Interview With Steve Barakatt, The Musician Whose Notes Never Left His Homeland
The artist behind UNICEF’s official anthem “Lullaby”, Steve Barakatt is a musical force to be reckoned with. For more than three decades, the Canadian composer with Lebanese origins has touched the hearts of music lovers all around the world. We had the chance to sit down with Barakatt to discuss his childhood, his time as a UNICEF ambassador, and even old-school fan mail. The renowned musician revealed that his musical career is taking a fresh turn and he never felt more in tune with his homeland.
How did it all start out with music? How would you describe your musical upbringing?
I started very early! I was fortunate to have a family that’s filled with music lovers and so, music felt like pleasure and always part of our celebrations. We had moments when we would all play together as a family, it was all about sharing our love of music. Many start at a young age, and music is a very tough discipline which is why many kids abandon music because it's too heavy on their shoulders. But I was always playing around with it and having fun but I still followed the classical lessons from the early age of 5. It was a good combo of having fun and practicing the classical side of music - it's why I still love it.
Is it your parents that pushed you through or was it yourself?
It was both. I can say that I had a normal childhood, I was also doing lots of sports. I could say this is why I could pursue my dream it's because it was a good balance of discipline and human experience. I was raised in a middle class family in Quebec and my parents were very supportive. My grandfather invited us every Sunday to his home for a Lebanese lunch. Lebanese culture was always part of our household and when I came back to the country I realized that I was more Lebanese than I thought because it's embedded in me. So yes, it was all about family, music, and love. It's why I think I kept the passion. You still need the connection with the people because classical music can get too academic and isolating. I realize today that this is essential because you need people and it's more than just playing music, it's to share a message.
What brings you here? Can you tell me more about your visit?
My relationship with Lebanon strengthened in 2008 when I came as a UNICEF ambassador for a visit with the office here in Beirut. And so, I visited the country here and visited many regions in Lebanon. I was touched both as a person and as a UNICEF ambassador, a role that I had filled for 10 years. I also composed the UNICEF international anthem that we released over the 5 continents and on international space station in November 2009. I came here to present the UNICEF anthem to the Lebanese president at the time Michel Sleiman. This is when my relationship to Lebanon became more concrete and I felt that I could really discover Lebanon. I never imagined that I would feel what I felt when I came here and I came back many times after. And this time, it's to share this initiative as you know, it's the 100th anniversary of the Greater Lebanon, and I've been thinking of doing something musical in order to share my passion with Lebanese people and people all around the world. The initiative is called "Motherland" and it will mark the 100th anniversary of the country. I've been recording with several traditional instruments and I went to Prague's Philharmonic Orchestra, which has already worked with Lebanese artists before. The whole project is a combination of Eastern sounds and European sounds coupled with Lebanon's beauty, openness, and sound. It's going to be released worldwide through an event and music video, which will inspire the world, the Lebanese diaspora and the Lebanese living here.
Do you have any upcoming concerts in Arab countries?
I've been performing for the past 25 years in North America, Russia, and Asia. I hope to do more concerts in the Middle East. I think next year I would love to do a Middle East tour and would love to kickstart it in Lebanon.
Who are your musical inspirations?
I listen to a lot of music especially Lebanese music, pop music, and of course classical music. When I was 15 to 20 years old, I was big on jazz and was always jamming to jazzy tunes with my band. The way I do music is that I like to take an orchestral approach and combine it with jazz and pop. I take the best of musical genres and create my own style.
What is the best reward you've ever received?
It's mostly when you receive a message from someone who's telling you that he is listening to your music everyday and that it has helped him. I have been touched by many messages from students and the younger generation. For example, young people in school tell me that my music helps in concentration and accomplishing their studies. Or messages coming from people that have lost a loved one saying that music helped them cope with loss, these messages are the most special reward an artist can receive and serve as reminders as to why you do this. Before social media, I remember that I used to receive fan mail in envelopes with hearts and I found it very charming and kept every single one - they’re the most precious.
What would you say to Arab youth interested in classical or any genre of music?
You should not perceive it as too serious. The problem is that sometimes when we talk about classical music, we have a tendency to see it as a snobbish genre. I would say that the establishment of classical music made it seem unattainable and pretentious - something that cannot be approached from “street level”.
So I would say don't take it too seriously and also see the benefit of it all. It's the same as doing yoga or working out, it boosts your concentration and helps you reduce stress, and pushes you to become a bigger person. Should I push my 11-year-old daughter to become a ballerina? I keep my distance and just let her enjoy and decide herself. You just have to have fun with it !
What's your biggest challenge?
Composing music is the hardest thing. That's why my first album was called "Audacity" because it takes a lot to come out with your first original music, to define your sound and identity, and promote it.
What's one place you would love to perform at?
For sure Baalbaq, my great grand-father was called Baachus like the temple. And it's a very unique place, and I can imagine performing my symphony in this beautiful area, it’s called "Ad Vitam Aeternam".
Favorite Arabic food?
Kebbeh nayyeh for sure.