Personal Stories of America at Work
The War-Tuned Musician
Fusion musician Christiane Karam turned to music for survival and teaches social change through song
Things were very dark
I came to the Berklee College of Music in Boston when I was twenty-six, excited but also apprehensive about starting over after years working in Beirut. Most students were younger and had lived a completely different life than mine. I had spent most of my life running from my life, and not building something. I felt like I was starting from scratch. Most musicians, by their mid-twenties, had a sound. They had figured out who they were as musicians and were on their way. I started as a freshman at Berklee, with kids who were eighteen.
I remembered back to when I was eighteen and stitching up bodies in the morgue. These kids were oblivious, which was great. They were playing music and going to parties; they were being kids! I never had that, not in the innocent and carefree way they seemed to have it. It was great to witness and be part of it, and difficult to situate myself around it all at once.
I grew up in Beirut, Lebanon. I have loved music as long as I can remember and used to sing and dance as a child. The war started when I was three. Things were very dark. My mom encouraged me to start music lessons at a nearby music school when I was eight and it was a great outlet for me. Often we went to the lessons when there were bombs falling. Many times the school was closed. It’s a strange reality growing up in the middle of a war. Sometimes when I go to the store after a blizzard alert, it reminds me of what stores looked like back home after news of an upcoming raid—people would buy all the food they could find and hide in their bomb shelters waiting for the storm.
Music was a safe bubble. Whenever I listened to or played music, I was transported to a world far away from the war-torn world I lived in. It was survival, a coping mechanism that served me well. But learning to detach from reality has also been something I have needed to unlearn. The world I lived in was so unbearable, so dangerous, that there was no way for me to be in the moment. The moment was a very, very scary thing. Reading was an incredibly safe place for me as well, where I could travel through people’s stories. I also spent a lot of time painting and drawing. To this day, reading, writing and visual art are loyal companions.
Stitching up dead bodies
Growing up, I also was fascinated with science and medicine, and I planned to become a surgeon. I wanted to help people. My life was going in that direction until, when I was eighteen, I volunteered to do rescue work. The bombings were relentless that year, and I worked with a lot of casualties in the ER and the morgue. I had lived in war most of my life and my community had experienced a lot of grief. Our apartment building had been bombed several times and I had been around a lot of death. But still, that was a very rough year. Day in and day out, I was in the emergency room and the morgue as ambulances came in. I stitched up dead people and tended to kids and soldiers who had been maimed by bombs and land mines. I had been preparing to apply to med school, but I couldn’t stand being around a hospital or emergency room anymore. After a year of that, I was done.
My other passion was painting, but starting a career in fine arts was not an option in a city that had been burned to the ground. Music, too, was something only far away people on television did for a living. So I went to college for a science degree in nutrition. I had struggled with an eating disorder, bulimia, growing up. I wanted to combine nutrition and psychology to help people with eating disorders so I worked towards a degree in psychology at the same time. I sang in rock bands at local clubs and taught piano lessons to support myself throughout my college years. I also briefly worked as a counselor and a nutritionist. I left my parents’ house around then, in my early twenties. In Lebanon at that time, it was considered a major family drama for a young woman to leave her parents’ home if it wasn’t to go to her new husband’s home. Now it’s more common, but back when we did it, my friends and I were considered outcasts. During those years, in the mid-nineties, the war had ended but the country was shot. The people who were left behind were trying to make something out of nothing. In a way, it was a very creative time.
So many ages at once
I continued teaching piano and playing music on the side, while studying jazz and composition with private teachers. I finally realized that I just wanted to be a musician. I ran out of ways to convince myself not to pursue music as a career. I spent a couple years writing with people and working on projects, and I supported myself teaching and singing and composing.
I was tired. I had struggled so much in Beirut. I wanted a chance at a different life.
In Boston at Berklee, there were people who saw who I was right away. They could see that I was very strong, but also very vulnerable. Many teachers and people in the Berklee community took on supportive roles and pushed me forward in a gentle, but consistent way. Others didn’t get me. I was so many ages at once. I was twenty-six, but I was also one hundred and five and eighteen. I was so very old and yet so young.
Everyone has a war going on somewhere
I now teach at Berklee myself. One of the classes I developed is Songwriting and Social Change. It helps kids become more aware of what’s going on around them in the world, and helps them find their voice to tell their own stories and bring about positive social change. I try to teach my students to have the courage to tell their own story through song. They’re not musicians just so that they can win Grammys. They can have an impact. When I was little, other people’s songs gave me a lot of hope.
Today, I carry within me the names and faces of the people who suffered, lost, and died in my youth. I feel it’s my duty to live fully so that their pain and their loss was not in vain. And I feel it’s my responsibility as an artist and a human being to share what I am learning along the way, and to speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves yet.
Sometimes I see students who in some way or another remind me of myself when I came to Berklee. They seem to gravitate towards me. I remember how precious the support I had gotten as a student was and I strive to provide that as best I can. I’m able to offer them some comfort and validation so they don’t think they’re crazy. These students aren’t just from other countries, they’re from here as well. Everyone has a war going on somewhere.
Not afraid of the pieces
Growing up, it seemed like there was conflict, rage, pain, anger, and bloodshed from all sides. Early on I started wondering who God was and why people killed each other over religion. For a long time I didn’t feel like I belonged anywhere musically. Music is just another metaphor for life.
As a performer, I wondered if I was an Arab singer, or a classical musician, or a jazz singer. Did I sing better in French or in Arabic? I also wondered whether I was more of a composer or more of a performer. Was I a piano player? A percussionist? A songwriter? It was like a quilt, but the pieces took time to blend into a whole. Today, as I even include writing and painting into my work and path as a musician, I try to tell my students not to be afraid of the pieces. I work with them to help them bring forth their sound and their truth because it’s not an obvious process.
I have been immersed in many different musical worlds at different times of my life. I am Lebanese but I also have Armenian roots. I grew up speaking many languages, and I sing in many languages—but I am happiest singing without words, because that allows me to tap into everything that I am, and not just one part. I call myself a fusion musician because I’m very passionate about finding ways to bridge musical cultures, to connect seemingly unrelated worlds.
I work with modal Arabic, Balkan and Gypsy traditions a lot, but my music also inevitably reflects my love for the western classical and jazz worlds. I love rhythm. I love French Chanson. I love Samba. I am very passionate about improvisation because it is such a raw and direct expression of life, and a great practice in the perils and rewards of surrendering to the moment. I love music of the people, folk traditions from around the planet. I have found a serenity in embracing all the facets of my sound as a combination of all my experiences, colors and roots. It’s not exclusively one thing and not exclusively another, because I’m not exclusively one thing or another.
Part of my purpose, I feel, is also to share this music and the warm and loving part of my culture that is not what the media highlights. I’m wary of the media because there’s a lot of fear mongering with an emphasis on bad things, rather than the goodness of other people. It creates a climate of “us versus them.” I feel like by doing what I do, I bridge that too a little bit.
I have been very fortunate to collaborate with some really amazing colleagues and mentors. One dear and invaluable mentor has been the incredible Bobby McFerrin. I was familiar with his music growing up, but when I came here and finally had the space to go deeper, it quickly became what I turned to every time I needed a reminder to keep going. Over the years, I took it with me everywhere. I particularly remember listening to it constantly on a trip to Africa and on late night trips to and from New York City, almost asleep but not quite, with this beautiful healing music in my ears. In 2004, he held a five-day workshop in upstate New York. A series of little miracles manifested within a week so I could attend the workshop, from finding out about it, to coming up with the money, and rescheduling travel plans. About two hundred people came from around the world. It was a very intense week for me. I had just realized that through all the confusion, I had managed to listen to the little voice inside me that knew where to go all along. It was very emotional. I talked to Bobby about where I came from. I thought, I might never see him again; he’s got to know what it means for me to have made it to this workshop! Little did I know my life was about to take flight.
It was that week that I met Joey Blake, one of the teachers assisting Bobby in the workshop, and we fell in love and got married shortly after. Joey was on many of Bobby’s CDs as the bass singer. It turns out I had been listening to his voice for years—all those late night trips to NY city and back—almost asleep and wondering who belonged to that deep bass voice. The pieces were coming together.
Since then, I have had the privilege to perform with Bobby, Joey, and many great musicians who have helped shape my musical being. I feel very grateful for the rewarding collaborations and wonderful friendships that continue to unfold, and the many mentors that helped me along the way. Being in the moment is now a beautiful and tolerable thing.
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The Working Chronicles captures an intimate look at work in 21st century America through candid interviews with people from all walks of life and all corners of the country.
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