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.
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.
01 Hayyarti Albi
02 Al Attal
03 Ana Fi Intizarak
04 Al Hobbi Koulloo
05 Anta Fen Wa Hobbi Fen
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.
01 Beirut Hal Zarafat (Live)
02 Ya Mina El Habayeb (Live)
04 Al Kuwait (Live)
05 Hamaltu Beirut (Live)
06 Misr Adat (Live)
07 Baghdad Wal Chouarra (Live)