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San Jose Pride

Egyptian-born, French-raised, South Bay-schooled Nehal Abuelata brings a unique slant to her performance at San Jose Pride this weekend
BREAKING THE SOUND BARRIER: Multi-lingual Sunnyvale singer/songwriter Nehal Abuelata performs at Pride on Saturday at 1:30pm.

NEHAL ABUELATA knows something about liberation. Born in Egypt, the 26-year-old Sunnyvale singer/songwriter was raised in France, where she studied piano for five years in the ridiculously rigid world of French music instruction. Despite her clear affinity for composition, she was told that she didn't have a good enough grasp of music theory, and continually discouraged from continuing as a musician.

"I quit. I just quit," remembers Abuelata. "I was 11 or 12. I told my mom, 'I'm never touching the piano again.'"

And yet, when her family moved from France to the South Bay—where she enrolled in Homestead High School and then San Jose State University—her mother held on to the piano. The summer before she started SJSU, her mom somehow convinced her to check out a three-hour piano workshop at De Anza College.

"I said OK, and I went. Although I couldn't tell you anything concrete I learned from this guy, it was something that he said: 'To be a good musician, you don't necessarily need to know how to read music.' I felt this crazy relief and inspiration. When I got home that day, I started playing on the piano. It planted the seed that you can do this, you've just got to keep doing it. And I kept doing it."

But for years, Abuelata would lock herself away whenever she played, still self-conscious about her music and the sting of a system that nearly crushed her unusual, improvisational style.

"When I play solo, I'm doing my song differently every single time I play it. I don't like to repeat things," she says. "Sometimes I get a certain vibe from people, and I'm like, I'm going to play this song slower. I'm going to play this song faster. I'm going to linger on that one place. Sometimes I stop in the middle of the song, and I sing it differently. Sometimes I change lyrics. That's the fun part for me."

She has only been performing in public for a year, and when she plays at San Jose Pride this weekend, it'll be the first time some of the people who know her will have heard her.

Though she is straight herself, she's discovered that she has developed a following in the LGBT community in the last 12 months.


"They always come to my shows, they're some of the most loyal fans I have," she says. "I think they connect with the lyrics. A lot of my songs are about discrimination or not feeling like you belong, being an outsider. A lot of my gay friends can relate to that, because growing up, they weren't sure where they belonged, identity-wise. For somebody like me, who's moved from one continent to another growing up, you really search for who you are."

Her struggle with anti-immigrant and anti-Arab racism in France fueled a long battle with depression. "There's a lot of discrimination, a lot of narrow-mindedness. In France, it's like 'Learn our language, lose the accent, look like us, dress like us.' So I grew up with a lot of frustration, which shows through in my lyrics, and the way I sing them."

Indeed her songs, initially moody ballads but now increasingly bluesy and gritty, have an unmistakable personal-as-political edge to them. Some, like "Clear With Our Demands," are more obvious, while others like "On Your Side" reveal bigger implications with repeat listens.

Abuelata's music is evolving quickly. She recently began working with a band—Devin Moreno on guitar, Aaron Marquez on bass and drummer Josh Gardner—billed as Nehal and the Lost & Wanted. At Senzala in Sunnyvale, they sounded tight already, debuting songs like "Let Me Be Your Prozac" and "Blues and Decay," a 10-minute jam that had Abuelata improvising lyrics and spoken-word, even howling, as the band went off.

It's only recently that she's felt so comfortable improvising in English. A translator for Cisco Systems who speaks four languages, she's most always written her lyrics in English but improvised in French. But now that she feels ready to let loose in English, she's loving it.

"I'm pretty passionate, and a little hyperactive, if you ask anyone who knows me," she admits. "I think that's what I love so much about the English improvisation. There is room for me to get crazy and intense and passionate without sounding like I'm just screaming. Because the blues is about that, the blues is just getting your blues out, getting all that stuff out. It's freeing, in a way that French wasn't able to be for me."

Abuelata knows none of this might have happened if it weren't for the sly move her mother made years ago, telling her it was OK if she didn't want to play the piano anymore—they would just keep it "as furniture."

"She's my biggest supporter, and the most patient woman you'll ever meet on earth," she says of her mom. "She had that motherly instinct of 'I know there's something in you that needs to express itself, and in France hadn't had the chance to.' I don't think she knew exactly what was going to happen, but she felt there was a potential somewhere, maybe. Then years later, I'm like 'You were right.'"

San Jose Pride, Aug. 20-21

Nehal Abuelata performs Saturday at 1:30pm

Discovery Meadow, San Jose

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