Born of Arab and Dutch parents and now based in Australia, singer Wafia Al-Rikabi spent much of her life moving across countries. It seems apt that when we speak, she’s watching a migration of butterflies fly past her Sydney window. Her globalized upbringing infuses her music, coming through particularly in her Middle Eastern influences, and meditations on the nature of change.
You’ve said you consider yourself to be a world citizen. What does that mean to you?
I’m Arab and Dutch, and I live in Australia, but my parents lived all over the world. I was born in the Netherlands, and my sisters were all born in different parts of the world, so I guess I don’t really feel like I have a country that I call home because I sort of had to make do to just make everywhere my home. I still have a lot of family in the Middle East. So even though one might consider me Australian, because I live here, and I’ve adopted the accent, my heart is still in a lot of other places.
You’ve lived in New Zealand, Canada, the US and Australia. How has your movement across the globe permeated your songwriting?
Everywhere I went I would listen to the radio. It was the one thing that was constant. I guess that’s the one thing I’m drawn to the most—just music, constantly. That comes through in my songwriting because I was exposed to so many genres across different countries. I think I originally learned to sing in Dutch and now, the Middle Eastern side of me comes through in my choice of melodies and harmonies.
Some of your songs feature Arabic lyrics in addition to English. When do you choose to write in Arabic rather than in English?
I’ve noticed that it feels right when the word that I’m looking for isn’t to be found in the English vocabulary. English is a beautiful language, but I think it’s quite simplified compared to a lot of the older ones, like Mandarin and Cantonese. There are things in those that you can’t describe in English—you just can’t translate them. It’s about a feeling rather than a word. I’m exposed to all these Arabic feelings and emotions and sense of duty that don’t really exist in the Western world, meaning that the best way to say what I’d like to say is in the language of my mother tongue. I use it to fill in the gaps without trying to alienate people. My music is mine and all I can ever give people is myself, and the fact that I speak Arabic is part of that, but it’s not all of it.
The central theme of your debut EP, XXIX, is change and transition. Why did you choose to explore these topics?
At first it wasn’t [a choice]. Change has always been put upon me, and I would always comply. As I came to write about the things I was writing about, they all revolved around change, and then it became a matter of identifying that, bringing it to the forefront and making it the theme of my record. It felt as if everything fell into place after making that conscious decision and suddenly I became aware of what kind of artist I was. I felt like I’d identified a part of myself.
You recorded the album in quite the isolated location—on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula; why was it important to you to be isolated for the recording process?
I find that at the beginning and the end of my work, I tend to like to be alone. Sometimes when you’re working with other people or you have a larger team, there can be a lot of noise. A lot of opinions can make the water murky when trying to find your own. When I was writing, especially for this EP, I was a very confused young adult. I didn’t know my identity, and where I stood in the world. I don’t fit in in the Middle East, I don’t fit in here, so I found being alone with myself helped me find myself, as cliché as it sounds. It was very enlightening for me.