rapper!’ she clarifies) exudes a unique blend of humility and confidence, with each new success seeming to come as a surprise. Expect nothing, says Maysa, and only get excited when things really take off. Having performed almost non-stop since 2011 she admits that the current restrictions have allowed her a bit of a break, which she doesn’t mind at all. At least for the meantime.
Magic before breakfast: friendship, music and the joy of a good deadline
In 2018, at the annual Palestine Music Expo (PMX), Maysa met Sandro Bernasconi of the renowned Swiss arts centre Kaserne Basel. Bernasconi told Maysa about his plans of organising an all-female artistic residency which would take place between Palestine and Switzerland. Was she interested in collaborating with Swiss musicians to create a new show? True to form, Maysa kept cool. Why not? She already knew Rasha Nahas, singer and guitarist from Haifa’s alternative music scene, who was going to be part of the project, and was always curious to work with fellow artists who could spur on new creative output and expression.
A few weeks later, it was all set. As well as Rasha, she would be working with Jasmin Albash, a Swiss-Palestinian electronic soul and keyboard player and La Nefera, a Swiss-Colombian rapper. They would spend five days in Ramallah writing and composing, followed by five days of rehearsals in Basel, culminating the residency with a live show at the Kaserne.
Packing up her car with all the instruments she could find, she set off for the residency house in Ramallah to meet the others. The group immediately connected. In our interview, Maysa’s enthusiasm about the project, and the love she has for the women involved, exudes an infectious positivity, excitement and drive. She reminisces about how they threw themselves into the music. From morning to evening, they wrote, created, jammed, and discussed. Maysa admits, the short time given to create their final performance made the creative process that much better, as they couldn’t afford to muse over every note; everyone had to bring their strongest and most sincere elements, learning how to put conviction forward and trusting the process. Maysa admits that she loves a deadline; when you have a limited amount of time, “you feel and directly release and that brings interesting things. The process never ends when you have all the time in the world”.
Her favourite song to emerge from the set was ‘Viajeras’, which sprung to life one morning in Ramallah as she woke up to the entrancing sounds of Jasmin and La Nefera experimenting with melodies in the living room. Squinting and dragging herself out of bed, a resonating mawwal* was ringing in her head. Ten minutes later, she, and the rest of the group, sat back in awe, reflecting on the new piece they had just crafted. To Maysa’s surprise, she would also end up playing percussion alongside singing and playing the guitar. On her way to Ramallah with a carful of instruments, she hadn’t quite expected that she would be playing most of them. To her surprise, she had everything it took to shape the backbone of the music. She is now Kallemi’s resident percussionist, holding down the calabash, qraqeb, drums, and cajon, giving the band a vivid, organic, yet outernational spirit.
“It’s the coolest thing that ever happened to me, this band. All the best things that happen to me in my career, in my personal life are spontaneous – the things that I plan are the hardest.”
The final show at the Kaserne in Basel wasn’t just sold out, it was electric. Both the band and audience shared an energy Maysa had never experienced before. Walking backstage after their performance, applause still resounding in the background, they looked at each other in silence. They knew this was going to be the beginning of a much longer story.
Last summer, less than a year later after the success of their Basel show, Kallemi self-produced their own residency in Italy, through a funding grant that supported emerging artists. While they had planned to record their debut EP this spring, they have decided to record remotely following several postponements due to the pandemic: Maysa recording in Palestine and the other three members to work from Berlin. “It’s hard to work apart”, Maysa admits, “I miss them so much”. Nonetheless, her enthusiasm has not been hampered. As she sees it, things work best for her when she goes with the flow.
Finding her place in DAM
Whilst the musicians of Kallemi clicked almost instantaneously, it was a distinct process for Maysa to take her place on stage with the legendary DAM, a group of older musicians who had been playing together for well over a decade, and whose music reflected an experience quite different from her own. The journey from a guest artist to irreplaceable band member didn’t quite happen over night, but once it did, it flipped Maysa’s world. To many, if not most people, Maysa’s work with DAM, Palestine’s veteran Arabic-rap crew, has now come to dominate much of her profile.
With the band racking up numerous popular collaborations with guest artists, DAM needed to find a semi-permanent touring singer that could sing the guest sections. Tamer Nafar, Mahmoud Jrere and Suhell Nafar, the three founding members, had spotted Maysa in various collaborations and she had worked with Mahmoud and Suhell on songs in the past.
Like many people her age, Maysa had grown up with DAM’s music and was a big fan, so this should have been a career highlight. Not yet, Maysa tells us – “I just thought, let’s see what happens…”. While intrigued by DAM’s offer, she knew that she should stay cool-headed, as it could end up only being one show. It was only once she was on stage and began actively shaping their live set that the excitement started “blowing through the roof”. Eight years after her first show with them, she is now a key member, and a staple of DAM’s firebrand new sound, rapping and versing her way through the latest album ‘Ben Haana Wa Maana’, released in 2019.
The other members of DAM have now become Maysa’s strongest pillars of support. “They’re like family! They even call up my father sometimes to chat about life and music”. In a certain way, working with DAM would help her reframe the context of the work she was doing. As gradual acceptance grew into a resilient friendship, Maysa overflows with gratitude for the support and strength her fellow band members have given her.
“I have encountered some shows where people were not being supportive. Horrible shows, in all the meanings of the word horrible. The DAM guys are the WORLD. We are really good friends and they are very, very dear to me, the people I go to for mental and musical support. Same with Kallemi, the connection between us is not just musical, it immediately felt like a family.”
“I’m not here to bring up your kids” – between mentor and musician
Feeling supported and loved by her fellow musicians has helped Maysa navigate some difficult terrain. With growing exposure and popularity, she finds the public eye staring her down more and more. With more projects come more visibility, more fans and more people to please.
“I was born singing, I’ve been singing for as long as I can remember. For me that was it. I saw at myself as a musician – not as ‘female’ ‘Palestinian’ – but then I started seeing how it was political.”
“People don’t seem to know the difference between [my projects] – once, I heard that a large group had travelled for hours to hear a DAM song, but they came to a Kallemi show! And sometimes people expect me to sing my solo songs at a DAM show. That put me in a hard spot for my solo work, and I felt I can’t do multiple genres. I tried to stick to one but it stressed me out a lot.”
With increasing coverage, Maysa had to constantly battle with the way others were representing her. Increasingly being identified as a ‘role model’, whether as a ‘strong female’, a Palestinian, a rapper, an activist, a musician, the way audiences were responding to her became hard to separate from how she thought of herself. The bigger the exposure, the greater the responsibility and the louder the criticism. Her breakthrough song with DAM ‘#Who_You_R’, supported by the UN’s Population Fund and the Danish government, proved to be a revelation for Maysa: she realised the impact she had and could have as a ‘role model’, frankly, whether she agreed to it or not. On one occasion, a mother wrote to tell her that she was upset that Maysa had used a ‘bad’ word in one of her songs as her child in second grade was listening to it. With mounting expectations and audience feedback reaching her inbox all hours of the day, she began to question what she was able to express in her music. Was it ok for a ‘strong female’ to sing about self-doubt and weakness? She kept seeing that her lyrics, or ways she portrayed herself were being misperceived. She started striving to make that image more precise.
Working on the DAM album ‘Hanna Wa Manna’ was a radical changing point. “It was one of the most important times of my life, it gave me the green light to say ‘don’t put more things on yourself. I decided never mind, I can do anything! It’s more than just the audience – it’s the way they receive you, and the way you receive their comments”.
“There are always people who are going to try to find a way to put you down. But there are also people and audiences who are really supportive, with their ideas of what I am, even though I am something else – but with all the support I’m getting from audiences, from people I work with and the people around me – it’s something that pushes me forward”
With the experiences of DAM and Kallemi behind her, what would Maysa do next? With the enthusiasm and gratitude she felt from the residency and the process of DAM’s new album, what would she love to do if she was given money to organise a similar residency (in an ideal world)? The answer was clear:
“I’d love more than anything to bring together artists from the Arab world. I’m lacking the options, I cannot travel to other countries [in the region]. What if I could just go and drive my car and meet someone from Lebanon?! I’d love to play on big stages – Cairo, Lebanon…”
When asked who she’d like to work with in the future, Maysa didn’t hold back, mentioning a constellation of regional talents such as Bu Kolthoum, Dina El Wedidi, Rotana, N3rdistan, Cairokee, Autostrad and Mashrou’ Leila; collaborating with Hiatus Kaiyote, one of her favourite bands, would be a dream come true.
Emanating a seemingly infectious energy and indelible talent, we see a vivid future for Maysa. Over the past decade, she has continuously proven her ability to be part of projects larger than her, turning dreams into her own reality. Whatever the future holds, we don’t doubt that she could make it happen… just make sure there’s a deadline.
* (A mawwal is a cornerstone feature of Arabic music and performance that sees improvised and emotive long-note singing, most often to introduce a song).
A warm thank you to all of those who submitted questions. To respect some privacy requests, we have kept them anonymous.
What female rappers or artists have inspired your style?
A lot of female artists inspired my musical Journey, whether in style or approach. I can think of a lot of names, but will name a few – Erykah Badu, Amy Winehouse, Nai Palm (Hiatus Kaiyote) Lauren Hill, Etta James. And lately, Sharihan, the legendary egyptian actress, singer and dancer. Although if talking specifically about rap, it was DAM that got me rapping:) I don’t think I would’ve ever rapped if it wasn’t for them.
What are some of the biggest challenges or wins you’ve experienced when using your music to speak on women’s rights from the community and/or the music industry?
There is a lot to talk about in this answer. I’ll touch on some of them. The challenges are when people try to censor us when performing, it’s happened a few times that the organizers asked us not to perform specific songs. My red line was when they asked us not to perform Jasadikhom because it’s too heavy and controversial for the crowd. For me it was either performing the song or I go home. We did perform it in the end, and it was very powerful. For me it was a win.
Also some of the challenges are meeting or talking with audiences; some may be fighting me and arguing, while others, on the other hand, feel too free with me because they think if I talk about these things then I have a “free” mindset. A lot of times guys from the audience would try to touch me or hug me in perverted ways because they think I’m okay with it. And of course, there are the people that interpret whatever we sing about in their own way, which a lot of times have nothing to do with what we are speaking about. Some expect me to always have the right answers and never be angry even if they talk in the shittiest way with me.
But talking about the wins (which top everything), the messages we receive from women across the world that feel that these songs talk about them, saying it gives them power and motivation; the messages we get from men and women saying how much they were affected by these songs with some opening conversations because they really do want to know more about it, and the personal power I feel in my own life and speech; talking about these subjects gave me more confidence in myself.
Who are your acoustic guitar influences?
I grew up listening to a lot of rock\soft\alternative rock bands such as Nickelback, Hinder, 3 Doors Down, Arctic Monkeys, Avril Lavine, and many, many more. That style of music is what inspired me to start playing guitar. Since then I’ve broadened my musical taste, and my inspiration comes from pretty much everywhere.
How did you start your journey? As a beginner, I would appreciate any advice.
I would just throw myself out there, wherever I can, in any songs that needed backup singing, choruses, or whatever it was that would get me into the studio (but nothing that contradicted my principles of course). Things escalated from there and I started performing with a few bands, each band with a different music style, which helped me learn a lot and broaden my style. I would just say, throw yourself out there. There are no rules, but the world is always missing musicians. Just make sure you’re true to yourself and to your beliefs. write music and post it, find people that you can collaborate with such as musicians, videographers and producers. There are a lot of people, some of them in the beginning of their way, that would be happy to collaborate just to get things done. Use that, that way you help each other. Post covers if that’s a thing you like, but work on your own music at the same time so we can hear your own voice and not only covers.
What has been your favourite live show to date? And what is your favourite thing about performing?
Ah, so many good shows that I love. PMX, Octoberfest in Shfaamaer, Rawabi show that had a huge number of audience and a few small acoustic shows as well. It’s hard to pick one because every show has its charm and power. My favorite thing about performing is the crowd. Not to sound too romantic, but for me it can decide if the show is enjoyable or not. I can enjoy singing the same songs alone at home as well. but when it reaches the audience, magic happens. I’m not talking about the number of people, I’m talking about the vibe of the people. A show with 5 people in the crowd can be more powerful than a crowd of hundreds, when the vibe is pure and true. It’s what’s happening with the crowd, the connection, the feeling, the love. It’s what drives me on stage to move and sing my heart out, give it my all.