Creating people's geographies
Friends, hope you have a terrific weekend; I’ll be back on the blog deck proper next week, but in the meanwhile, here’s a musical interlude. For some, this may be an introduction, to others, simply a revisit to these three recent generations of Arab singing divas.
I have selected but three or four of the leading lights, and my last selection features a 16 y. o. rising star who reprises a song by my first chosen singer and the biggest singing superstar in Middle East modern history, bringing it full circle.
It is fair to say that the Arab world worships its singers, particularly its female singers. A rather nice feature is that they are all crowd pullers whatever their age — something we tend not to see in the West with female singers unless they’re opera singers. (How many female Frank Sinatras do we see still singing and performing into their seventies? I can’t think of one).
My choices: Lebanon has produced the beautiful voice of Fairouz, much loved all over the diverse Arab world, and now about 70. But the biggest star in the constellation, bigger than Elvis in her day, is Egypt’s Oum Koulthoum/ Umm Kulsum (1904 – 1975) [NB. spelled and pronounced Kulsoum in Egyptian Arabic].
Led Zeppelin and Bob Dylan dug her music (1966 Playboy interview). Maria Callas called her The Incomparable Voice. Umm Kulsum drew from her religious singing background in which her father, an Imam, taught her to sing verses from the Qu’ran. She went on to become the biggest Middle Eastern diva of the twentieth century and still sells like hotcakes today. Her’s is a life inextricably entwined with the modern history of Egypt: before becoming President, Nasser was a huge fan and his radio campaigns would follow her programs, arguably boosting his popularity by association. Millions mourned her passing in 1975, with more than a million taking to the streets in homage on the day of her state funeral (historic footage here).
Here was singing that produced tarab-musical ecstasy. As helpfully cited in Rudy Meixell’s Oum Kalthoum for Non-Arab Ears: An Incomplete Guide (worth a read but lapsed links at foot of page):
The intensity of tarab depends primarily on the voice and performance style of the singer, as exemplified by Umm Kulthum. Her performances often only approximately followed the fixed rhythmic-temporal organization of the melody. She would strip some melodic passages of their strict rhythmic form in order to repeat, vary, and paraphrase individual sections in an improvisatory way or transform the musical material more dramatically within the framework of traditional modal principles.
Her presentation thus hovered between that which she performed and that which she created herself. The musical contrast between the familiar and fixed on the one side and the new, freely structured though related on the other creates, in general, a tension whose up and down evokes tarab in the listener. The emphasis of this contrast represents the most striking stylistic element of Umm Kulthum’s artistry.” (Music of the Arabs, p.149)
So here’s but a snippet of the legendary Umm Kulsum, and there’s more on the web. My favourites are Amal Hayati and Ya Zaloumni but they are quite long for this introductory post. The poetry of the lyrics will not leap at you unless you understand Arabic but her voice is divine (2.14):
And on to Lebanon’s Fairouz, equally legendary and much loved and still with us. I grew up with my grandmother singing sweet Fairouz songs to me. If I had to nominate a favourite song, it would be one that was my constant companion during the sadistic attacks on and destruction of Lebanon last year by the insane Israeli government: Sakana al-Layal (The Night Became Calm). The lyrics are by Khalil Gibran (yes, the one who wrote The Prophet) and it can be listened to here (with translated lyrics in English).
Here’s Fairouz in Las Vegas, at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in 1999, performing Khedni “Take Me” (4.49)
Now, the younger set. I’m not as familiar with the contemporary scene, having first learned to appreciate the old-timers rather than the reverse, but I have picked two singers, one established: Haifa Wehbe (Lebanon), and the other a 16 y.o. rising star from Syria: Shahad.
In contrast to Fairouz’s sedate stage minimalism, this vid features Haifa’s coquettish theatrics and hair-flicking made even more famous by great Lebanese comedic impersonator Bassem Feghali (he does a fantastic send-up of Sabah, too, in which he also sings and you’d be hard-pressed to tell them apart). Fashionistas will love Haifa’s emerald dress.
Haifa Wehbe (8 m– 2 songs)
And the tradition continues with an amazing young talent with a voice, grace and maturity beyond her 16 years, with Syria’s Shahad Barmada who reprises the greats very well. Here’s her singing Oum Kulsoum’s Alf leyla wa leyla: A Thousand and One Nights (3 minutes):
Finally, on the quintessentially Arabic instrument (with thanks to the Persian influence), Syrian singer and musician Farid el-Atrache plays the traditional oud (6m). I should add that until seeing this I had no idea this famous singer was also an accomplished oudist.