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Postcard from Saudi Arabia – Songs of Longing and Loss

October 31, 2014

Umm Kulthum

As readers will gather from a previous post from Saudi Arabia, I’m listening to a lot of radio at the moment, courtesy of Kamal, as he drives me back and forth to my client some forty minutes away from central Riyadh.

Aside from our regular language lessons from Silva, the Lebanese presenter of MBC radio (yesterday’s language will be very useful if and when I visit Malawi), we listen to music. Or should I say, bits of music, because Kamal’s taste is very specific. If there’s a song he doesn’t like, he gives a grunt and switches to another station. Often the new song doesn’t sound much different from the previous one. But then again would an Arab listener (he’s Sudanese actually) not familiar with western music be able to discern the subtle differences between Metallica, Iron Maiden and Guns’n’Roses? Or Brahms, Tchaikovsky and Bruch?

I’ve always had a soft spot for Arab music, though my knowledge of it is sadly lacking. I especially like traditional music for instruments such as the Oud and Buzuq, which are cousins of the lute and guitar. Listening to solo pieces for these instruments, you can hear the influence of the Arab world on European medieval music, especially from Spain, with its Andalusian Muslim and Jewish heritage. Visit Turkey and you will hear music that has echoes throughout the Muslim world as far as Morocco in the west. Two of my favourite contemporary musicians, Yasmin Levy and Azam Ali, draw on early European, Arab and Jewish musical traditions to produce work that reminds me of a more graceful world beyond ISIS, Ebola and the angst that assails us from all quarters.

Sadly MBC Radio, Kamal’s favourite channel, doesn’t play traditional music. The formula of the stuff they play is pretty uniform. Drawing on the Egyptian tradition of percussion, strings, and a male chorus, solo singers regale us with mournful ballads of sorrow and unrequited love. I don’t have to understand much Arabic to recognise the themes.  The anguished tones, the occasional but inevitable habibiti (my darling – female gender) are enough to deliver the message. The chorus sings in the background from what sounds like an outhouse. You’d be hard pushed to dance to the rhythm in a disco. It sort of bounces on and then lurches. If you’ve ever had cardiac arrhythmia you’d recognise the beat, or lack of it. Music to trip over to would be an unkind description. If rock is music tuned to the rhythms of sex, to this western ear modern Arabic pop songs bring to mind coitus interruptus, with no offence intended to their millions of devotees.

Yet there’s something dramatic, almost epic, about the genre, especially when the production is high-end – mass percussionists and a full orchestra of violins with their sweeping cadences. And where the music really comes into its own is in the hands of the divas, especially immortals like Umm Kulthum, the Egyptian singer.

Umm Kulthum was the queen of Egyptian music. Her performances were monumental in length and emotional range. She would leave her audiences in tears. She would often be on stage for three to four hours and would perform only two or three songs, with endless variations and improvisations. When she died an estimated four million people attended her funeral – a tribute that Pavarotti and Callas could only have dreamt about.

Another great female singer is Ferouz. I found out about her when I mentioned my admiration of Umm Kulthum to a Saudi friend. “Oh”, she said, “you should listen to Ferouz. If I ever wake up feeling sad, I listen to her, and my day is transformed”. And indeed whatever it is that makes female singers special, she has it. Streisand, Piaf, Callas, Celine Dion, Alison Krauss and my personal favourite, Sandy Denny – she’s up there with them. Is it the purity of the voice, the phrasing, the expression, the feeling – who knows? The best singers are beyond analysis.

Ferouz is from Lebanon, and her background as a Maronite Christian makes no difference to her devoted following in the Middle East – a welcome reminder that religion does not dictate all tastes in the region. She goes well beyond the formula of unrequited love, as all the best singers do. Her songs about Lebanon, its mountains, villages and valleys transcend the language barrier, just as do the arias of Verdi and Puccini.

There’s a whole world of Arab music that I haven’t yet experienced. It’s a joy to know it’s out there waiting for me, and maybe for you too. If you’ve not listened to much traditional or modern music from the Middle East here are some places to go. Classical Arab Music is a great website full of samples. Check out videos of Umm Kalthum and Ferouz on YouTube. For modern fusions of traditional music, try Azam Ali’s Portals of Grace and Yasmin Levy’s La Juderia. Also worth a listen is Egypt, Youssou N’Dour’s tribute to Umm Kalthum. And if you’re looking for a Saudi flavour, Mohammed Abdu is your man.

As for me, for the few remaining days of my current Saudi visit, I’ll be closing my eyes to the hair-raising antics of my fellow commuters and listening to songs of longing and loss.

Longing and loss. Not a bad way to describe the predominant emotions in this troubled region really.

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