In Conversation with Elissa Nakhleh and Nour Saba

Recent grads Elissa Nakhleh and Nour Saba connect with community through music.

Music students and recent graduates Elissa Nakhleh (BMus’22, Piano Performance) and Nour Saba (BA’22, Honours Psychology with a minor in Music Composition) invite the community to experience traditional Arabic music performed by Arabic youth and a traditional Arabic band. Through a project they developed, and with the support of Schulich’s Community Engagement Program, these two young women are providing a place and space for youth to strengthen their Arabic roots and connect with each other through music.  

In using their passion for music, discovery, and community, Elissa and Nour created a series of workshops focusing on the derbake (one of the most iconic percussion instruments in middle-eastern music, and which has been played by drummers for over 100 years) and Arabic song. Wanting to ensure that we could all share in the joy of this music initiative, a free concert takes place on Sunday, June 19 at 5:00 pm at the Église Orthodoxe D'Antioche.

As they prepare for the culmination of the classes, we got a chance to ask a few questions over email to learn a bit more about Elissa and Nour, their project, and what’s next.  

How did this project come about? 

Elissa: My piano professor Kyoko Hashimoto nominated me for Schulich’s Community Engagement Program. I accepted the nomination and got through the first round of coming up with an initial idea, then Nour and I wrote the project proposal and made the idea more concrete and doable! 

Nour: When Elissa came to me saying that she had this really cool idea about how to bring out the sense of community in Arab immigrants (like us), I was immediately intrigued and asked her for more information. While she explained the goal of her Community Engagement Project, I couldn’t help but agree to assist her with it because it gave me a sense of purpose to allow a group of youth both to strengthen their Arabic roots and bring them closer together as individuals through music. 

What has the response been to the program? 

It has actually been surprisingly supportive!! Every time we meet someone and talk to them about our project, our confidence gets boosted by their compliments and support; most of them underline the creativity and “newness” of our project! 

What are some of the outcomes of the project that you’re hoping for? 

We are hoping for the following: 

a) that we made the workshops fun enough for the youth to genuinely enjoy learning traditional techniques of Arabic music; 

b) that the participants’ interest in both the Derbake and Arabic songs remains strong even following the end of our workshops; and 

c) that the concert is successful enough for us to recreate another series of workshops in the near future (and/or maybe make it an annual event!). 

What has been one of the hurdles or challenges you’ve faced in building this program? How were you able to address it? 

One of the main challenges we faced in building this program is the overflowing responsibilities that come with a project this big; it is the very first time that either of us has taken on something involving so many parties and tasks. 

It was overwhelming at first — to make sure everything flowed smoothly and that our responsibilities towards our team, our supervisors, McGill’s HR team, the youth and their parents, and other third parties involved were all met. 

However, we managed this challenge through (a LOT) of excel sheets, checklists and to-do lists; basically, we found a way to split the tasks between the both of us while still collaborating on every step of the project. We had a lot of communication involved, and it honestly helped that we have known each other since childhood, because we get along pretty well. 

Sidenote: We were actually neighbors back in Syria. 😊 We would spend quite some time together, but we were never really close. Even when we came to Canada, arriving around the same time, we didn’t really meet much. It was through this project that we reconnected and found our friendship becoming stronger. 

How have the classes been going? Any memorable moments you could share with us so far? 

The classes have been both inspiring and (super) fun!  

What was particularly interesting was seeing the kids gradually open up to us; some were initially forced by their parents to join our program but then slowly showed interest of their own and began voluntarily participating.  

We also enjoyed the classes ourselves because we’re not Derbake players; we were thus learning just as the participants were, with Fadi Akari. So it was nice to share this experience with them. 

It also wasn’t a class where a rigid program was set; we offered the kids the chance to actively participate in the structure of the workshops: they got to choose the songs to learn as well as providing us with suggestions as to what activities we could do (e.g., the Arabic Dabke dance), and they also helped each other find easier ways to learn complex percussive rhythms. 

What advice would you give to your starting-at-university self? 

Nour: I think my starting-at-university self was too preoccupied with making sure everything was perfect at all times. I believe if I only asked myself to take things more lightly and allowed myself to make mistakes, that would have prevented a lot of backfiring stress and anxiety. 

Elissa: I would probably advise my starting-at-university self to join more clubs, whether they were at McGill or in the broader Montreal community. 

If you had a mantra/philosophy/phrase for where you are right now, what would it be? 

Nour: Honestly, with Covid-19 I realized that there are so many things that are not worth the mental weight we give them. I try to live in the moment as much as I can because it’s the only guaranteed moment I have. 

Could you share 3 things you love about making music in the community? 

We love how 1) music creates a bond between the people performing, 2) you’re always surprised with the result, and 3) cultural music can help you better understand its people. 

What’s next (for you individually, the program you’ve created, etc.)? 

Elissa: I plan to start giving piano lessons, to collaborate with others to make music, and hopefully getting the chance to share it!  Also, I would really want to find ways to incorporate Arabic music in the Classical music that I play. 

Nour: I will be going to grad school in psychology in the United Kingdom; I am still not sure what my ultimate goal is, but I will work on it one step at a time in the hope of helping others make better sense of their lives one day. 

For our program: We are definitely planning to create a second (and hopefully more) rounds of our workshops because of the success of our pilot project. We are not sure when exactly it will take place, but we hope to gather a larger group of participants and possibly include more activities and instruments into our future workshops. Also, we hope to collaborate with other communities / cultures who share the same goal as our project in order to create a broader sense of community engagement. 

What (or who) should we be adding to our playlist? (We’re absolutely inspired by your program!) 

You can check out this Youtube Playlist! 

We will keep updating it whenever we think of new songs to add! 😊 

Derbake and Arabic Song Concert 

Sunday, June 19 | 5:00 pm 

L'Église Orthodoxe D'Antioche, 120 boul. Gouin E, Montréal, QC, H3L 1A6, CA 

There will be more opportunities to lead community engagement projects in the future! Just email Nancy Czemmel, Manager of Student Services (nancy.czemmel [at] to let her know you're interested. 

Back to top