Lazy Sunday Afternoon: A mezze of Middle Eastern musical delights

There is only one starting point to any post on Arab music and that’s Egypt and the ‘Star of the East’ Umm Kulthum, who is widely lauded as the greatest Arab singer of the twentieth century.

Born the daughter of an Imam in the Nile Delta in about 1900, her talent was spotted early and she became member of travelling performing troupe as a child. In 1923 she had moved to Cairo and began working with the leading song writers and composers of the day. However, her heyday really came in the 1950s, when she seemed to personify the vitality and confidence that swept Egypt after the nationalists took power in 1952. The streets were empty during her monthly radio broadcasts and she endeared herself to the masses by performing regularly in public.

The theme of Umm Kulthum’s recitals were usually the three Ls – love, loss and longing – and could go on for many hours. Her voice was remarkably powerful (look how far she stands away from the microphone) and she forged an extraordinary emotional relationship with her audience by repeating lines or tweaking the intensity of certain phrases to create an almost euphoric reaction. Her funeral in 1975 was attended by more than four million people, the second largest funeral in Egyptian history after that of President Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The current Grande Dame of Arab music is Fairuz, a Lebanese singer who started performing in the late 1950s and remains one the most widely recognised Arab singers outside of the Middle East. Like Umm Kulthum before her, she has carefully nurtured her popular appeal, famously being banned from Lebanese radio for 6 months for refusing to sing at a private concert for the Algerian president in 1969 saying she would only ever sing to her public and never to an individual.

While Umm Kulthum’s heyday was during a period of optimism in the Arab world, Fairuz’s was in the 1970s and 1980s, in the aftermath of the Arab humiliation in the 1967 war with Israel and during the Lebanese civil war. One of her most famous songs is ‘Le Beirut’ which mourns the loss and destruction in the city of her birth. It is a powerful and emotional lament, especially for those Lebanese who were forced to flee the country.

When I lived in London, there was a wonderful Lebanese restaurant close to my flat that I visited regularly. The owner was a sweet, middle-aged Lebanese Christian whose eyes would well-up every time she heard ‘Le Beirut’. The war had forced her out of the country, and now she was alone in London with only her memories. Of course any mention of Muslims and Palestinians sent her off into a rage (‘it’s all their fault’) and she was also a big supporter of a convicted murderer who stood in the last presidential election (‘he comes from my village’), but apart from all that she was a lovely, gentle soul. Just don’t give her an AK-47.

Now for something altogether a bit racier. While the Arab street is becoming more conservative, Arab popular music is seemingly heading in the opposite direction. There a number of female pop acts in the region who are now major celebrities and are often clashing with religious authorities over their revealing clothes and suggestive dance moves; none more so than Haifa Wehbe, a Lebanese Shia Muslim and a former Miss South Lebanon. When I hear the words Lebanese Shia on the news, I now prefer to conjure up an image of the lovely Haifa rather than some Katyusha-firing Hezbollah holy warrior.

However, after much deliberation I have opted to serve up this morning a little helping of Nancy Ajram who is, quite simply, the beginning, middle and end of Arab pop raunch. As you will see from the video, this Maronite heart-breaker also has her own very particular take on rural Lebanese life. Do watch out for the dive-bombing chickens.

My final selection is by the Algerian singer-songwriter Khaled. He is the undisputed King of Rai, a combination of Arab, French and Spanish folk music traditions which came out of the Algerian port city of Oran in the 1930s.

Khaled is best known for his 1992 song Didi, which became the first Arab song ever to enter the French top 10. He also sang it during the open ceremony of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. However, today I have opted to share his track Aicha which is sung mostly in French (a single verse is in Arabic) and topped the French chart on its release in 1996. Enjoy the cartwheels and the monkey.

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About Author Profile: Toby Ash

A former journalist, Toby now works a consultant in the private and humanitarian sectors. When not in deepest Cornwall or darkest London, he trots the globe taking stunning photos which you can see on his Instagram account - @toby_ash

8 thoughts on “Lazy Sunday Afternoon: A mezze of Middle Eastern musical delights

    December 12, 2010 at 12:20

    What a wonderful- and educative- selection Toby. Not sure how many ‘hours’ I could take of Umm Kulthum, but that probably says more about me, than about her pungent singing. What came across in the remaining three choices was the simple joy in music making, and the ability to project it into a camera lens. This, in marked contrast to the current vogue in the west for either bland (X-Factor et al), cool, or aggressive (Gangsta Rap et al). Love the Algerian Khaled, but a small part of me hopes that the clearly liberated minx Haifa Wehbe travels no further down the road that leaves her boyfriend sprawling in the dirt behind a truck load of laughing women. How the worm has turned.

  2. Gaw
    December 12, 2010 at 18:12

    Fascinating selection, Toby.

    I loved the Arab pop beats and ululating vocal of Nancy Ajram but Umm Kulthum had me mesmerised. Such an extraordinary emotional bond between her, the orchestra and the audience; a most unusual singing style and accompaniment (at least to this Western ear); and such a strong and expressive voice. Another reason it was so captivating was that it sounded as if she was narrating something – there certainly seemed to be some twists and turns in the song and not just in terms of tempo.

    December 12, 2010 at 18:41

    I’ve just come back from a holiday in the Middle East, and taxi drivers were playing this kind of stuff all the time. I enjoyed the sound of it much better than the kind of thing I catch here if I go into a clothes shop – usually rap with repulsive lyrics that sort of rhyme mixed with high female singing. Of course I didn’t know what the words were in the Arab songs, so I couldn’t get annoyed by them.

    Le Beirut is lovely and heart-breaking and I really liked the cute chick among the chickens. Coquettish rather than raunchy, and the way she carried her washing on her head reminded me of the lovely carriage the young women in Syria and Jordan have (when you see them, as many of them seem to be under house arrest). Oh, and hardly any young person there is fat so the look of the people in the video isn’t such a rampant lie as it is in a Western video that shows slender women and men..

    December 12, 2010 at 22:13

    How nice to see some proper music after being forced to sit through x factor!

    December 12, 2010 at 23:04

    Personally, I prefer the un-Lebanised version of concerto d’Aranjeuz, but this is full of passion. I’m an enormous fan of Khaled. All rousing stuff.

    December 12, 2010 at 23:05

    oops aranjuez

    Gadjo Dilo
    December 13, 2010 at 10:30

    It’s d’Orange Juice, Susan, the composer’s name being Rod Rego, I believe. I’m also a big fan of Khaled. And the first one reminded me of early Greek rembetico – very nice.

    Toby Ash
    December 13, 2010 at 17:42

    mahlerman – I’m glad you enjoyed the selection. I know what you mean about having too much Umm Kulthum. I confess to feeling much the same when I first listened to early recordings of Maria Callas (who was incidentally a big fan of UK), but as Gaw points out so eloquently, there is real magic there, so I’m certain she would grow on you.
    Gaw – there really is such depth to her performance. I’ve really never heard anything like it.
    rosie – coquettish is the perfect description of Nancy Ajram!
    worm – type Nancy Ajram into You Tube and up pops a sponsored link to Cheryl Cole videos! There’s no escaping the x factor I’m afraid.
    mahlerman, susan, gadjo – I’m glad there are some more Khaled fans out there!

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