Hers to discover

Well-travelled, introspective Montreal singer-songwriter Neema takes a breather in Halifax this week. Shannon Webb-Campbell catches up.

Montreal songstress Neema’s debut album, Masi, is highly intellectualized pop music accompanied by probing philosophical insights. She is making two intimate stops in Halifax: at The Economy Shoe Shop on August 30 and on September 1 at One World Cafe.

  “The talented François Turgeon is joining me at both shows,” she says by phone from Cape Breton, where she was performing. “We’ll be playing acoustic sets on guitar, bass and percussion, as well as some spoken word.”

Neema’s talents are as bountiful as the stamps in her passport. Not only can she sing in several languages, she has kept postal codes all over the globe. Her well-travelled background has given her the ear to fuse world beats with jazz undertones and a hint of folk. Withn her voyages she has studied with Tibetan monks, shook hands with the Dalai Lama and was blessed by Mother Teresa.

“I was backpacking in Calcutta, India, and had the opportunity to attend mass with Mother Teresa,” says Neema. “Unfortunately she was too ill at the time to speak, yet it was such a blessing just to be within her presence.”

The Arabic translation of Neema means grace, and that would surprise very few after absorbing the artist’s piercing tales. Whether these melodious moments of enlightenment are woven into the tapestries of a song or just throughout her casual conversation, Neema’s engaging personality shines through in everything she does.

“When you meet the Dalai Lama he gives you a red string in honour of meeting him,” she says. “I tied the lace around my wrist and somehow without noticing, I managed to lose it. Of course I searched everywhere for it, but it has yet to turn up. Go figure, I meet one of the world’s most profound religious figures and I lose the token he gives me.”

Masi is littered with a variety of religious questionings, the struggles of humanity. It can be read as a road map of Neema’s self-discovery.

“My experiences through travelling is the best form of education I have received,” she says. “After finishing my management degree in Australia, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go next. I spent some time in Egypt uncovering some of my family’s roots and that’s when I became serious about music.”

These days Neema has dug her heels into Montreal’s soil, but she’s truly a vagabond at heart. Her spiritual explorations are manifested throughout her music, as her lyrical musings shed light on a world that could otherwise be deemed hopeless.

“The album’s title is derived from Dogrib, a language of the Northwest Territories,” says Neema. “Masi translates to ‘thank you’ in English. I really wanted to extend my gratitude to everyone who helped me make this record, from my teachers in Egypt to the voices of the Great North. It’s really a thank you to the universe.”

The opening and closing tracks of Masi are prayers layered over music.

“The older I get the more I realize how important gratitude is,” she says. “Basically I wanted to thank everyone, as they are prayers of thanks to life, to people, to the Aboriginal people, to everything.”

Neema’s inner scribe surfaced when she was in grade 5, as her pen constantly spilled poems and lyrics. But it wasn’t until her later years that she perfected her craft professionally.

“When I started writing again it felt as if my boat was finally flowing in the right direction,” she says. “I am still finding my path, yet I know I am in my element.”

The forecast for Neema’s future seems like high winds and calm waters, as her flourishing career is only setting sail.

“It sort of feels like everything has come full circle,” she says. “I only started my degree in management on a whim, as at that time I really wanted to be a photographer but had my reservations that it may not become much more than a hobby. Needless to say I never dreamed that music would become a career path. It feels most natural to me.”

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