Making Afro-Lebanese Connections

Sae Lis' first album The Quest, released in 2012 and infused with soul, motown, ska and African musical elements. Image courtesy of Sae LIs'

Sae Lis’ first album The Quest, released in 2012 and infused with soul, motown, ska and African musical elements. Image courtesy of Sae LIs’

Sae Lis performed at Château Tamberma in Togo for the first time earlier in 2013 together with local musician Elom 20c. Image courtesy of Sae Lis'

Sae Lis performed at Château Tamberma in Togo for the first time earlier in 2013 together with local musician Elom 20c. Image courtesy of Sae Lis’

Having spent 15 years in post-apartheid South Africa, I have rather strong feelings with regards to racism and racial discrimination or at worst, racially-motivated hate crimes. I’ve always refused to accept racism in any form, however subtle, including the “it was just a joke” cover. That said, Lebanon’s challenged me many times with really crass racism, statements made even by nice people (friends) or racist practices.

Pointing fingers doesn’t usually help but when it happens in a personal environment, I have initiated conversations, asked (hard) questions, tried to have whoever made that comment take a look at the other person’s position or situation. At times it has worked… others not. My refusal to step into any beach club (if they let non-Europeans or non-Arabs onto their premises, they’re most likely not allowing these patrons to have a dip. They may look after children or animals or run errands and sweat in the sun…..) did not inspire anyone else to stop frequenting these places.

Rather than point the finger at the dire situation, which many organizations work on improving, pushing for Palestinian, Syrian or migrant’s workers’ rights and greater tolerance overall, I decided to look for Lebanese who embrace their African childhoods and through creative work, have been shining a positive light on the continent.

Here is musician Sae Lis’ Portrait:

Lebanese people first settled in West Africa in the mid-nineteenth century. In small countries such as Togo and Sierra Leone, a handful of Lebanese families worked hard to establish themselves and quickly gained significant economic clout. At present there are an estimated 250,000 Lebanese in West Africa.

Waka Waka, the official Soccer World Cup 2012 song performed by Shakira and South Africa’s Freshlyground, was a rare but momentous Lebanese-African artistic collaboration. While Lebanese cuisine has gained in popularity amongst West Africans, the cultures have not been mixing as much as one might expect after more than a century of cohabitation. Nor does the continent, on the whole, seem to have inspired an artistic response from Arab immigrants.

Singer and songwriter Sae Lis’ aka Elissa Boustani is a Lebanese cultural figure who celebrates her African childhood, portrays the countries she’s lived in in a positive light, and has shared this with Lebanese audiences (where African culture is seldom fêted.)

Born and raised in Togo’s capital Lomé, Elissa readily admits that her African childhood had a huge impact on her, and keeps influencing her musical choices. Asked what audiences felt about her fusing African musical strands into her work, she states that the response was much stronger in Africa and Europe than Lebanon. “There is a minority of people in Lebanon who are open to this kind of music but generally most of the country doesn’t know about world music. There’s one big exception and that is Zeid Hamdan who has also collaborated with African musicians.”

Elissa knows that some Lebanese businessmen exploit, or worse, mistreat, locals. “I have seen both (good and bad practices) and it’s very hard to accept, being Lebanese myself. I wish more Lebanese would involve themselves in African cultures , but from what I see they only work there and send money to their homeland. That is good for their families, but it would be great if Lebanese people were more open-minded.”

The vivacious young woman referred to as “The Girl with the Red Afro”, has worked with Mao Otayeck, a big name on the African music scene. “He produced my first album The Quest. He is half Lebanese, half Ivorian, and he lives in Senegal. He is a like a big brother to me.”

Earlier this year, Elissa played a first gig in Lomé. “I met a Togolese artist named Elom 20ce via Facebook, a young bright rapper with very smart songs. (…) I played The way you treat me with his guitarist and then we all jammed on one of my songs, Bétonville. It was a great concert with an amazing response from the crowd.”

Before moving to Paris with her mother, a choreographer, when she was nine, Elissa grew up in Lomé, where her mother had a studio. “We would put together a big show every year. There was always music, costumes, sets, artists… I loved being on stage, I was very curious. My mom would put on music at home all day, all kinds of music. I guess it influenced me.” Elissa is unequivocal that her upbringing was a blessing. Her mother’s musical tastes ranged from Bob Marley’s reggae to Mahalia Jackson’s gospel, Fela Kuti’s Afrobeat to the Malian griot Salif Keita.

“I hear a lot of African influences in my music without it being completely African but it lives in me,” she admits. What further impacted on her was the omnipresence of music and dance in Togolese people’s lives. “It’s a beautiful thing to be surrounded by this.”

The sounds of her childhood, notably reggae, run so deep that they have become a trademark of her own music. Besides influencing her style, Africa also features in some of her lyrics. In ‘La tête dans les nuages’ (Head in the Clouds in English), she refers to her childhood: “derrière une enfant sauvage se cache un coeur de bohème” (“behind a wild girlchild hides a bohemian heart” in English). “Most people only saw in me a growing rebellious kid but never knew that behind it was hiding a bohemian heart.”

Facing tough competition from 50 countries, Sae Lis’ recently scooped a silver medal in the ‘chanson’ category at the seventh Jeux de la Francophonie in Nice, France.

Diversity in life, in art, is precious to Elissa who laments the lack of tolerance in Lebanon. “I can only wish this will start changing with years to come. I think mixing cultures and colors is a richness.”

Sae Lis’ ‘The Quest’ is available at most music stores.


About Tales from a Small Country

I'm a project coordinator and features writer with a passion for the seventh art, a keen interest in culture and mobility, as well as social and environmental subjects. Half French, half German by origin possibly explains why I am drawn to divided countries and diverse societies: I called Cape Town in South Africa home for over a decade before coming to Beirut in early 2012. Besides people watching and cats, I also love Tripoli, Lebanon's second city.
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