Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Star and the Tuquoise: Oum Kulthum and Fairuz

The aural universe of the Arabic chanteuse is so distinct from that of South Asia. For someone raised on ghazals and sufi kalam both of which are performed with small ensembles of no more than two or three accompanists, the sweeping orchestral strings of the Middle East are at first blush over doing it. Even the-everything-including-the-kitchen-sink approach of Mumbai filmi senti-pop seems more simple and straightforward than even a small Cairo orchestra. 

I fully acknowledge that by making such statements I betray my bias. And un-trained ear. For years I’ve had friends wax on about the sublime Oum Kulthum but my South Asian ear has found it hard to find the golden thread.

Well as so often happens, things can suddenly change.  And so the big change has come to me. I’ve been listening to Oum Kulthum, Egypt’s (nay! the Arab world’s) Billy Holliday meets Begum Akhtar quite a bit recently and I am starting to get it.  Don’t ask me how. And don’t ask me to explain what it is I get, because my knowledge of Arabic is restricted to about 3 juicy and not for polite company phrases.  I just do.

Suddenly the waves of violins and dancing dumbek rhythms not only make sense but sound very pleasing. Their elegant sound is noble and befits the ancient lands from which they emerged. Oum’s voice is strong and the melodies different from those of the subcontinent. And perhaps that’s what makes is suddenly so nice. It’s different.

Oum Kulthum

So for your pleasure tonight I share two more albums. The first from the aforementioned Star of the East, Oum Kulthum: a live concert of unknown date but of timeless sound.  In it she sings one of her most beloved and famous songs Al Attal and is accompanied by a lively orchestra. 

Any number of sites on the internet or in music literature will give you lowdown on this icon’s life so I simply commend this magnificent music to you.

            Track Listing:
            01 Hayyarti Albi
02 Al Attal
03 Ana Fi Intizarak
04 Al Hobbi Koulloo
05 Anta Fen Wa Hobbi Fen
Listen here.


If Oum Kulthum is regarded the greatest female Arab voice of recent times, the Lebanese singer Fairuz (Turquoise, in Arabic) is considered the greatest living Arabic voice. The mother of Ziad Rahbani, previously spotlighted on Washerman’s Dog, Fairuz has a fantastic if slightly less heavy voice that her Egyptian inspiration.

Many of the tracks on this album are also from live performances and each once is worth many good listens, but my favourite is the amazing Ya Mina El Habayeb. Interestingly all the songs on this album refer to Arab capitals or countries.  And if you’ve spent  any time at all among Arabs you’ll understand just deeply they love their part of the world. 

            Track Listing:
            01 Beirut Hal Zarafat (Live)
02 Ya Mina El Habayeb (Live)
03 Amman
04 Al Kuwait (Live)
05 Hamaltu Beirut (Live)
06 Misr Adat (Live)
07 Baghdad Wal Chouarra (Live)

Listen here.


Hammer said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Hammer said...

Dear dawg,
When one starts to compare the east to none other than, the east itself, that's when one gets the point.
Far-Eastern Asian music has so little to do with the Near-Eastern one. So, and in a nutshell: Music of the Mid-east that's featured here is where it's at. That's the much-sought-after 'middle-ground' where music starts to get its own anima.

Omm Kalthoum (in Egypt; she's called Omm Kalsoum as they pronounce their T's as S's), she started as a religieuse girl whose very singing was restricted to mouled (Birth ceremony of the Muslim Propeht, Mohammed), accompanied with her father who was a moqre'ai (Quran-reader and reciter).
Fairuz herself, on the other side started also singing in a choir. These religion-based startings... have been deeply influential in the general psyche of the Arab world (both of which constituted its very building blocks; Christianity and Islam).

There's a very weird pattern in regards to these two 'divas'. One is listened to in the morning only (Fairuz), and the other, the night (this leaves us with Umm Kalthoum). I once presented a paper discussing this diurnality of music back at my college days. It's such a wondrous dissection of tastes, but both Fairuz and Umm Kalthoum are still very important to many people all around the Arab world.
If you ask me who do I choose (taste matters, mind you), I'd go for Umm Kalthoum in a heart-beat. This has nothing to do with religion, trust me: Most people in the Arab world do listen to Fairuziyat (her music that she's made, and still... makes), more than Kalthoumiyat. I don't give, but musically-speaking, Umm Kalthoum's music spanned more genres and was a whole, well-composed oneness of sound that few can really enjoy if they listened hard enough. As you did prolly.

Thanks for this post.
Washer awn!


ajnabi said...

Thank you so much for your comments. Very interesting and enlightening. Thanks for chiming in!