By M. Sheldon
Saida, Lebanon and Canfield, Ohio seem worlds apart but share more in common than you could imagine. Both are small towns, places where everyone knows everyone and where borrowing a cup of sugar from your neighbor isn’t a quaint throw-back to another era but something that happens with regularity. Saida typifies the heart of everyday Arab life in much the same way Canfield is the prototypical Mid-western community. Another thing that these two seemingly disparate places have in common is singer and songwriter Zaher Saleh. While Saleh rose to fame in the Middle East, he and his music are equal parts Arab and American.
Born and raised in Lebanon to Palestinian refugees, Saleh began to spend his summers as a teen with relatives in Ohio, eventually attending high school and college there. “I remember how I couldn’t wait for summer to come! I wanted to get back to Ohio to see my friends there and do exotic things like go to Target!” Saleh recalls with a laugh. “But seriously, I am so grateful to have grown up in both Lebanon and Ohio. I think it has given me a unique perspective. Mostly it gave me the gift at a young age of realizing that we are all essentially the same. Yes, I am an Arab. I am Palestinian. I am Lebanese. I am American. I am all of these things. But mostly I am human. We all have that in common.”
Saleh’s ascent into pop stardom began in Ohio. While attending Youngstown State University on a whim he sent an audition tape for the Arab language version of hugely popular pop music talent contest“Star Academy”. Saleh recalls, “I recorded the audition and sent it off. I actually forgot about it. I was shocked when I got the call.”
He packed his bags and was off to Beirut. He was instantly a fan favorite. He didn’t win the competition, but placed in the top five. Unlike many reality TV contestants, Saleh went on to even greater success releasing both English and Arab language hits in the Middle East and singing to crowds of thousands of adoring fans through the region.
But true to his multicultural roots Saleh is now poised to bring his talents to the American stage. He is currently at work on his first album for US and international release. Saleh’s sweet and soulful voice has caught the attention and respect of music industry legends. His collaborators on his freshman offering reads like a who’s who of music royalty. Grammy Award winning producer David Kahne, who has worked with the likes of Paul McCartney, Tony Bennett, Stevie Nicks, Regina Specktor and Lana del Rey is collaborating with Saleh and producer Patrick Cannell on the first track from his new album “Habibi”. “Zaher is a major talent, both as a signer and a songwriter. I think he will be the first-ever crossover star. There are touches of Arabic to his music but it has an appeal that goes beyond boarders or cultures.”
“I don’t believe in boarders. This world is for everyone.” Says Saleh. While he does not consider himself political, he does hope that his work can break down boundaries and heal old wounds. He recalls “When I was young my grandmother used to tell me stories about growing up in Syria. Her neighbor and best friend was Jewish. When she grew up Arabs and Jews lived together in the same communities. They were friends and neighbors. I remember her crying as she said “What has happened. Why are we killing each other? We are cousins.” It broke my heart. I hope one day we can get back to that, to living together in peace as part of the same family, the human family. Nothing would make me happier if my music could contribute to that in some small way. But I am also happy if it makes people smile or touches them in some way.”
His new music is already beginning to touch people. He has a growing legion of influential supporters. Mary J. Blige says “If anyone can unite people with their music it is Zaher. The love and the sweetness you hear is real. It’s authentic.”
Saleh is both clearly grateful for and humbled by the interest and support his second home has shown. “To have people that I have been inspired by and that I deeply respect like my music is unbelievable. But I just try to stay focused on the music. And remember that they are people too. It keeps me grounded. And helps to keep me from getting too nervous!”
He looked anything but nervous when he sang “Habibi” accompanied by a grand piano and a quartet of violists to a room of Hollywood power-players gather to celebrate Jack Huston’s staring role in the upcoming remake of Ben Hur. As he sang the last note the room erupted into thunderous applause. A room of A-list stars where on their feet cheering Saleh on. Someone said aloud “He’s going to be a star.” Well they definitely know one of their own.
To be certain Saleh will use his star power to both entertain and inspire. He will also no doubt help to bring the world a little closer to harmony.
Photographer // Spencer Ostrander
Grooming // Niles Sterling
All Clothing // Tom Ford Spring/Summer 2016