Starnes and Shah
First Friends, then Musical Partners, Now Partners in Life
By RICH MONETTI
Zilpha Starnes and Dania Abu-Shaheen of White Plains met once briefly when they attended Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville. After Dania graduated in 2004, and needed a roommate, a friend suggested Zilpha to fill out the lease. They would become friends and then musical partners as the Indie guitar duo, Starnes and Shah. But it was the passing of landmark legislation in New York that truly solidified their collaboration.
Gay marriage legalized, Texas born Zilpha made light of her personal impetus. “I didn’t want us to do our taxes twice – once we didn’t have to do that, I figured why not,” joked Zilpha.
Certainly pulling for a nationwide extension of marriage rights, the couple seems no different in the face of the many injustices that frustrate and perplex us all – simply doing what they can to get by themselves. “We’re not activists, we’re just married,” says Zilpha, who married her Lebanese born partner in 2013.
They also aren’t at the point where young girls from Texas or the Middle East are reaching out for advice, support and strength. “When we get that big,” says Dania, “we’ll let you know.”
Of course, both are grateful that their families have been nothing but accepting, and the same goes for the New York area they live in. That has just left the music – Shilling for Dreamtown being their latest
Dania started out at a young age singing along to the car radio and playing the piano. Drums then seemed like her musical destination until she took up the bass and realized she wanted to write songs. Dania eventually graduated to the guitar, played in little high school bands, and after coming to the states for college in 2000, played the acoustic singer/songwriter coffeehouse circuit around Sarah Lawrence.
A few years behind and absent any discernible twang, Zilpha’s strum also began at the piano and included singing in the choir and harmonizing with her older sister. But bringing her amateur interest to a professional level had no relation to penning notes to a page like her cohort. “Oh wow, you can be up onstage, in a band, I was like – great,” she says. “That was the attraction.”
The inspiration established, Starnes rode it to a more formal education. “She has a background in musical theory,” says Dania, “while I’m more self-taught.”
As such, they put the differences to good use when other musicians come into the fold. “I can’t read music but luckily I have Zilpha who can translate my work into the musical language for people to understand,” says Dania, who also doesn’t harbor an accent from her birthplace.
No problem, Zilpha admits to an illiteracy of her own. “I’m on the other end of the spectrum. I can’t jam at all,” says Zilpha.
Their voices also on a different page of sorts, Starnes and Shah complement each other across the octaves and belt them out as equals, according to Dania. “I try to write them so you don’t really have a lead singer and a backup singer, you have two lead vocalists,” says Dania.
In contrast to Zilpha’s academic background in music, she sees it a bit more simplistically. “That’s putting it very politely. I would say Dania writes a song and I just make up something completely different. Then I just blend or hide in the background,” says Zilpha.
Whether that amounts to a passive-aggressive writing credit, Zilpha explains how life on the move raises the level of Dania’s songwriting. In the car, on the train or on tour, says Zipha, “it forces Dania away from the guitar, which makes her experiment a little more. So it’s mainly lyric driven where it’s a little lick and she builds around it,” says Zilpha.
At that point, they sit down, get the vocals, and Dania returns to her roots. “She loves rhythm. She loves bass and drums and lets that be the beating heart of the story she is telling,” says Zilpha.
Red and Blue provides just that pulse, according to Dania who plays on Zilfa’s theatrical delivery to detail the struggles of being an Indie musician. “Read and Blue captures us at the peak of that struggle. It’s that feeling of being defeated. What are we going to do, but obviously we come through it because there’s a song after that one on the record,” jokes Dania.
Otherwise, Dania doesn’t worry about what Rock ‘n Roll’s relationship is to the corporations that control it and the resulting direction. “We’re just trying to play a couple of songs to a couple of people,” says Dania.
But if they rise above that level where more money and fame reside, she won’t judge it either. “When we get big enough that iTunes is making a difference for us,” says Dania, “you won’t hear me complain.”
And if it comes to that, neither will all the new fans Starnes and Shah will gain.
Look for Starnes and Shah at Arlene’s Grocery Store, situated just south of Houston at 1st Ave/Allen St., on May 3rd
Rich Monetti has been a freelance writer since 2003 and lives in Westchester.