Barbadian singer Shontelle is getting accustomed to spending time in the Middle East. On this particular May afternoon, she’s in a hotel room in Dubai preparing to headline the Dance2LAX show, featuring several big-name choreographers. By happy coincidence, it means she should also get to catch her appearance on MBC’s Coke Studio, which airs the same day. “The most fun I’ve had in music,” she says, of the show.
Shontelle performs with Tunisian singer Saber Rebaï, and is backed by a number of musicians including the Egyptian band Cairokee, who made a name for themselves last year with a number of songs in support of the Egyptian revolution. “Their story – of bringing young people together – was a real inspiration,” she says.
Prior to her appearance, Shontelle was unsure what exactly to expect. “I’d had some documentation explaining what the idea was – to fuse Eastern and Western music,” she says. “And that really appealed to me. But I’d never met Michel [Elefteriades, music producer and host of Coke Studio] or Saber. And I was wondering how it would work out.” The language barrier was a concern, she says, “but once we got into the studio, that just didn’t matter. Music’s such a universal language.”
It helped that she was already familiar with Arabic music from her childhood in Barbados. “People don’t realize that there are so many people [of Arabic origin] over there,” she says. “But growing up I had friends from Lebanon, Syria, all over, so I was familiar with the Eastern sounds. And, being a percussionist [she took the chance to sit in on drums and jam with Cairokee during the screening], I just love the rhythms.”
The musicians worked on a classic Arabic track, “Tilaat Ya Mahle Noorha,” with Shontelle incorporating the Motown classic “Sunny,” previously sung by Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, among others (which was, she admits, “intimidating”). The track came together when Elefteriades threw some salsa stylings into the final mix.
Shontelle says she may look to incorporate elements of Eastern music into her future work. “That fusion is the kind of thing I really like.” She’s currently working on her third album, which should drop later this year if she can find time to finish it between launching her new line of Caterpillar boots and writing songs for other people. Her co-writing credit on Rihanna’s “Man Down” has meant “the phone hasn’t stopped ringing” as other artists (she won’t – or, at least, her manager tells her not to – reveal who) try to persuade her to collaborate.
And there may be a possible return to Coke Studio in the future. “I’d love to do it again,” Shontelle says. “As a pop artist, it’s easy to get stuck with electronic music, so it was really refreshing for me to go and work with real musicians. I had such a great time.”