A gaida is a bagpipe-type instrument used in North African and Balkan music. It produces a lilting, reverberating sound, not unlike Syrian-American singer Gaida's voice, but she laughs at this association. Her name should be spelled Ghaida, but Americans can't pronounce the Arabic ghrayn, which is transliterated as gh, she says. When she spelled her name Ghaida, "everyone in school used to call me 'guh-haida,' and I was frustrated. I took the 'h' out, and it became Gaida."
Ghaida means "delicate flower" in Arabic, an apt assessment of both the singer's physical and vocal beauty. Still, a gaida wouldn't be out of place among the instruments on her new record Levantine Indulgence, which range from Arab musical staples, such as the oud and santoor, to electric bass, piano and congas. The versatility of her voice lends itself just as well to a Syrian folksong like "Almaya" as to a jazzier, bossa nova-esque track like "Kaifa Uhibuka."
Gaida got her semi-professional start as a singer in the mid-'90s when she immigrated to Detroit to attend Wayne State University to study biology. She grew up in Damascus in a household that prized music, although she says singing had been strictly a hobby. "I was going to be a doctor," she explains, "but then when I was at Wayne State and passed by the music school, I decided, 'I'm going to take a look,' and I went and auditioned and was accepted."
She sang and acted in plays at Wayne and also a local Arab theater. She also began to sing at local restaurants on Saturdays with the house band and maybe a few friends, "but it was never like a career that I was working hard to reach," she says.
Part of that had to do with her parents' disapproval of of singing as a profession for their daughter. "I think, in America, it's the same thing," Gaida points out. "Family does not think you can make a living from music. They believe it is better that you have a career that gives you stability and is more essential, and you can do music on the side."
Yet she credits her parents and her youth in Damascus as inspiration. "Since I was 4 years old, I sang at home, and my entire family — they're all artistic — many of them have beautiful voices and they play traditional instruments." She also notes that "music is like a main part in Islam. There's something called tajweed — the way you read the Koran, with special emphasis on words, and you come up with certain music. Also, in general, Arabic language is very poetic."
She says she's been able to win her parents over. Her father, especially, wanted her to be a doctor, so, she says, "I did both. I did finish my biology degree, and I did get my degree in language pathology, so he's happy and I am happy." She still works as a speech pathologist with Arab children in New York City, where she lives now. In 2006, her father attended her first New York concert as a bandleader, and Gaida says that's when she feels her music career really started, "with his blessing."
Gaida has played in the Detroit area since her restaurant-chanteuse beginnings, but this is her first appearance to promote Levantine Indulgence, which came out in March. The album is paradoxically both a debut and a retrospective — it is Gaida's first record, but made up of songs spanning the last 10 years or so of her amateur and professional singing career.
Gaida wrote two of the songs on the album during her stay in Detroit. Lebanese poet Maroon Karam was having dinner in a restaurant where she was performing and, she says, was inspired to give her one of his poems. "I took it with me, and that was my first trial of really writing music, writing the song," she says. "That's where the whole experience of creating new music started, where I got off [doing] covers." The song, "Ghayeb," showcases Gaida's vocal range over a piano melody and gentle conga beat. It has a high-class lounge act feel to it; you can imagine her under a spotlight, singing it back to the enraptured poet in the audience.
Simone Landon is a Metro Times editorial intern. Send comments to [email protected]
Gaida will perform at 7 and 8:30 p.m. Friday, Aug. 13, as part of the Detroit Institute of Arts' Friday Night Live! in the Rivera Court, 5200 Woodward Ave., Detroit, 313-833-7900; free with museum admission. She also peforms at 7 and 9 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 14, at Kerrytown Concert House, 415 N. Fourth Ave., Ann Arbor; 734-769-2999; tickets $10-$30.