We are Strong People Liner Notes

It used to be that when immigrants came to Ontario, Canada, they would move to the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) for some time to establish themselves before moving anywhere else. But that’s not the case anymore. Kitchener-Waterloo has become a “secondary gateway” region for new Canadians. That means our diversity is growing at a rapid rate…which is exciting for many reasons. It boosts our economy, diversifies our talent, and increases our cultural value for starters.

And this shift has happened quickly.

Do we as residents of this region realize what’s happening? Do we realize the phenomenon of this cultural shift in our community?

This song, We are Strong People (Shaabu al-kifah), is part of an intercultural project designed to explore and increase awareness of this phenomenon in a musical form. Through an online survey, I began by learning from members of the Syrian community about the beauty of their culture, tradition, and musical styles. The goal was to capture these thoughts in a song. I worked alongside Syrian musicians to create this music.

This community song is an original, compelling piece of music that strengthens community in the Region of Waterloo through social awareness and mutual understanding in celebrating our diversity.

This project’s significance lies in the opportunity to increase the cultural vibrancy of our Region and produce high quality, community-engaged music is made available broadly.


يا شام.. يا بلد الياسمين
روحك رح تضل دايما تعطينا
نحنا بهواك عشنا
حتى بعد ما بعدنا


يا بيت الحنان
يا أرض السلام.. و بصمة الأمان
ذكراك مو بالنسيان

شعب الكفاح.. من بعد جراح
أهل العزة والكرامة و نبع السماح

We are strong people,
Hold our heads up high,
Without a country,
We still live for joy and life.
Ancient history,
Of welcome can be seen,
Opening our homes and arms to neighbours in need.


My Syria, country of jasmine
Your spirit, generous and giving,
Your breath is life-giving,
Even upon our leaving.


Lyrics By: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil and Rola Kuidir
Music By: Mohamad Hassan, Tawfeek Albasha, and Mary Abdel-Malek Neil
Performers: Rola Kuidir (vocals), Mary Abdel-Malek Neil (vocals), Mohamad Hassan (tanbur), Tawfeek Albasha (oud)
Co-Produced By:  Jeff Cowell, Mary Abdel-Malek Neil

Photo Credit: “Palmyra (Arabic: تدمر Tadmur‎), Syria” by Alessandra Kocman is licensed under

Nazar of Fellah Mengu

This song is a continuation of my project celebrating cultural diversity through music. This time, instead of focusing solely on one cultural group, I thought it would be interesting to play around with blending sounds from different cultural groups (Turkish, Indian, Iranian, and West African) into one piece that shows the capacity for beauty when bringing all our traditions, voices, and spirit together.

Music By: Juneyt Yetkiner
Arranged By: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil
Performers: Tamara Menon (vocals), Juneyt Yetkiner (guitar), Isaiah Farahbakhsh (cello), Gerima Harvey (djembe)
Co-Produced By: Jeff Cowell, Mary Abdel-Malek Neil

Photo credit kitchener.ca taken at the KW Multicultural Festival 

Lifted High Liner Notes

I remembered seeing a Facebook post a month or so earlier that kept coming to the top of my mind when I had a moment to clear my thoughts. It was a photo of a bench in downtown Kitchener. I could recall it clear as day – someone has inscribed a message on the bench that read, “Please everybody stop Reviving me when i O.D. i O.D. on purpose 4 A Reason that I don’t want to talk about.”

This message hit me hard. I didn’t want people feeling so alone and dying on our streets. I didn’t want people to only feel lifted up through getting high. As a musician, I wasn’t sure what I could do about this reality in my community but I felt compelled to do something about it.

Having been in school for eight straight years at this point (I finished a Master of Arts in Geography before the one for Community Music), I did what any good studious researcher would do. I started to read – A LOT. I read the recommendations and the controversy around the proposed Region of Waterloo safe consumption site. I read reports and statistics on the opioid crisis afflicting our community, and many others.

Then, I went out into the community and I spoke with many people. I spoke with the Rector of the church where the bench was located. I spoke with local politicians. I spoke with residents around the downtown core. I spoke with community organizations working to battle this growing crisis. I spoke directly with Region of Waterloo employees and coordinating the safe consumption site. I spoke to recovering addicts. I listened to podcasts of people who are battling addiction.

On a long drive back from a gig, with all those thoughts about everything I had read and heard swirling through my head, a melody washed over me. I recorded it into my voice recorder.

When I got home, I took a long hard look at that photo…and I put myself in J.C.’s shoes. Now, I will re-iterate that I lived a sheltered life and do not presume to fully understand J.C.’s path or what lead J.C. to the moment of need to write an inscription in such a public venue. I did, however, understand some of the elements of what lead J.C. to that moment. I understood loneliness. I understood that life might not quite turn out the way you hoped despite your best efforts. I understood how sometimes it is hard to cope with the cards life has dealt you and you find the mechanisms to survive.

We all share the same emotions. We all need the same things – love, belonging, food, shelter. Some of us are fortunate – and maybe a bit of luck – that we had opportunity, means, and support to follow the path we did and have what we have. And, in reality, some are not.

At the end of the day, we are all human.

I spent a day writing the lyrics to go with that melody that came to me on that long drive home. And I’m not going to lie, I cried…A LOT. It was a deep, dark place that I’m not accustomed to visiting. A place of sadness, loneliness, despair.

And that is how the song, Lifted High, was created. And it inspired me to think about creating music in community. I certainly don’t have the hard hitting life experience to write songs about. But I live in a community of people who have those experiences. And sometimes their stories go unheard and unnoticed.

I wondered how I could get songs like this produced and distributed broadly. I wanted to provide people with a compelling medium through music to share their narratives and spread the word about what is happening in our community. I looked at different granting opportunities and I noticed that the Canada Council of the Arts had an upcoming deadline in 14 days!

I scrambled and got some amazing musicians together to help arrange and record a rough demo of Lifted High in 8 hours.

Local regional chair, Elizabeth Clarke, offered me a sound-bite of a quote she gave in an interview with a local TV station. In three days, I had 8 letters of support from local artists and community organizations. And I submitted a grant application 2 hours before the final deadline.

UPDATE: Fast-forward six months…I got the grant!

But we did not wait to hear back to continue the work. I have an entire group of local musicians on board; we call ourselves the Grounded Theory Collective. I’ve been keeping the pulse on local media and social media conversations to understand the issues that are affecting our community. I continue to have interviews with people with lived experience, politicians, experts, front line workers. The community album, I’m Who I Am, is a reality.

And we are re-shaping how music is made.


I have walked along this road all alone
Found myself wondering what I control
You sit there as judge and as jury expel
Is it salvation or is it to hell?


I’m lifted up
I’m lifted high
Leave me here
Prepared to die

Don’t try to keep me here
Don’t try to hold me down
Don’t try to talk me out
Just leave me here to drown

My body is one thing I rightfully own
Calmness I find once I weather the storm
Where were you before I laid on this bench
Seeking some refuge from my happenstance?


What will you ask once you know I am gone?
Am I a number, a scorecard undone?
Nothing changes, nothing gained, nothing lost
Take me where all the others are tossed


Lyrics By: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil
Music By: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil
Performers: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil (vocals), Karen Sunabacka (cello), Caleb DeGroot-Maggetti (piano)
Co-Produced By: Jeff Cowell, Mary Abdel-Malek Neil

Stand Your Ground Liner Notes

On February 23, 2020, Ahmaud Marquez Arbery, an unarmed 25-year-old African-American man, was shot while jogging in Georgia, U.S.A. by three white residents. I watched the news about the incident and the aftermath in horror. The “stand your ground” laws were cited as the defence for this fatal shooting: Arbery case exemplifies abuse of ‘stand your ground,’ but the damage is broad and systemic (nbcnews.com)

Many states have enacted so-called “stand your ground” laws that remove any duty to retreat before using force in self-defence. Arbery’s killing, and the delayed investigation and arrests reignited debates about racial inequality and systemic racism.

Despite a pandemic, 2020 has demonstrated the harsh truths of racially motivated violence and police brutality which have been internationally acknowledged and has made the world reflect on the injustices that exist in systems and institutions. I felt my way through 2020 along with the rest of the world, witnessing atrocities such as the death of George Floyd. Reading the stories and watching the protests, I spent hours reflecting on how humans view humans, and how that is enacted in our lived realities.

The title and message of the song is my artistic attempt at reclaiming “Stand Your Ground” for racial justice rather than an excuse for discrimination.

Am I your token POC?
Take a pat on the back
But you don’t see me
Just another stat

Performative acts,
prestigious praise
in newfound ways

Diversity is not a metric,
statistic, or bottom line
It is a just way of being
So open up your eyes

You do what you want
I don’t get a say
Would I have a voice
If you had your way

Nations divided,
Prejudice abounds
A battle for our lives
Who will stand their ground?

We teach genocide as history
The present is much the same
Take our current story
How we play this human game

A stop at a corner store,
Out for another run,
Never know when out the door
If you’ll see the setting sun

I’m a human being
With goals and ambitions
But what is that to you
And all your ammunition

Dictators, pandemics,
Institutions, wars,
There is no equalizer
We all survive through hope.


Should we stay silent?
Or should we grab a bull horn?
Should we stand on our soap box?
Or lobby governments and thrones?

Time to face our biases
Time to face our fears
Time to raise our voices
Institutions get in gear

A human is a human,
It’s time to end the silence,
Don’t fade into darkness
Stand up and fight for justice

A year after this incident, I am heartened by the recent announcement from the Governor of Georgia towards reforming the citizen’s arrest laws in the state: Georgia Governor Announces Bill To Reform Racist Citizen’s Arrest Law | NewsOne

Almost two years later, the world breathed a sigh of relief and joy at a guilty verdict in the Arbery case: Ahmaud Arbery’s killers sentenced to life in prison for 25-year-old Black man’s murder – CNN

I look forward with new hope, new visions, new learnings, new understandings, new beginnings even amidst the challenges we are still enduring.


Lyrics by: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil
Music by: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil and Jeff Cowell
Produced by:  Jeff Cowell and Mary Abdel-Malek Neil
Performed by: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil (vocals), Jeff Cowell (sound engineer), Abbas Janmohamed (tabla)

For the Weary Liner Notes

Photo from a A Better Tent City Waterloo Region provided by the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region

This song was the third song written for this album. After taking some time to work on grant applications and working out the logistics of this community album, I began making more connections in the community and exploring conversations happening in the media. One person I spoke to was Aleksandra Petrovic Graonic , Executive Director of the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region. She reached out to me at a community dinner and asked if I would consider writing a song about the affordable housing crisis in the Region of Waterloo. 

The crisis has been featured in the news as of late. Even in my own neighbourhood, near downtown Kitchener, there have been concerns about high rise developments and gentrification displacing affordable units and housing as well as shelters.

The Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region collaborated with the University of Waterloo to produce Life Stories of Displacement, a series of podcasts where local residents who live on low incomes and have experienced marginalization in its many forms spoke about their stories.

These interviews highlighted many things; the challenges such as the limitations with systems and resources, the stigma of being a homeless person in our community. But they also featured uplifting stories of grassroots community circles of support. When Aleksandra told me about the initiative, I decided to take a weekend and immerse myself in all of the material available. I listened to the podcasts available online (there were six at the time). I read the transcripts from all the interviews. I reviewed the thematic analysis done by the researchers.

And I got angry.

I got angry at how the system is failing. I got angry at how people could be treated like dirt. I got angry about unfair stereotypes and unjust circumstances.

I gravitated toward one particular story: Wayne’s story. The way Wayne spoke about his frustration with society’s labels and how life sometimes “just takes wheels off your wagon” inspired me to start jotting down lyrics. Wayne suffered from mental health and personal issues that basically stripped him of his entire livelihood. 

Here’s an extended clip from Wayne’s interview for this song:

Listen to Wayne’s Full Interview: 
We seem to be a society of labels

Wayne’s Poetry: Don’t Laugh At Me 

It took three days for me to finish the lyrics with the ear of my bandmate, Len McCarthy. For three days, I was steeped in anger for what Wayne and the 14 other interviewees has had to deal with in their lives and how we, as a society, have decided to respond to people in these circumstances. Their stories inspired the song, For the Weary.

I met Wayne and worked with him on this song to make sure it reflected his narrative in sound and lyrics. Near the end of process, I shared our rough recording of the song with Wayne at Queen Street Commons Café over tea. He got teary eyed and told me that we had captured his sentiments perfectly. 

With Wayne’s full endorsement, we officially had a song from community, for community!

Len McCarthy, Jeff Cowell and I headed into the recording studio for a couple of hours.

Wayne noted that the heartbeat rhythm in this song reflected how he continued to persevere, fight, and survive despite all his hardships. 

Having a safe place to rest our head should be a universal right.

This song was used as the theme song for the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region’s podcast, Homes 4 All, featured on CKMS Radio Waterloo 102.7, providing listeners with recommendations for meaningful grassroots solutions.

Homes 4 All Episode 1: Changing Mindsets 

The Unsheltered Campaign spearheaded by the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region is a campaign led by community advocates to provide 24/7 alternatives to shelter for all unsheltered people in Waterloo Region. Learn more about the advocacy work happening in our community and how you can help by visiting: www.civichubwr.org/unsheltered-campaign


Moved into your ‘hood
You didn’t think I should
Want to keep me hidden
Too close for your good

Pushed me out of there
The only thing you care
Is for your housing value
Not a second glare


I’m fighting for my right
To rest my head tonight
The ends barely meet
I’m nearly on the street

I’m fighting for my right
To rest my head tonight
The labels put on me
are ‘what’ you want to see

To you, it may not seem
That I have hopes and dreams
Sometimes life just happens
Tears one from the seams

What is it you see
When you look at me
Artist, worker, sibling
As you cross the street?


Will I pass on with respect and with grace?
Or will my life be forever erased?
All our journeys end in the same place.
Some are remembered while others displaced


Lyrics By: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil
Music By: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil and Len McCarthy
Performers: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil (vocals), Len McCarthy (guitar and cajón)
Co-Produced By: Jeff Cowell, Mary Abdel-Malek Neil, Len McCarthy

Photo from a A Better Tent City Waterloo Region provided by the Social Development Centre of Waterloo Region

Earth Lullaby Liner Notes

Inspired by the topic of climate change, Earth Lullaby is a song about sustainability from an intercultural perspective. This song features a Middle Eastern melody and Turkish flamenco guitar line combined with Western influences (grand piano), a North American Indigenous hand drum, and a lyrical message about the dangers of our neglecting the planet.  This synthesis of musical cultures offers a commentary about the universality of sustainability, and urges us to come together to take care of the planet we all share.

The song is a narrative of the Raven, a Creator, a magician, a cultural hero, and a trickster in traditional Indigenous stories. The Raven uses his cunning to bring important life-giving elements to humanity such as fire, light, and the tides of the sea. In Earth Lullaby, the Raven warns us about how we are consuming this world through greed.

Sustainability is a global issue which ties us all together, regardless of race, language, ability, or location. We all share this one planet. I wanted this song to reflect my roots (Egypt), and where I currently live (Canada). I am honoured to have worked alongside inspiring Indigenous elders and musicians on Earth Lullaby for both the music and the Indigenous teachings. This song is truly a remarkable collaboration of artists from an array of traditions. The result is an elegant mix of musical influences bringing diverse voices together to speak about a global concern in one accord.


From the dawn of life
I’ve sought to lessen strife
I freely give
You all you need to live

Who else will surround with waves of the sea?
Who else will forsake the songs on trees?
Who else will greet you at every sunrise?
Who else will blanket you with stars on high?


I will always seek
To be the breath that frees
I will always give
you hope to rise and live

I have given you all things in trust
But it isn’t ever good enough
Despite the warnings you never take heed
You have chosen to walk with greed


The ice placed upon this earth melts away
And still that doesn’t give you cause to sway
Soon wars will break out for a blade of grass
When will you awaken to what’s passed?


Lyrics by: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil
Music by: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil and Len McCarthy
Produced by: Jeff Cowell, Bill Braun, Mary Abdel-Malek Neil and Len McCarthy
Performed by: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil (vocals), Len McCarthy (piano), Juneyt Yetkiner (guitar), Bill Braun (bass), Hope Engel (Indigenous drum)

Completed with cultural consultation from Jean Becker and Hope Engel.

Photo credit: “ravenstealssun2” by littleREDelf is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

For the Next Generation Liner Notes

Embrace NOT erase, don’t hate appreciate
You won’t solve any problems with unfounded hate
Injustice, entitlement; they get in the way
Why can’t we work for peace and equality?


We are all human, diverse in many good ways
No matter opinion of how you are raised
Respect everyone’s individuality
Bringing Together you and me

For the next generation, we should change the situation
By starting to have a bunch of big conversations
Between communities, provinces and every nation
It’s the only way we’ll achieve liberation


I just don’t get why, why they say those things about me
Nasty things about my sex, age, ability
Don’t understand me, but we can all agree
you do you and I’ll do me


Music by: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil and Jeff Cowell
Produced by:  Jeff Cowell and Mary Abdel-Malek Neil
Performed by: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil (vocals), Jeff Cowell (guitar/bass/synth)

Photo credit: Priscilla Gyamfi from Unsplash.com

I’m Who I Am Liner Notes

The title track of this album is intended to set the stage for the stories that follow. You hear different voices from different walks of life. And some of the instruments could be categorized as items picked up on the way, including pots that sound like singing bowls to open the track, a griddle pan played like a guiro, water bottle shaker, and a hockey stick slide guitar. The above photo that shows us playing some of those unique instruments on the streets.

This song made its debut during my CBC Arts feature


I went to school but I’m down and out
I’m a parent, a child, a friend
I live the streets, I’m hungry, I’m cold,
Don’t tune me out, but tune me in
Don’t tune me out, but tune me in


I’m who I am
I’m a human being and I need a community 
I’m who I am
I’m a human being and I need a community 

I may be here from another land
I’m a parent, a child, a friend
I have to learn how to live these streets
Will you come ‘n walk with me
Will you come ‘n walk with me


Did you know that I am from this land?
I’m a parent, a child, a friend
These are the streets
of my ancestors
It’s time to learn our history
It’s time to learn our history


We need compassion 
We’re parents, children and friends
Building bridges and community
wake up and do something
wake up and do something


And I need a community 
And I need a community 

Music by: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil and Len McCarthy
Produced by:  Jeff Cowell and Mary Abdel-Malek Neil
Performed by: Mary Abdel-Malek Neil (vocals/griddle/singing pots), Len McCarthy (vocals/piano), Jeff Cowell (bass/hockey stick guitar/drums), Tamara Menon (vocals), Juneyt Yetkiner (guitar)