Merit Ariane Stephanos: The Voice of Jaljala and Hjaz

Sometimes it is about the musical compositions, the harmonies and the lyrics. But then it can also be about the pure distinctive voice of someone, like that of Merit Ariane Stephanos, that once it opens itself to an audience, captures the imagination, the heart and longing of the listener as she performs on stage and takes us on a spiritual journey. 

Pretty and petite, with henna dyed hair that she keeps short and sweet, we meet at Warwick Avenue. Quickly, she falls into tune and says: “My mother, who is from Germany, used to sing to me while breast-feeding, as she believed it would develop my pitch. By the age of eleven months, I knew by heart twenty folk songs.”

I am intrigued to find out how she came to be the voice and face for the Jaljala and the Hjaz musical projects.

Merit studied at a music gymnasium in Germany and followed with a Music Degree at Edinburgh University, where she played the violin, the piano and developed her singing repertoire.

She said: “I was always searching for a music to suit me. The critical year was during my time at Mostar, Bosnia, where I discovered Sevdah, the traditional Bosnian folk music. Though originally, I was there to work with disadvantaged and war-traumatised children at the Pavarotti Music Centre, I found myself immersed in a melting pot of musical genres, from Eastern European harmonies, to Turkish, Greek and even Swiss influences.

“Sevdah gave me the inspiration to experiment by mixing and re-arranging different vocal traditions and create a unique sound with my music collaborators. Having also a Coptic Egyptian father, the Arabic was always there for me to add to the rest and with which to explore.”

Jaljala project – Arab and East European Ensemble

For the Jaljala project, Merit works with the Lebanese song expert, vocalist and Oud player Abdul-Salam Kheir, Balkan music specialist and violinist Meg Hamilton and Syrian percussion virtuoso Haytham Al Souba’i. Together, they cover a musical knowledge and influences from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe.

Merit: “As Jaljala, we draw upon the rhythms and lyrics of some of the greatest Arab legendary figures of the Middle East. From Oum Kalsoum, to Sayyed Darwish, Asmahan and Fayruz, to also dipping into Iraqi and Egyptian folk-song traditions. We strive to offer a rich sound by blending the modes, rhythms and harmonies with a lively and earthy delivery. We also like to create our own new and fresh interpretations.

“Of course, we also want to promote Arabic music and bring it to a Western audience, so we can all celebrate its wealth, depth and all the wonderful things it has to offer. We hope to bring down some of the prejudices and the barriers between us.”

Jaljla’s next performance at the Green Note in Camden Town, London will see them perform a special re-arrangement of La Vie en Rose with Fi Youm Wa Layla.

The Hjaz – Jazz Trio Project

With Hjaz, Merit works with Alcyona Mick, who is a Jazz pianist and Stuart Hall, a multi-instrumentalist. They want to bring and blend Western Jazz with Middle Eastern songs. She says: “This is a more radical project. We take Arabic music to a different level, as we mix and constantly improvise during our performances, with me singing in Arabic or sometimes Sephardic Spanish. We create our own versions of the classical Mwhashshat and write our own compositions inspired by this repertoire.”

For the future, Merit wants to write more music and lyrics. She says: “I would love to collaborate with more musicians and continue having a dialogue with others across all the different influences that I have personally to choose from, including some spiritual, sacred and religious music.”

She will also keep teaching at the Royal College of Music and work with primary and secondary schools, as well as the Helen Bamber Foundation, a charity supporting victims of human rights abuses.

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Note: This article was first published circa October 2010