It was a chilly night in January, and the headliner at Cafe Nine had cancelled due to a family emergency. That left Rudeyna — a New Havener by way of Lebanon, Cyprus, and other points Middle East — to headline the show herself.
Turned out that was just fine.
Rudeyna, who returns to Cafe Nine this Thursday, Feb. 26, opening for And the Kids and Sun Parade, makes music that is delightfully difficult to categorize. It centers on her powerful, flexible voice, a warm and warbly thing that she can sharpen to an edge when she pushes it. This lets her roam across a musical landscape that draws from punk, pop, funk, and jazz — all of it, however, tinged with a vague yet unmistakable Middle Eastern flavor.
Born in Lebanon during its civil war, Rudeyna spent her childhood moving from place to place across the Middle East, from Dubai to Qatar to Cyprus. She had “a lot of alone time” as a kid.
“When I was 8, I got a keyboard, and I’d just make stuff up on it,” she said.
She arrived in New Haven when she was 12; she considers herself “very lucky” to have ended up here. Not long after arriving, she was walking in East Rock with a friend and came across a scene in which a dog had been injured — hit by a car, maybe — and there was an ambulance crew there, taking care of the animal.
“In Beirut,” she said, “a building could blow up and nobody would come.”
She grew up surrounded by music, and not only the pop music she heard on the radio. While she lived in the Middle East, she heard “a lot of Bollywood,” she said. As she got older, there were Stan Getz and Jethro Tull records. Keith Jarrett. Thelonious Monk. Frank Zappa: “Sheik Yerbouti, I think it was,” she said.
She sang in school musicals as a kid — “one of the greatest things about this country is that they have arts in schools,” she said — and in bands in Connecticut ranging from jazz to rock to funk. She moved to California briefly and enrolled in a music program at Citrus College in Glendora. She gigged there, too, but was at last enticed back to Connecticut, where she kept singing.
She worked as a political organizer for the Green Party and became a yoga instructor. “For a long time,” she said, “I just wanted to go to an ashram and do my practice and work in my garden and write my songs. ”
Then, a couple years ago, she had a change of heart.
“I realized that a lot of my anger at the world was misplaced. All my anger at the world was projection. When you’re angry at something, you’re not accepting it for what it is,” she said. “My job is better done if there’s light in it — if we can accept the pain for what it is, but use it to find an opening, a connection.”
So she turned from political organization to music.
“So many songs I threw out and didn’t finish,” she said. “Then I decided to start finishing them.”
Rudeyna began by making demos on her laptop. She shared these with producer/musician Bill Readey, who helped produce an EP of her music. He also offered to be her guitarist in a live band.
“‘I think we’re going to have a hard time finding a band,’” she recalled Readey saying. “I said, ‘I don’t know. I think that’s going to be the easy part.’”
She was right. Her band came together organically, with people subbing in and out depending on availability. To her delight, the band — currently Readey on guitar, Fred DiLeone on keys, Adrian Van de Graaff on bass, and Jake Habegger on drums — turned her laptop creations into something more muscular, more ferocious.
“The whole point is the rawness, the vulnerability, accessing something that’s very pure and very free,” she said. “The songs are there for the band to make their own.”
At the January fill-in gig at Cafe Nine, Rudeyna’s set came charging out of the gate from the first note. The place was packed with friends, friends of the band, and friends of friends, from her years of growing up in New Haven. There was also a small contingent of people (like this reporter) who had come out of curiosity.
But when the music started up, how we’d all gotten there didn’t matter so much. People who’d been sitting got up; people who were already up started dancing. So did Rudeyna herself, moving in response to what her bandmates were doing and weaving her voice into the texture they created. The energy lasted all the way through the set, sometimes barely contained, sometimes let loose. And it all ended in smiles and words of gratitude.
“Curiosity is a really core part of it,” she said. “A lot of it is about the process of experiencing it without thinking about it — of just being vulnerable.”
There’s that word again. Vulnerable. Not every performer seeks to be vulnerable on stage. Why does Rudeyna?
“That’s where there’s the fear,” she said. “That’s where there’s the learning. And that’s where you’re real and where you grow. I want to grow. I want to create the life I want. I want to live the dream and bring it to everyone who’s involved with my life. So I have to be honest. I have to be vulnerable.”