|Like a rising star, percussionist Simona Abdallah is forging her way to the top of the Danish music scene with her energetic, dancing hands beating our rhythms on the Arab Darbuka drum. Having in the past played with, among others, the world-famous Belgian star Natacha Atlas Simona Abdallah is in April embarking on a tour with the legendary Danish punk-rock band Sort sol
All this makes this 31-year-old Danish-Palestinian probably the only professional woman drummer with an Arab background in the world.
“The Darbuka is practically forbidden for women. And that’s not fair. When you ask why this is, the reply is usually that that’s just the way it is”, explains Simona Abdallah to Forum when asked to tell how she has defied tradition and achieve success as a professional musician on an instrument which is normally reserved for men.
For Simona Abdallah, it has not been easy to get to where she is today. For many years, she kept to the part of the music scene that operated at private parties and at closed events. She did so not out of choice, but out of fear for her family who were of the opinion that she should give up drumming and devote her life to having a husband and children instead. Over the years, the same family has constantly repressed her and limited her freedom of movement in order to make her tow their line.
Simona Abdallah’s journey to becoming a professional career musician has been a long one, and to tell her story requires turning back tome to when, as a six-year-old girl, she and her family fled to Denmark to escape the war in Lebanon.
Using the drum as an escape
After a time moving from one asylum centre to another, the family finally settled in a house in the small provincial town of Grenå. Simona Abdallah remembers this time as being wonderful. These years marked a period of calm, and being the only immigrant family in the area made her parents very open to the Danish way of life:
“They were so relaxed and open minded. At Christmas time, my father even bought a Christmas tree”, she remembers.
However, after a few years the family moved to Gellerupparken (Denmark’s largest housing scheme) in Braband near Aarhus. It was here that life took a drastic change of course. Gellerupparken is home to a great many immigrants, all of whom kept tabs on one another, poked their noses into each other’s business and gossiped about each other. Suddenly, it was important to behave like a good Arab:
“Social control was everywhere – particularly when it came to girls – and as I got older, my parents began constrict my life more and more. I couldn’t leave the house without being interrogated about where I was going, which girlfriend I was going to visit, whether or not this friend had brothers, or if there would be any men present. They were petrified that the family would get a bad reputation.”
The result was that as a teenager she spent a great deal of her time listening to music in her room. And it was here that she discovered the drum.
“When you are so constrained and pressed into a corner, you need some sort of escape. And for me, this was my drum”, she laughs boisterously.
Rather the control of one man than the control of an entire family
At that point in time, her parents were still fine about her playing the Darbuka –after all, she was still a child and she was doing it behind the closed doors of their home away from prying eyes. She showed a natural aptitude and got to grips with the oriental drum rhythms so quickly that she was allowed to play at women’s parties held within the family.
“Whenever there was a bridal party, I’d come drumming through the door into the party. This created such joy and energy in the room and I loved it. I thought ‘this is something that I want to keep on doing’”, she explains.
But one day, her mother received a call from a woman who she did not know who wanted to invite her to a bridal party. The woman wanted to know if Simona could bring her drum along. This made her mother furious and she flat refused. By now, Simona was 17 and ready to be married off, so, thought her mother, now she had to think about her reputation and put playing this man’s drum behind her.
And Simona Abdallah was, in fact, ready for marriage – but not because she wanted to get a husband.
“From the age of 14, my biggest goal in life has always been to become a free and independent woman. ‘when I turn 30, I’m moving to Copenhagen’, I told my mother. Her answer was always that it didn’t matter whether I was 100, I would always have to do what I was told. It was here that I thought that if I had to be controlled all my life then I would rather be controlled by one man than an entire family.”
During the next many years, her life revolved around long, ritualistic engagements and over-the-top weddings with masses of guests, artificial flowers, and humorous tacky gifts from Bazar Vest (a large local Arab market). In total, she went through four engagements and two marriages – and in not one of these was her heart with her.
Threats of violence
The first engagement was called off because the man was too dominating. Following this, she decided that she wanted to marry her cousin from Israel.
“My father said ‘Okay, but if you ring and say that you are having problems with him, I’ll come with a knife and slaughter you’” tells Simona Abdallah.
This is a classic threat and one that she has heard many times, she explains. To begin with, she was unsure as to whether her family actually meant it or not – she later found out that these menacing words were merely empty threats meant to control her.
But, this cousin, too, was eventually dropped. Instead, she married a man from the same housing block – and she is keen to stress that he was a ‘really great guy’.
The only problem was that she has never harboured any feelings for men.
“That made making the marriage work very difficult”, she tells without wishing to expand on this further.
The result was that, after six months of marriage, she got divorced. Her parents demanded that she move back into her old room at home and now her freedom was totally restricted.
“Since leaving school after 9th grade, I’ve always worked. This was something that I was allowed to continue doing, but otherwise I was not allowed to go out – I was no longer a virgin, so the family’s reputation was now really in danger. I couldn’t even spend the night at my sister’s because her husband was there.”
At one time, she tried to ask a psychologist (who she had been visiting in secret) for help to get her freedom. The psychologist did not quite understand and said that as she was over 18 and no longer a minor, she could just move away from home.
“But it’s just not that simple. If you run away, the family goes into shock and starts acting irrationally and purely based on their emotions”, explains Simona Abdallah, and adds that even though the threats of violence and murder she suffered during her upbringing were empty threats, there are girls who really are murdered for defying the will of their family.
“In no way did I want to run the risk of that, so I had to come up with another solution.”
The only solution she could see was a new marriage.
“I started thinking that it was way too difficult to escape the shackles of cultural norms. So, I would have to try and marry again and accept that I would have to live with a man and be controlled”, tells Simona Abdallah.
This memory brings a tear to her eye.
“It was a completely messed-up situation,” she explains, “and it remains messed up that there are still women today trapped in the same situation that I was. That’s why it’s so important that I come out and tell my story.”
Living a life beyond her wildest teenage dream
Her story gives hope to others. Although the future looked bleak during the years when she had abandoned her heart to appease her family, she is today living a life that is beyond her wildest teenage dreams.
She lives by herself, without a husband, and is a professional musician. And even though both these aspects of her life are unheard of for an Arab woman, her family have learned to live with it.
Admittedly, it is still only her sister and youngest brother who openly support her choice and ask her about her music career. And, admittedly her mother has still never come to see her daughter perform because it is embarrassing for her, and her eldest brother always starts talking about religion with her and reminds her that there is a life after death, if she tries to talk to him about her choices. Nevertheless, she does see her family and they always welcome her with a hug and open arms when she comes to visit them.
“I have been able to get the freedom to stand on my own two feet, without at the same time losing my family. I want very much to show others like myself that this is possible. Role models are important – it’s not as if I’m doing anything indecent. I’m creating great energy and spreading joy with my music.”
Taking up the drum again
Following another engagement that came to nothing, Simona Abdallah went on to marry her second husband at the age of 23. Like her, he dreamt of leaving Gellerupparken. Consequently, they moved to Copenhagen and built themselves a great new life with new jobs and a new circle of friends and acquaintances. But even this marriage failed to last. Simona simply did not love her husband.
Following the divorce, she called her family. They immediately demanded that she return home to live in her old room. This time, she categorically refused.
“While I still live and breathe, I will never come back to Gellerupparken”, she told them.
She really had tried hard o be a good wife. For years, her life had revolved around nothing else. It just would not work. After many threats being hurled from one corner of Denmark to the other, her family finally gave her an ultimatum of one-and-a-half years to pack up her life in Copenhagen and come home.
Today, Simona Abdallah does not know whether this deadline was about the family being able to tell friends and family that they had there daughter under full control and that she was coming home, or whether they really meant it. But time passed and the deadline came and went without ever being enforced. Finally, she had the freedom to live by herself.
“I had got my drum out again back when I moved to Copenhagen, but now I really began to practice with a vengeance”, she explains.
“Slowly but surely I began performing at private parties. It was such a pleasure for me to do this, but I had to keep quite a low profile so that my family wouldn’t find out that I was performing music. It was bad enough that I was living alone, as this in itself is seen as a sign of a promiscuous lifestyle.”
Set free by a kiss
As tome went on, Simona Abdallah’s courage grew and she said yes to more and more gigs without checking beforehand whether or not there would any immigrants present. Eventually, she joined ‘Missing Voices’ – a music collective for female Muslim artists. Then, one day, Missing Voices arranged a concert in the Danish town of Aarhus (close to her family’s home in Gellerupparken). Throughout the town, posters were put up showing Simona with her big hair and her sparkling eyes.
“I got really worried and scared and though ‘Right, now you have got to call your parents and tell them that you are a drummer’.”
And this is what she did. The result was that her mother lost her temper over the phone, cursed her and cut off all contact for a time. Her father, on the other hand, chose to come to the concert. And on hearing her play, he finally conceded.
“He danced around and was so very proud and said ‘that’s my daughter, that’s my daughter’, and then he came up onto the stage and kissed me on the head – in front of everyone. When a father does this, it means that you’re accepted”, she explains.
And from that moment on, what the rest of Gellerupparken thought about her choice of lifestyle no longer meant a thing.
“I felt ‘The eldest in the family has accepted it. Now, nothing can stop me’. It was a massive release.”
Today, it is two years since her father set her free with his kiss, and ever since she has been working furiously to come into the limelight.
“I’ve found festivals, event organisers and journalists on the Internet, and Facebook has proved to be a fantastic tool for me. It was, for example, through chatting on Facebook that I got in contact with Natacha Atlas. A network is vital – it opens doors, an area where I’ve been lagging behind. But I’m sure I’ll achieve all my goals – nothing is impossible. That’s something I have learned from my story”, ends Simona Abdallah.
Simona Abdallah - facts:
Born in Germany in 1979 of Palestinian parents from Lebanon who fled from Lebanon to Denmark in 1986.
Brought up in Gellerupparken in Aarhus. Youngest of five siblings (one sister and three brothers).
Educated as a life and business coach.
Music genres: Elektronica / Dance / World / Ambient / House.
See Simona Abdallah on Facebook
Watch Simona Abdallah on YouTube
Read about Simona Abdalla’s performance in Copenhagen’s Black Diamond 8 March 2011(In Danish)
Read about Natacha Atlas and the biography of her life which is currently being written.
Gellerup - facts:
Gellerup is a suburb of Denmark’s second city Aarhus and has 7,733 inhabitants (2006).
Gellerup consists primarily of the two housing schemes – Gellerupparken (Denmark’s largest council estate) and Toveshøj. The two housing schemes were built between 1968 and 1972.
88% of the residents in Gellerupparken and 82% of the residents in Toveshøj are immigrants or second-generation immigrants. The residential makeup of the area has lead many to categorise Gellerup as a ghetto.
The proportion of children and young people is relatively high with 44% of those living in Gellerupparken and 41% of those living in Toveshøj being under the age of 18. 76% of Gellerup residents over the age of 17 live solely on government benefits.
In terms of socio-economics, Gellerup residents on average have a gross annual income of less than DKK 150,000 is (national average in 2009 was approximately DKK 215,000).