Julia Wheeler looks at what's 'popular' in Arab music
With the exception of the most true and dedicated hermits it seems that wherever you are in the world, it is becoming more and more difficult for a person to escape from the globalization of popular music. By that I mean the fact that the same music (most of it of course from the instruments an vocal chords of western artists is heard on every radio station and ‘seen’ on every music channel, in every part of the world.
Even the most dedicated ‘pop music’ lover has to admit that there is room for more variety. And it seems that this part of the world is seriously in the running for providing some alternative sounds.
“I believe 1997 is truly the year for Arabian music to take hold,” says Michael Lemesre, label manager at EMI Music Arabia. “The time is ripe for it to grow both within the Arab world and further afield.”
‘Popular’ Arabic music has taken time to become popular even in the Arab world. Now it is penetrating Arabic society more fully.
“Fewer and fewer people are untouched by the music,” says Lina Pantalone of EMI Music Arabia. “The trend has been generally associated with women, many of whom have had more time to listen to the radio for example, but now men are becoming more and more appreciative of this part of their culture.”
“Previously if you had gone into a shisha café,” adds Lemesre, “where say 95 percent of people are men, you would have heard mostly classical Arabic music; now the division with pop is about half and half. That shows how much its reach is increasing here.”
Just like its western counterparts can be distinguished but different sounds from different countries, regions and cities, Arabic pop music too caries with location. The Mersey beat of Liverpool was different from the Motown sound of Detroit and neither are the same as the more recent Grunge from Seattle, although all three come under the broad ‘western pop’ title. Similarly, the ‘tarabs’ of Lebanon are not the same as the ‘mawals’ of Egypt or the ‘baladis’ of the Gulf. Although similarly they can all be described as Arabic pop.
The songs grow from the separate folklore and culture to be found in each area. Perhaps it is the heritage of musical lore and custom that explains why most Arabian pop singers are solo artists.
“Usually, wherever you go in the Arab world you will find one singer or one instrument taking the solo within a piece of music,” explains Lemesre. “Also, some people say that the tradition of tending to praise one person, rather than a group of people, is part of the Arab mentality.”
“The style of Arabic music just lends itself better to one voice, supported by a chorus,” adds Pantalone. “That means there is authenticity and a genuine sound in the modern songs.”
If music be the food of love, play on. Had Shakespeare not demanded more nourishing notes, an Arab would surely have taken up the mantle instead. The lyrics of Arab songs concern themselves with love – and really one love. There may be a little pain at hands of the loved one or even some emotional suffering within a relationship, but it is definitely love that concerns the Arabic singer.
“It is the way the song is expressed as well as the lyrics that are important in an Arabic song,” explains Pantalone. “An Arab will always describe a love ballad, for example, as beautiful rather than sad, because of the way it is sung. The singer must pour out the emotion for the song to work well. He or she has to be able to make the listener remember a time when they felt a similar emotion. That is what makes someone love and Arabic song.”
“The lyrics may not be great, they may not mean a lot,” adds Lemesre, “but it is the way they are sung that makes them relevant to life in the Arab context.”
Arabic pop music charts are produced by various publications and music channels in the region, but they do not really compare to their western counterparts they have no uniformity and have little influence.
Of course Arabic music has made some marks in the western charts in the past – and now famous ‘Nour el ain’ or ‘Light of the Eye’ could add to that shortly becoming what those in the business know as a ‘cross-over’ title. Amr Diab’s catchy ‘Habibi’ chorus could do well when it is promoted in France and possibly elsewhere in Europe soon. From Morocco to Syria, Jordan to the United Arab Emirates, in fact in every country in the Arab world the song has been at the top of the charts; it was arguably easily the most successful; Arabic pop song of last year.
Concerts are an important element of the music in the Arab world; artists are expected to perform live and often – that is the way many earn much of their money. Without a serious tradition of royalists for the individual recordings sold, many artists have needed to reply on live venues for their living.
Many such concerts are far smaller than their western counterparts. Some may include only two hundred people, although it is becoming more and more likely that thousands of people will attend the concerts of highly celebrated singers.
And with the popularity of these artists increasing all the time, it could be that soon, as well as cowering from western pop, hermits will also need to hide away from the alternative sounds being produced here in the Arab world of music.
THE PEOPLE BEHIND THE VOICES
In 1996, Amr Diab won three main awards at the annual Arabic Festival, Best Song, Best Artist and Best Video. His song Nour El Ain or ‘Light of the Eye’ is number one in sales over the last six months and there are now concrete plans to allow it to conquer international markets.
Amr was born in Egypt’s Port Said and was encouraged to sing from an early age by his family. At only six years old the city governor awarded him with the prize of a guitar for his rendition of the national anthem.
Since graduating in music from the Cairo Academy if Art, Amr has made seventeen albums. He has become known as the artist behind a new style and rhythm of music, which Arab audiences have come to know as ‘Mediterranean Music.’
Amr was the first Arab artist to make a video to accompany his song. The video for Nour El Ain was one of the most lavish and expensive productions ever undertaken within the Arab music world.
The nickname ‘Rebellious’ has stuck to Amr as comparisons have been drawn between him and his cotemporaries. He said to fit the description in all aspects of his life, including his clothes, his hairstyle, his frequent appearance at parties – and of course his music.
George Al Rassy
Although George Al Rassy is only seventeen years old, he has already made a big impression in Arabic pop music. He was launched on to the scene with Min Ya Habibi Min after teaming up with the well-known composer, Samir Copty. The song became a big hit and has been followed by a second, Min Ghader El Hobt as well as a number of live performances at festivals in the Middle East, and for a month at a five-star hotel, here in Dubai.
Like Amr, his family had encouraged George musically; his father plays the Oud and his mother is an actress – and both realized he had a strong talent.
George is still studying as well as pursuing his musical career. He has just signed his first recording contract – watch that musical space!
Cheb Mami, (also known as Khelifati Mohamed) is from south-western Algeria – more precisely from the town of Saida, which appropriately enough translates as ‘favored by fortune.’
He began work as a singer at wedding and circumcision festivities and by the age of fourteen was working as an entertainer at banquets and prestigious wedding receptions.
Mami then began to get involved in the Rai scene – roughly translated as ‘opinion’, which was at first generally not recognized or accepted as musical form. He was the first person to perform the style on Algerian television and his name has become synonymous with Rai music.
Along with his fellow Algerian singer, Khaled, whose song Didi became huge five or so years ago, Mami has made Rai his own.