Arts, Culture & Media

Global Hit - Lena Chamamyan

There is an unlikely young rising star in Syria. She's a Syrian-Armenian singer who counts the grand dames of American jazz as her influences. Jazz is not big in the Middle East, but Lena Chamamyan is making a name for herself. The World's Aaron Schachter reports.

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Lena ChamamyanLena Chamamyan

I challenge you to listen to this song and not weep� or at least feel a little melancholy. Ala Mewj el bah is a song about an unrequited love by the Syrian seashore.

�I think because I'm Armenian, the sad sound always exists in Armenian music. Also, it's my voice. I know that I have something sad in my voice all the time and I work on it because it's something special and I have. And I adore that song. It's an old song, actually, it's a folkloric song.�

Lena Chamamyan's voice suggests she's seen more than her 28 years. I tell her she could use it to make a whole lot of money belting out pop tunes, or redoing classical Arabic music. But after five years studying in the Damascus Conservatory, Chamamyan says she's not about to sell out� she cites her heroes, the first ladies of American jazz, like Billie Holliday and Ella Fitzgerald.

�They're so famous and they changed something on music and they make new way of music and singing and everything and I hope to make something special for me. I hope if anyone in the world listens to my music he will know this is Lena, like Ella for example.�

�In the beginning I start to work on the standards and everything and then I found out that I'm oriental, and I can't change this. So I prefer to sing MY standards, but in my way.�

In this song, you go from very oriental to very much jazz. It's not "one song is oriental, one song is jazz," it's one song is very much both. How does that feel personally?

�For me it's the song. The meaning of the song moves everything. So I don't think, "Here I have to take in it a jazzy way or an oriental way." You know, the point is we like this music and people here don't know this music and we want to share it with them because it's great music, it's about freedom. �

In the Arabic music, all the instruments play the same melody of the song. You know, we want to do something different. We want them to know that there is piano and bass and brass section and guitar and according. And even the oriental instrument we can use them to play something else. In Magic, on the second album, I sing and scat, we don't do this here.

"magic" is on Chamamyan's latest album, Shamat. It sold 50,000 copies, an astronomical number in a region where pirated media is king. She was actually the top selling world musician in the Middle East last year - jazz being world music here. But Lena says it's hard for Syrian musicians to be heard in the western world� marketing is not well established in Damascus and it's not so easy for a Syrian to get a US visa these days. Lena Chamamyan says she'd like to hit the road and play clubs in America some day like her idols, but until then she's just going to continue making her soulful mix of oriental music and jazz.

For The World, I'm Aaron Schachter, Damascus.