photos by May Arida
“I want to see what will happen if I only do what feels right,” says Frida Chehlaoui - who on stage is simply Frida - to an audience eager to discover this emerging singer/songwriter coming from Lebanon. “I want to see what will happen if I just go ahead and try. And now I see where this attitude got me,” Frida continues, “it got me here to play my first concert in Europe. I am really very happy to be here."
The here is Café Marta in Switzerland’s capital of Bern, a cosy cellar made of medieval brick walls in the city’s old town, turned into a café and an occasional concert venue. Frida is accompanied by Marc Rossier on guitar and David Steinacher on percussion, two well known musicians in the Bernese music scene and beyond. Frida had met them just a few days before the concert and two short rehearsals were all it took to make it a well tuned trio. Tonight Café Marta is the hottest place in town: the cellar is crammed with people - and so are the stairs leading down to the cellar and even the steps behind the stage -, it is hot outside and sticky inside and the incessantly revolving fans, despite of all their efforts, cannot make it any cooler.
Frida was announced as Arab Soul from Beirut. But what was it exactly that brought such a large crowd to Café Marta on a midweek summer evening? The words Arab, Soul and Beirut all have their own particular connotations, an almost magical promise to discover an emotional territory not usually accessible to Western Europeans. However Frida is much more than what she seems to represent. Starting with a warm and slightly smoky voice, and the natural ability to talk to an unknown audience and make them listen to her, Frida’s universe mainly relies on three pillars: connecting to one’s higher frequency, co-creating and experimenting. All of this is topped by a roof that Frida calls “the role of joy in the creative process”. Why suffer to create when you can walk the path of least resistance and thus bring out the creator that lies in all of us?
“I know things beyond the physical realm"
As a child Frida signed her first poems as Free-da and thirty something years later this makes more sense than ever. “My connection with the audience is that they see someone on stage who is absolutely free in that moment,” Frida tells me when I interview her after the concert. “I am free to say what I want to say, free to do what I want to do, free to allow myself to feel what I am feeling without thinking if this is going into the right direction.*
“What allows you to be this free?,” I ask her.
“I know things beyond the physical realm,” Frida replies.
Frida’s freedom doesn’t even stop when facing Nina Simone’s Sinnerman, a monument of black American music and one of two cover versions that Frida has in her repertoire. Not happy with the original lyrics (on Judgement Day the frightened Sinnerman goes to the rock, the river and then the sea, desperately looking for protection and finally turns to the Lord who refuses to help him and sends him to the devil instead), Frida added her own twist to the song, because after all the Lord is love and not supposed to send anyone to the devil, no matter how much this person may have sinned. “I see you,” sings Frida in Arabic, “I see the fear in your eyes, I see the chains you’re carrying, but you seem to have forgotten how you were the one who put them there. It is now time for you to see your power, the power of a thousand suns shining from within you, shining to remind you: don’t you know that you and I are one and the same?” This is extremely powerful and beautiful at the same time.
Frida’s songs are meant to remind us who we truly are and that we should forget about the restrictions that we limit ourselves with, that we can be much more than we think. In “Out and About”, Frida describes how our bodies must open up to embody the light that we truly are. In “Aala Mahli” (going slowly) Frida tells us the story of the heart that must be our guide, the only guide we ever need. Frida herself is “Bint el Kol” (the daughter of everything); her homage to the divine feminine will also be the title track of Frida’s first album set to be released in September of 2019. Frida is the daughter of the wind, the daughter of the sun and of the waves (“like the waves I can be calm, like them I have been fierce”), she’s the daughter of the earth and the daughter of ether (“unseen and omnipresent, weaving us all into one”).
Frida’s concert in Bern was a success beyond expectations. The audience was thirsting for her message of self-love and collective empowerment and for her well tempered dose of spirituality that many of us are lacking in our get-up-and-go lives. Visiting Bern has enabled Frida to meet musicians such as the exceptional accordionist Mario Batkovic and ECM recording artist and bassist Björn Meyer to talk about their approach to music and about possible future collaborations. Already Swiss rapper Greis joined Frida on two songs at Café Marta, subsequently inviting her to be his guest at his own concert later that week. Frida sang Ya Sadi’i (my friend) on this occasion and this song’s story “about the courage to chose the less traveled path to experience the magic unfold so we become the makers of our destinies”, is a story that speaks to all of us, regardless of our mastering the Arabic language or not. Frida’s message is an universal one. We need her to be the companion of our lives for many years to come.
"Good thing that I am tattooed. Because from what I read and saw, the women of Velvet Two Stripes, who I will meet in an hour for an interview, appear to be a lot of trouble. On band photos their arms are covered with tattoos, cigarettes are dangling from their mouths and they seem to drink beer and fancy whiskey a lot. I will have to show off my own tattoos to be credible enough to talk to them halfway at eye level.
These are the kinds of clichés that really piss off Sophie Diggelmann, Sara Diggelmann and Franca Mock, the three women of Velvet Two Stripes. Yes, we drink a shot of whiskey from time to time and we smoke cigarettes. Yes, we are loud and we like to laugh. So what! More annoying than this is only another widespread platitude: that Velvet Two Stripes is an all female band (or even worse: a girl group). Excuse me? Has anyone ever called the Rolling Stones a boy band?
Let us better talk about music and "Devil Dance” then, the new album by Velvet Two Stripes, before VTS will hit the stage tonight in Berne, Switzerland. The album was recorded in Berlin, in the famous Hansa Studios; it is the temporarily summit of a road that Velvet Two Stripes have traveled since their first EP "Fire". "The songs of 'Devil Dance' sound different than you used to sound,” I ask the band, “how come?"
Sara is the quickest to reply. “We are better at songwriting now. We have learned how to write better songs. This was the biggest step for us compared to before. Our new songs are very differently constructed than the previous ones."
Songwriting by Velvet Two Stripes is often the result of jam sessions; everyone joins in and eventually, somehow, a musical idea emerges which is followed up. Most of the times a guitar riff coming from Sara is involved. "How many riffs does a guitarist’s life have?,” I ask Sara.
She laughs. "I do not know if there is a limit,” she says. "RPL, riffs per life, so to speak. You can always play the same riff, but when the bass does something else then the riff itself will sound different as well."
Sara started her life as a guitar player with a Fender Stratocaster and later switched to a Telecaster. Today she plays a Gibson ES-335 from the year 1968. Big guitar heroes like Eric Clapton, B.B. King and Dave Grohl play (or have played) the same model.
Franca’s bass, a Fender Precision, is vintage too and dates back to 1972. "Only your voice is relatively young and is made in 1993,” I am teasing Sophie. "Who knows,” she answers slyly, "maybe it is the reincarnation of an older voice."
"Janis Joplin maybe?"
"In any case, I already shouted in 1993."
Sophie Diggelmann knows her raspy rock voice well and knows how to keep it in shape. The important thing is, says Sophie, that she listens to her own body. Sophie senses how much her voice can bear and thus gets through the concerts without becoming hoarse. And should her voice nevertheless be a little knocked out then there is always tea. The cigarettes she smokes are not really good for her voice, Sophie is well aware of that, "but what else can you do if you must kill time before concerts?”
Sophie studies art and is also responsible for the artwork of Velvet Two Stripes. The cover of “Devil Dance” is her work. And she also designed the VTS T-shirt that was a goodie in the band’s crowdfunding campaign last year and which I am wearing for the interview tonight. "In Beirut they almost wanted to rip your T-shirt off my body,” I say, "my friends there loved it that much."
“Yes exactly, Beirut,” says Sara. “In one of your messages you asked us about the oriental-sounding guitar solo that I play on 'Sister Mercy'. The reason is that a few years ago I visited Beirut for two weeks and got to play the oud, the Arabic lute. I was inspired so much by this that I have played some oriental sounds in the studio when recording the album, but with an electric guitar.”
Indeed: the oriental notes of "Sister Mercy" could indicate a future progression of the band. And also the noise elements that are present in several corners of "Devil Dance", especially in the last 30 seconds of "My Own Game”. Sure thing, the blues will always be the musical root of Velvet Two Stripes, but if we dive into the blues even more that we already did, the band says, "we can soon collaborate with Philipp Fankhauser."
Anyway, Velvet Two Stripes don’t see themselves as a blues band, but rather as a rock band. As a blues garage rock band that likes to play hard and loud. With "Devil Dance" they have created the essence of this style, they have found the state they desire. The songs of Velvet Two Stripes have become more straightforward, without background vocals, pop elements and drum computers. VTS achieve a maximum effect with a reduced-to-the-max attitude.
“With Velvet Two Stripes there is an ongoing development happening from the inside."
Where is the musical journey of Velvet Two Stripes heading to? What's next in their career? I'm getting a rudimentary graphic out of my pocket that I drew in preparation for this interview. It shows Velvet Two Stripes in search of their true sound - which they have now found with "Devil Dance" - and the possibility, starting from this reference point, to further develop the sound of the band.
The three women like the drawing. "On the new album,” says Sara, "we've become bolder and dare to try out new things. Take 'Lizard Queen’ as an example: I have been playing this rolling guitar part with the deep bass sounds for ages at our soundchecks. So far, Sophie and Franca always found that it was boring. But now the time was right and we tried to build a song around this part."
“With Velvet Two Stripes there is an ongoing development happening from the inside,” Sara continues. "We find each other more and more."
Hell would rather become Antarctica than "Devil Dance" not becoming a success. Songs from the album can now be found on various playlists on Spotify. As a result, the number of monthly clicks for Velvet Two Stripes has jumped from 800 to 82,000. The band has only a limited idea of how this all happened, who in the world of Spotify digs Velvet Two Stripes so much and integrates them into playlists, even in Canada. They also don’t know who is responsible for giving VTS airplay on a Dutch radio station. They didn’t pay anybody to do this. But by all means it’s great.
At the end of our conversation Sara returns to my sketchy mind map. "Nobody has ever made such a drawing for us,” she says. "Now I'm really excited to find out where our journey will lead us."
Velvet Two Stripes will be on tour all summer in Switzerland, Germany and Austria. For details and dates check out the band's website.
Kurt is based in Bern and Beirut is his second home. Always looking for that special angle, he digs deep into people, their stories and creations, with a sweet spot for music.
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