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After Warda’s sad passing in May, fans of traditional Arabic music were left counting the few precious giants that remain from the era where Arabic music flourished—around the middle of the previous century. Fortunately, on the Lebanese front, Fairouz and Wadih Al-Safi are still performing, and so is another icon whose songs are experiencing a revival: the legendary Sabah.
Born Jeanette Feghali in 1928 in the mountain village of Wadi Shahrour (earning her the nickname Al-Shahroura) Sabah is both a prolific singer with over fifty albums released, and an actress with close to eighty movie appearances and twenty musical plays.
While her strong suit has been Lebanese folk music and dabkes (Levantine line dances), she also made her mark in Cairo and had songs composed for her by a roster of the greatest Egyptian composers, such as Mohammad Abdelwahab, Baligh Hamdi, Sayyed Makkawi, and Mohammad El-Mougi, all of whom also wrote music for Um Kulthum.
Aside from excelling as a singer, Sabah was not afraid to leverage her looks and sex appeal on stage and on the big screen, and that came through in her songs. She frequently had plastic surgery, and her trademark was her long, thick hair, dyed blond in the vein of Marilyn Monroe. Sabah was the embodiment of a dallou’ah, Lebanese slang for a flirtatious, coquettish, and endearing young woman.
After quieting down during the Lebanese civil war years, Sabah’s career experienced a revival in 2005 when the young Lebanese pop singer Rola Saad covered some of her songs in new arrangements. Sabah went as far as rerecording one of her old hits, “Yana Yana,” composed by Baligh Hamdi in 1970, and making an appearance in Rola Saad’s video clip. The video portrays Sabah as "The Notorious Diva" to which her younger colleague pays tribute, and has received wide play on Arabic music channels.
It is rare for songs from the mid-twentieth century to cross over to the contemporary Arabic pop music scene, but Sabah’s songs did. Despite the diversity of her composers, her songs share a groovy, lighthearted, and accessible quality. They are easy to learn and sing along to because she preferred a simple repetitive structure and lyrics made of everyday words, mostly in colloquial Arabic.
Since 2005, there have been more works of art and initiatives to recognize Sabah’s impressive contribution to the Arabic song and the Lebanese and Egyptian movie industries. In 2011, a Lebanese production team released Al-Shahrourah, a biographical TV series about Sabah starring Carole Samaha. In the same year, the Beiteddine Festival devoted a special evening to her songs, performed by Rouweida Atiyeh. This year, Rola Saad released a new CD called Sabah by Rola, on which she sings Sabah’s most popular songs, and in May the Lebanese singer Rima Khcheich released another Sabah tribute CD called Min Sihr Ouyounak (The Magic Of Your Eyes).
While Min Sihr Ouyounak is the most recent of these works to be released, the idea behind the CD came about in 2010, during the Dubai International Film Festival. The organizers wished to pay tribute to Sabah for her contribution to Arabic Cinema, and asked Khcheich to put together a concert of songs from Sabah’s movie soundtracks. In 2011, the Samir Kassir Foundation asked Khcheich to bring that concert to Beirut. She then performed the concert, named “Min Sihr Ouyouak” after one of the principal songs, at the American University of Beirut Assembly Hall. The CD by the same name is a live recording of the concert.
[Rima Khcheich singing “Rouh Ala Mahlak,” American University of Beirut, 2012.]
Rima Khcheich is admittedly not the first singer who comes to mind for covering Sabah. Aside from her understated and sober presence, she is classically trained: she is a graduate of the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music, where she also taught for many years. She is well established and highly respected for teaching and performing the Muwashahat, Adwar, and Egyptian Tarab genres. In addition to having a voice that is extremely well suited for these genres, Khcheich is a master in the art of intricate ornamentation that used to prevail in the early Um Kulthum and Mohammad Abdelwahab years. Sabah, meanwhile, has a very versatile repertoire that includes Lebanese Folk, a genre that is difficult to perform authentically without the right regional rootedness.
“I never imagined that I would perform a concert entirely of Sabah’s repertoire,” says Khcheich. “When it comes to Lebanese female singers, I knew Fairouz’s repertoire much better and have been singing her songs for a long time. But when we started researching Sabah’s movie soundtracks, I discovered many beautiful songs that I did not know, especially ones that were not available on commercial recordings,” she added.
[“Ya Kawini Ya Ali,” composed by Farid El-Atrach. From the movie Lahn Hobbi, 1953.]
Khcheich had always maintained that she was not going to base her recording career on singing exact replicas of other singers’ music. “I strongly believe that any work I release has to have some kind of contribution from me,” explains Khcheich. “I do not think I could go into a studio today and record songs exactly in the same way they were arranged fifty years ago. In other words, if this CD were not a live recording, I would not have released it.”
Her first three CDs, Orient Express (2002), Yalalalli (2006), and Falak (2008), include a mix of modern Arabic songs composed for her, and remakes of classic songs, all recorded with a modern jazz arrangement. Khcheich developed her own sound using the classical Arabic song as a vehicle. “If I record a studio CD today, there has to be new material, either as new compositions or new arrangements,” she says. “I do not mind covering other people’s songs, and I did cover songs by Sayyed Darwish and Um Kulthum in my first three CDs, but I used my own approach to arranging them.”
In contrast to her first three CDSs, Min Sihr Ouyounak covers eleven vintage tracks picked from Sabah’s film songs between 1953 and 1966. The songs were composed by big names in Egyptian music from the 1950s and 1960s, like Mohammad Abdel Wahab (“Min Sihr Ouyounak” [The Magic of Your Eyes]), Farid El-Atrach (“Ya Kawini Ya Ali” [Ali My Heart Is Burning for You], “Habibit Oummaha” [Her Mother’s Darling], and “Ahibbak Yani” [I Love You Yani]), Sayyed Makkawi (“Ana Hina Yabnil Halal” [Here I Am, Worthy Man]), and Mohammad El Mougi (“El-Ghawi” [The Man in Love]), as well as prominent Lebanese folk composers from that period like Philemon Wehbe (“Marhabtein” [Welcome] and “El-Samkeh” [The Fish]), Mounir Mourad (“Rouh Ala Mahlak” [Don’t Rush to Fall in Love]), Afif Radwan (“Rayha Abel Habibi” [I’m Off to Meet My Lover]), and of course the ubiquitous Rahbani Brothers (“Al-Nadda” [Nadda]).
The songs by Lebanese composers are in colloquial Lebanese, while the ones by Egyptian composers are in colloquial Egyptian, the lingua franca of the Tarab repertoire. Interestingly, none of the songs is in classical Arabic, which Sabah rarely used, since it totally clashed with her down-to-earth persona.
The song list keeps a good balance between well-known tracks like “Marhabtein,” “Al-Nadda,” and “Ana Hina Yabnil Halal,” and some less-known ones like “Rouh Ala Mahlak” and “El-Ghawi.” Khcheich has done a great job of wiping the dust off the latter songs and introducing them to today’s public. Ironically, through, the less known tracks were not the riskiest for her.
“The songs where I took the biggest risk were actually the best-known ones, because the audience will have a clear memory of Sabah’s original version when they hear them from me,” explains Khcheich. “But I chose to include some famous hits because I didn’t want the audience to hear an entire concert of unknown songs. I wanted them to relate their experience to the Sabah repertoire that they knew.”
[Rima Khcheich. Photo by Karim Ghorayyeb.]
Aside from the challenge of covering some of Sabah’s famous hits, Khcheich also took a risk singing Sabah’s Lebanese folk songs, including her signature mawwals (vocal improvisations) that require an exceptionally long breath: the singer must be able to sustain a syllable for a good ten seconds without flinching.
“‘Marhabtein’ and ‘Al-Nadda’ were folk songs, which is a genre I do not perform much,” she explains. “Meanwhile, songs from the Egyptian repertoire like ‘Min Sihr Ouyounak’ and ‘Ana Hina Yabnil Halal’ are a lot more in line with my classical training and sounded more like the material that people usually hear me perform,” she added. While Khcheich did challenge herself with “Marhabtein” and “Al-Nadda” (the first and last tracks of the CD), including them was a wise idea because they anchor the CD in Lebanese music and bring it home to the Lebanese public.
Min Sihr Ouyounak is a very well performed CD. The ensemble is top notch, basically a takht (traditional Arabic chamber group) with augmented violin and rhythm sections. It features veterans from the Lebanese classical music scene like Imane Homsi on the qanun and Samir Siblini on the nay. There are frequent short instrumental solos on the nay, the violin, the qanun, and the oud, a very important ingredient in Tarab. A seven-person choir supports the ensemble, with the men and the women often singing separately and adding different colors to the music.
Khcheich's delivery is warm, confident, and flawless. Her intonation and ornamentation are very precise, a trademark of the Muwashahat and Adwar aesthetics from her classical training. As a well-established singer in her own right, Khcheich did not try to deliver an exact imitation of Sabah’s singing, thus avoiding a common mistake that many singers make when covering a giant figure of Sabah’s caliber. Instead, Khcheich went back to the melody and the lyrics and delivered them in her own style and voice.
The result is very interesting, because it offers a more classical and sober version of Sabah’s songs. In a way, hearing Sabah’s repertoire without Sabah’s presence brings the listener closer to the composer and lyricist. While the original versions of most of these songs are commercially available, this CD is nonetheless good news for lovers of the classical Arabic song in an age where commercial Arabic pop music is flooding the market.
“The entire repertoire was well received and I could hear the audience enjoy it,” said Khcheich. “I was wearing a large smile during the entire concert because of the warm reception they gave me. I have never seen the audience so excited before. The room was on fire!”
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