Singer Christiane Karam Raises Her Voice—and Her Fists—for Lebanon
When Voice Department faculty member Christiane Karam steps out in front of the crowd at the MGM Music Hall in Boston this week, she won't be holding a microphone. That night, the only sound that will matter is the chime of a bell, a sound with a simple meaning: fight.
On Thursday, September 29, Karam will face off against her opponent in the Belles of the Brawl IX charity boxing event, organized by Haymakers for Hope, which is raising hundreds of thousands of dollars to support cancer research and care. In Karam's case, the money she raises will go directly to the Children's Cancer Center of Lebanon in her native Beirut. The match is the culmination of many months of training and years of growth in the sport (all while balancing her careers as an educator, musician, artist, and much more)—but for Karam, this fight represents even more than an athletic competition for a worthy cause. Through it, she weaves together many threads in a story that stretches all the way back to her own childhood in Beirut.
The Doorway into Healing
When civil war broke out in Lebanon, Karam was 3 years old. By the time the conflict officially concluded, she was 19. As a result, although Karam has a deep affection for the country and its people, she also bears deep scars from the trauma of growing up amid perpetual violence and unrest.
Even Karam's earliest experiences of music were marked by the conflict. "My mom started me with music lessons when I was 8," she says. "There was no conservatory; everything was shut down because of the war. Everything was dangerous. The piano in our house was in a room we couldn't always access because it was more exposed to bombings than the inside rooms. So I couldn't always practice."
Yet in spite of the turbulent circumstances surrounding her musical pursuits, Karam says that music itself "quickly became a very safe space for me." It was a passion that stuck with her into her 20s, through the end of the war and her early career explorations in the medical field, until she finally decided at the age of 26 that "it was time to leave. It was time to give myself a new chance and a new start." So she came to study at Berklee and pursue a new life as a musician. The transition to the United States was "tumultuous...adapting from the reality that I came from," she says. But she knew she'd done the right thing, and had given herself an opportunity to begin to heal.
That healing has involved many practices over the years, but it began with singing. "My work started with the voice,” Karam says. “It was my doorway into my healing." She says she had to gradually get comfortable with the sound of her own voice, especially when singing loudly, and to sit with her own discomfort over how those sounds could transform in her mind into the wailing laments of war. "Every experience we have—it's stored somewhere in our body,” she says, drawing insight from psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk’s pioneering work on trauma, The Body Keeps the Score. In order to fully connect with her voice as an instrument, Karam needed to do the slow work of learning that she was safe inside that sound, and, as an extension, inside her body. "I had to sit with it and be with it and stand it, and little by little, help my body heal."
"I knew it was going to take time to heal and to get the music going, get the pieces together," Karam says. "And it did, it took a long time. But here I am."
Here, indeed: a professor in Berklee's Voice Department, the director of the college's Pletenitsa Balkan Choir, founder and organizer of the Berklee Middle Eastern Festival, and an acclaimed performer and songwriter in her own right. Karam is also a published author (her book, Of Broken Pieces and Light Ahead, was released in May), a visual artist, and an activist and advocate for social change. Outside of her teaching role at Berklee, she also runs a coaching practice focusing on "voice, mindset, and embodiment."
In January, her quintet, which features Berklee community members Vadim Neselovskyi, Naseem Alatrash, Peter Slavov ’02, and Keita Ogawa ’07, released a new album, Nar. A "mosaic" of musical traditions ranging from classical and jazz to Arabic and Balkan folk influences, the record is ultimately a celebration of joy and communal perseverance in the midst of the worst the world can throw at us.
"[It's] this idea of rising above and finding beauty, and finding the poetry...and ultimately not letting anything steal your joy," she explains, emphasizing that "none of us are exempt from life's trials."
"We're all helping each other. It could be me today, it could be you tomorrow. We all need to cultivate compassion.... There is a sense of shared responsibility that we as artists can encourage in a way that can be light, and inspiring, and joyous, too."
Watch the Christiane Karam Quintet's music video for the Nar single "Beirut":
Stepping into the Ring
Karam's journey toward hope and healing would not have been possible if she had not found a practice that could teach her to trust her body the way that singing eventually taught her to trust her voice. And she found exactly what she was looking for in a setting she'd been inexplicably drawn to since childhood: the boxing ring.
"I was always so enthralled by what happened in the ring, what happened in the corner, the outfits, the movement," she says. "It's almost like I had done it in a previous life or something. It was always so familiar, but so far removed from my reality."
Unlikely as it might seem at first glance, Karam is clear-eyed on how it was that she came to find peace while throwing and dodging punches. "I long for nonviolence, but the more time I was on this path, the more I realized that violence is part of all of us. And oftentimes what creates undisciplined, and unexamined, and out-of-control violence is misdirected violence," says Karam.
"I realized that no matter how much I sang, no matter who I was, no matter how much I longed for peace, there was still a part of me that was this unspeakable, unrelenting violence of 20 years that was still governing part of me—that was keeping me sick."
[Boxing] teaches you to show up for yourself.... Very much like music, very much like improvisation, very much like voice work. It exposes the parts of you that are not healed—that you haven't claimed yet.
Then, when she finally got into the ring three years ago, "it all clicked. It's a controlled environment where you get to experience your own violence, but then direct it in ways that are no longer going to live inside you, but it's not meant to hurt somebody else because it's controlled.... You're facing yourself essentially, and you're helping you and your opponent transcend and get better," Karam says. "It was the moment that I understood that I was finally okay. I had finally conquered my insides. I could finally lead people into their courage because I had followed through with mine."
One of the sport’s most priceless lessons was presence. “It teaches you how to show up for yourself,” she says. “Very much like music, very much like improvisation, very much like voice work. It exposes the parts of you that are not healed—that you haven't claimed yet. But it's very tangible. When you're not present, you get hit.”
Putting the Pieces Together
Now, three years and "thousands and thousands of rounds" later, Karam's using her place in the ring to draw attention back to where everything began for her. "I went to Beirut and felt the devastation all over again of how dire things are there and how much help is needed" (on top of conflicts and economic challenges that have roiled Lebanon for decades, Beirut also experienced a devastating explosion in 2020 that destroyed the neighborhood where Karam grew up). So when she was approached to participate in the Haymakers for Hope event, she "just couldn't pass it up." And she made sure all of the proceeds that she raises will go directly to the Children's Cancer Center of Lebanon.
"I felt very strongly about...sending a message of hope and raising awareness about what's going on in Lebanon right now," she says. "It connects with everything I've done in the past couple of years—my book, my record, everything has had this bigger goal of transcending the horror and transcending the despair. And I feel like this was just one other piece of that same puzzle.”