UAE: Mexican violinist on being trolled for 'westernising' Arabic music

Renowned for Arabic covers, including viral rendition of 'Ana Habibi', Lubella Gauna talks about music as a unifying force and how she handles criticism

by

Somya Mehta

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Photos by Muhammad Sajjad/KT
Photos by Muhammad Sajjad/KT

Published: Mon 27 May 2024, 7:49 PM

Born to Mexican parents and raised in the United States, Lubella Gauna’s dual heritage has had a profound influence on her musical journey, making her a true embodiment of the Mexican-American experience.

Though her father was a traditional businessman, the real musical influence came from her great uncles in Mexico, renowned musicians in their hometown, and her great-grandfather, a self-taught violinist. It was these familial ties that laid the foundation for her musical inclinations, Gauna mentions. “I guess that’s where I get it, it’s genetic,” she reflects, attributing her talent for playing by ear to her ancestors.


Strings of childhood

Gauna’s fascination with the violin began at the tender age of seven. Initially drawn to the harp, she was deterred by the lack of available lessons in her small town. Instead, a visiting teacher introduced her to the violin, an instrument that instantly captivated her. “It looked elegant, it looked beautiful,” she recalls. Despite her father's suggestion to pursue mariachi and Mexican music, Gauna was adamant about playing classical violin, captivated by its sophistication.

CT060424-MS-LUBELLA -
CT060424-MS-LUBELLA -

Though, her dedication and talent quickly bore fruit. “My parents got me a violin, and I continued playing for many years, participating in numerous competitions across California,” she continues. Several competitions later, she eventually performed at prestigious venues like Carnegie Hall in New York and the Sydney Opera House in Australia by the age of 18.


Music & money

A full scholarship offer from The Juilliard School marked a pivotal moment in her career, but her parents, adhering to traditional values, insisted she pursue a more stable profession.“My mum and dad, being from a Mexican family, said, ‘No, miha, you're not going to Juilliard. We're not going to have you move out of the house’, so they didn't let me go. I had to decline the offer.”

“I regret it now,” says Gauna. “When I tell them what Juilliard was, they regret it too, but they didn't know any better at the time. My father used to tell me, ‘You need to study something that will give you money. Music is not going to give you money, a degree will give you money.’”

Growing up in a conventional household can often mean that ‘safer’ subjects such as sciences or professional degrees are preferred over the arts/humanities, as being a source of stable income, says the Mexican expat. “Ironically, I'm still playing music, and now I'm making money from it.”

Nurse-turned-violinist

Consequently, Gauna chose nursing, specialising in cardiology, while keeping her musical pursuits in tact. Balancing a nursing career and her passion for music, she did face some challenges where she prioritised her education to graduate as a registered nurse.

“When I was about to graduate from nursing school, there was a conflict between a concert I had and my final exam. I had to decide between my nursing school or the concert, and I ended up choosing to graduate and take my final exam,” she recounts. “Music was always going to be there, but my education would not wait.”

Eventually freelancing for Mexican artists and performing cover songs, Gauna found a new dimension to her music. “That’s when I started doing Mexican cover songs with my violin on the side.”

The viral moment

A chance discovery of a Middle Eastern musician on YouTube sparked her interest in Arabic music, says Gauna. Intrigued by its rhythms and melodies, she decided to learn and perform Ana Habibi by the legendary Mohammed Abdu.

“When I was uploading one of my music videos, I saw a man on the side bar wearing a white kandura and I got curious to hear what he was playing. Until then, I had never listened to Middle Eastern music. I remember playing it and thinking, ‘This is interesting. I think I can play this’. So, I learned it all by ear and uploaded it,” she adds. “That's when it went viral.”

Gauna’s rendition of Ana Habibi went viral, earning millions of views and introducing her to a new audience. Despite criticism and scepticism from some quarters, her unique interpretation and passion for Arabic music garnered her a significant following. “At the time, I didn't know that Mohammed Abdu was a legendary, famous musician. I did the cover, and it got millions of views. That's when everybody started following me and sharing my videos. That’s how it all started.”

Mexico meets the Middle East

So, what drew her towards Arabic music, beyond the views and adulation? “Just the music—the sound, the rhythms, the melodies, the sound of the Oud,” the musician responds. “Maybe because it has somewhat of a rhythm like Latin music, but something about it attracted me. I just loved it. It's hard to explain.”

Learning Arabic music by ear, Gauna acknowledges the challenges she faces, particularly from critics who constantly question her authenticity. “I get a lot of hate and criticism all the time, even from professional musicians.” However, despite the challenges, she remains undeterred. “I've learned to just block them out,” she asserts, embracing her distinctive style and the fusion of Western and Arabic influences. “There will always be haters threatened by something new or different.”

She recounts an incident where a renowned violinist dismissed her efforts, citing her gender and Western background. “There is one well-known violinist who plays with many professional singers. I reached out to him for help, but he told me no. He said, ‘You can’t play; you're a girl, first of all, and nobody here in the GCC is going to accept you because you're a Westerner. Third of all, you're playing Western style, and you're not playing it correctly’. Then his followers came and bullied me online on social media. So, that was very harsh.”

“I've managed to learn to ignore that,” says Gauna. “This is what makes me unique—because I'm different. Otherwise, I’d sound just like everybody else, and it wouldn't matter if I were different. The fact that I do it with passion and because I like it is what makes it special,” she adds.

Life outside music

Living between the US and Dubai, Gauna balances her time caring for her father, a cancer patient, and her musical career. Even though the emotional toll of her father's illness is significant, she strives to maintain a positive outlook. “I do get down sometimes, though I try not to show it. My followers, who’ve been there for many, many years; they know my ups and downs. When I’m in the US, you'll notice that I tend to stay a little bit quiet.”

Gauna’s influence extends beyond her music. She converted to Islam six years ago, finding peace in its teachings. This spiritual journey, coupled with her cultural background, allows her to act as a bridge between her diverse followers in Mexico, the US, and the Middle East. “I have a lot of followers in Mexico and the United States. Being here makes me happy because I feel like I'm uniting them and educating them that there's more to life than just their music and what they see on TV.”

Through her violin, the musician weaves a tapestry of sounds that celebrate her heritage and embrace the diversity of her audience, creating a harmonious blend that resonates with many. “Now that I'm here and they see everything I post, many people following me are interested in coming to the UAE. Everybody wants to come here to experience the culture, the music,” says Gauna.

“Music serves as a powerful vehicle for transporting culture across borders and bridging gaps between societies. It has a unique ability to transcend language barriers and convey emotions that resonate universally,” she signs off.

somya@khaleejtimes.com

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