Montreal-based singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist, of Syrian origin, Nadine Altounji released her new digital EP The Stories That Tie Us To Trees – Volume 1 on July 3, 2022.
In a rare fusion of Middle Eastern and South American rhythms, Nadine Altounji’s new EP introduces us to an uncommon musical universe. With The Stories That Tie Us To Trees – Volume 1 she travels uncharted territory bounded by folk, soul, traditional Middle Eastern music, and Latin pop, rich with electronic, Afro-Peruvian, and Indigenous sounds. The product of a fruitful collaboration between musicians and poets, from Ecuador, Peru, and Montreal, The Stories…is a vibrant homage to the spirit of new friendship. The new work marvelously illustrates a dark quest, but also the exhilaration of being uprooted, and the rediscovery of your native identity.
Co-produced by Mark Alan Haynes and Altounji, The Stories… includes five original songs, sung in Spanish, English, and Arabic. It’s also an audio-visual EP: each song has a video directed by Victorine Sentilhes. Volume 2 of The Stories… is scheduled for 2023.
My name is Nadine Altounji. I am a singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist born in Montreal of Syrian and Lebanese descent. I have been active on the music scene for the past 20 years accompanying different singers on guitar and backing vocals. My first Ep “I Still” came out in 2016. An EP that combined folk & Arabic music using the sound of Ali El Farouk’s oud and Ziya Tabassian on percussion, myself on vocals and guitar, and Mark Alan Haynes on bass. I liked the fusion of styles and decided to take it a step further. I learned how to play the oud, an instrument my great grandfather played. I wanted to reconnect to my roots. After years of playing different styles of music, Arabic music was a style of music I felt connected to but never took the time to explore.
Afterward, I received a research and creation grant and decided to travel to Peru and Ecuador to research the different styles of Afro-Peruvian, Afro-Ecuadorian, and Andean music, etc. During my travels and in Montreal, I met singers, poets, activists, dancers, filmmakers, musicians, etc. that were willing to share their stories and knowledge and from there was born the concept for the album “The Stories That Tie Us to Trees” A double EP album composed of two volumes. The first Volume is an audiovisual EP composed of 5 videos. Each video tells a story and features a different collaborator. It is an Ep that combines Spanish, Arabic, and English lyrics.
In the last city I visited Cusco, I met a poet and dancer called Marcia Castro Gamarra. We instantly clicked and set a day to meet and create. We had a long conversation about Women’s rights and violence against women. It was at the time when all the protests were happening in Latin America “Ni una menos”. Marcia told me how one woman was killed by her husband in a protest in Cusco. It inspired her to write “Marcha de Flores”. I took the role of the narrator. I wanted to give her the room to tell her personal story and the stories of many women around the world. Marcia and I ended up collaborating on 3 songs. I learned her texts and how to pronounce them in Spanish. I also worked with Pedro Diaz, a Peruvian singer-songwriter and guitarist. He gave me workshops before I left on my trip. Once I came back, he helped me write the music for Escarba en mi Alma and No lo Olviden which resulted in a tondero and a lando. From there, Mark Alan Haynes and I arranged the songs to make them less traditional by adding pop and electric vibes and some Arabic music elements, like the oud and percussions. I included some spoken words in Arabic in No lo Olviden to bridge the worlds.
I approach each song differently. For example, Bint el Balad (Daughter of the land) and 3alabali (On my mind) are directly related to my Syrian and Lebanese heritage. I wanted to collaborate with two singers that like me felt the need to reconnect to their roots. Dana El Masri and Nadia Bashalani who are of Lebanese and Egyptian descent brought their voices to Bint el Balad. We took a traditional concept and modernized it. I suggested the concept and title Bint el balad, which was also the song’s chorus, Dana and Nadia wrote the lyrics. Inspired by the title of the 1955 Egyptian film Bint El Balad. The song references how the trope of the bint el balad in Egyptian film was itself changed when a regime change brought state control of cinema and control of the depiction of women. We felt the desire to liberate the bint el balad from the authoritarian male gaze. We wanted to reimagine her through the loving gaze of women.
I approach each song differently. Sometimes the chorus will appear as a clear melody in my mind and on other occasions, the music will come first. I record everything in the moment and then I see what text works on what chord progression or melody.
This was our second time working together. Mark and I have known each other for over 10 years now. He worked on the production of my first “EP I Still” in 2016. What I like about working with Mark is that he approaches music differently, not thinking of a style in particular. Always open to experimenting. We are both perfectionists, so we work slowly but in the end, it is worth it. His vast expertise in playing many different styles of music was valuable in this project and what I like the most is that we often vibe on the same things. When he likes something or shows me a production idea, most of the time, I like it. During the pandemic he was in Europe and I was in Canada which was quite a challenge but it allowed me to learn more about recording most of the instruments and vocals myself and for the production and mixes, we did that at a distance mostly.
Working with Victorine was a pleasure. She is a real gem. We did the impossible during the pandemic. 5 videos in less than 2 years with lots of health restrictions. We also coordinated a video shoot with Filmmaker Johan Carrasco located in Cusco, Peru. They were going in and out of lockdown when we were trying to film “Escarba en mi alma” The highlight of that video was receiving the beautiful footage of Johan of Marcia Castro Gamarra dancing in different locations in Cusco and the surrounding sacred valley area that I remember visiting while I was there. Marcia who wrote the poem for this song also danced, bringing the dance influenced by the traditional tondero style of dancing. I wanted her to be in it. I found her to be very expressive. The subject of the song talks about digging the earth to find more about your roots, your history, and the one of your country. I remember a discussion I had with Marcia where she mentioned it is important to learn about our past. Often people are ashamed about where they are from and who their descendants were but learning about the often hidden history of our country can help make racism disappear. This is what this song is about. The churches in Peru were often built over sacred sites of indigenous communities and a marketing campaign was made in order to bring those communities to accept the Christian religion.
The highlight of Marcha de Flores was reaching out to the Activist Community Genero Rebelde in Cusco. Victorine suggested that it would be powerful to include images of the protests that happened in Cusco. Marcia reached out to them and the pictures we received were so powerful. The footage from Chad and Haiti that Victorine had of these strong beautiful women also added so much to the video, and the different Montreal women that surrounded me were also included in the video. All together we stand in support of these women even if our realities are not the same when it comes to violence against women. I think that standing by them and giving them a platform to be heard, is a small but important step towards improving the situation. I also suggested afterward that Marcia choose an NGO that we can donate to in Cusco. She chose Mantay, an NGO that helps women who were survivors of sexual violence. By buying this song on Bandcamp the profit will go to this organization.
The highlight of Bint el balad was working with a team of amazing women. Nadia Bashalani & Dana El Masri, Layan Buftain, Victorine Yok and I thought of the concept of celebrating our roots by bringing elements of our culture and putting them in the video. We danced in the desert-like setting, smoked chicha, drank coffee, ate Arabic desert, wore traditional and modern outfits, did henna on the hands, and had fun together, playing oud, etc… Victorine really captured beautiful images of us enjoying ourselves without directing us. She has a very natural approach where she really finds you at your best when you do not know she is filming.
“3ala bali” highlight was projecting images of Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt on Dana El Masri and mine. Images of our family and ancestors, some people that we lost. It was for me the most touching video. It talks about the nostalgia of remembering the country our parents pre-war in all its beauty. It is also a tribute to the people that we loved who left us.
Finally “No lo Olviden”, A song about the children of war. The older generation telling the younger ones not to forget what happened here and a call to the diaspora. In the video, we kept it simple. We wanted the music to speak for itself, the highlight was being in the room with the musicians that played on the album. Mark Alan Haynes on bass and Pedro Diaz on guitar, myself on oud and vocals. I wanted to capture the natural emotions that this song evoked in us. The highlight of this video is the oud Hanging from the tree. This powerful and metaphorical image is drawn from an origin story about the iconic instrument and is attributed to the early Islamic philosopher and scholar Abu Nasr Al-Farabi. The oud was created by Noah’s grandfather Lamech, who was inspired after hanging the body of his dead son from a tree. The legends suggest that the shape of the oud resembled the shape of his son’s skeleton. Many have written about and praised the oud for its healing powers. “it places the temperament in equilibrium…it calms and revives hearts” This story inspired the project and the Album title “The Stories That Tie Us to Trees”. In the video, the oud imagery symbolizes to me the suffering of the Arabic people and is a call for healing through music. Music is not only a way for us to carry culture and transmit tradition but also a path toward healing and a collective uplifting future for all communities.
It is hard to choose one because I believe each song will connect with different communities and audiences. I think “No lo olviden” is one of my favorites because it really blends Arabic and Peruvian music together and features Pedro Diaz on guitar and Joseph Khoury on Cajon and riq and myself on oud. I personally love how this blend happened and the mix of Spanish and Arabic lyrics with the oud is not a typical blend for a Lando. I recommend watching all five videos on my YouTube channel playlist to really get a sense of the EP as a whole.
I’m Jenna, and I am the founder and editor of Canadian Beats. I have had a strong love for Canadian music, which started many years ago. I have a passion for promoting these talented Canadian bands and artists, and that’s how Canadian Beats came to be. I am so proud of what it has become over the last few years, with many talented music lovers and writers coming together to spread the word of Canada’s music.