Corona Memoires: Let The Music Play

Tuesday 21 April 202001:27 pm

Today I find myself drawn to music.

Music for most of us is a refuge not only in times of loneliness but especially in times off celebration.

In our childhood, we listened to the radio and the choice of music was usually dictated by the adults (and the limited number of stations).

In Lebanon, I would listen to the pained voice of Umm Kulthum, the Empress of Egyptian singers. Although she hailed from very humble beginnings and was often disguised as a boy in her early years (heaven forbid a woman should sing lest she aroused any men in a conservative society where women were neither to be seen nor heard). I would imagine her hiding behind a mashrabiya, letting her voice be heard and enchanting all those privileged enough to hear her. Her songs were long. A single song could last a whole evening and she would stand with her handkerchief like the goddess Nefertiti, dignified, almost motionless, occasionally lifting an arm when she reached a sort of musical nirvana. This was not lost on an adoring public who were often moved to tears. Her hair was beautifully coifed, and she dressed with an understated elegance that befitted her stature and her grace. Pashas would bow at her feet in a country where the social hierarchy was very carefully preserved. She – almost uniquely - transcended any such social boundaries. She sang of love – Enta Umri (“You Are My Life”) –  and of loss. Some songs were patriotic, and others reflected the social signs of the times.

Like all the arts my dears, it's best to let  the music shape your opinions. Listen to those treasures I suggested. Interpret them as you will. Enjoy them and think of the great era whence they emanated, and you may tell yourself: Do we deserve this?

I remember my mother telling me years ago that she had the chance to see her live in Baalbek, among the ruins. She was the only singer that could tear her away from me as I was still a baby. How lucky for her to have been there. I just wish that she had taken me along. I asked her earlier today about that concert and she reminisced on how grand she had seemed that night: a setting befitting a Goddess.

Nobody left such an indelible mark on Arabic music. Referred to as the “Star of the East”, she was also known as “The Voice of Egypt” and “The Fourth Pyramid”. A favorite of King Farouk as well as Gamal Abdel Nasser, she was called “The Lady” by Charles de Gaulle and praised by musicians throughout the Arab world as well as Western stars as diverse as Bob Dylan, Bono, Maria Callas and Youssou N’Dour. Her music resonates until this day.

Other popular singers included Fairuz who – with the same hieratic and melancholic demeanor as Umm Kalthoum – sang about Lebanese folklore and of fables and everyday life (El Bosta or The Postman) and of a drunkard called Hanna El Sekran (John the drunkard ) to which a dabké is often danced. Who could ever forget her passionate Li Beirut (To Beirut) a teary heart wrenching tribute to the capital sung during the civil war in Lebanon. In the lyrics, she compares the rocky formations in the sea to the face of an old sailor. One cannot but weep as her words pull at one’s heartstrings.

Arab music was regional; there were famous Iraqi singers such as Nazem Al Ghazzali whose Talaa min Beit Abouha is a ballad sung to his neighbor’s daughter. He asks her to quench his thirst for her by giving him a glimpse… you get the gist.

The leitmotif in Arab songs, especially those by the aforementioned came from a higher standard than what later became more pop and therefore less rooted in the classical Arabic and religious – both Muslim and Christian – traditions of the 40s, 50s, 60s and to some extent the early 70s. Later on, music went a little down market, became more commercial and was played as entertainment.

Another favorite of mine who has stood the test of time is Abdel Halim Hafez. He was also an actor and a heartthrob whose music told of both requited and unrequited love. One song in particular, Qariat El Fingan  or “The Reader of Cups” based on a poem by Nizar Qabbani. It is about the unattainable woman, something which allows a liberality of interpretation. Some saw it as a song about political freedom or about the Palestinian struggle, while others identified with it more personally and prosaically.

Like all the arts my dear readers, the best way is to let  the music itself shape your own opinions. Listen to those treasures. Interpret them as you will. Enjoy them and think of the great era whence they emanated.

Music was my first love but it will certainly not be my last.

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