I have only ever watched shows like Pop Idol when forced to. I find the manipulative staging off putting, for one thing. It's like they moved the wizard pulling the levers in front of the curtain.
So when I read of the dramatic story of Mohammed Assaf, the Palestinian winner of the Arabic Pop Idol (make that legendary, how he climbed a wall and sang in the queue and sang at the Egyptian guards at the Gazan border .. almost a cliché), I thought I'd have a look at some video and wow. I have no idea what he is singing about but don't need to, his voice is just stunning.
Reem Kelani, a Palestinian singer, musician and broadcaster, explains:
As I quickly realized, Assaf’s musical talents are many and prodigious. Within the context of Arabic music, Assaf has perfect pitch vocals. The Egyptian musician Hassan El Shafei, by far the most professional of the four Arab Idol judges, described Assaf’s vocals to be as “precise as a ruler.”Sounds good to me.
Assaf has mastered the singing of maqamat or Arabic modes, and seemingly has the ability to travel effortlessly from one maqam to another (known as “modulation”).
Many Western listeners may not have known that the microtones which make up Arabic music vary in pitch from one country to the other. Thus, Assaf’s ability to sing songs from across the Arab world was all the more remarkable, encompassing linguistic and musical dialects.
Assaf’s ability to employ long melismatic phrases — singing a single syllable in four or five notes — is exceptional, with his vocals at times sounding more like the refined Persian bolbol technique of nightingale-like trills.Trills? Yep, trills.
His rich and yet measured use of vocal decorations, known as urab, is exemplary. All Arab singers are occasionally guilty of overuse of urab. Assaf’s precise use of them is a lesson to us all.
Assaf exudes an inner spirit, which some may call charisma, and others, stage presence. To Arabs, it’s the ability to create a state of tarab, which is similar to the Spanish duende, which the poet Federico García Lorca defined as something that “surges up, inside, from the soles of the feet … it’s not a question of skill, but of a style that’s truly alive.”It is a little off putting.
Sadly, Assaf’s duende was sometimes obscured by a hyperactive audience who constantly emitted wolf whistles, dissonant shouts and contrived sighs of praise.
Kelani suggests that the Arab Idol people "re-learn how tarab should be celebrated."
As Lorca reminds us, “In all Arabic music, dance, song or elegy, the arrival of duende is greeted with vigorous cries of ‘Allah! Allah!’ so close to the ‘Olé!’ of the bullfight, and who knows whether they are not the same?”"Of course he's Palestinian so there was the undignified sight of him being embraced by a slew of old men, one even leaping on stage after his victory. Kelani explains more about those who would manipulate the kid. Kelani says that Hamas had detained him several times before. Now the street has forced them to embrace/leave him alone. In this reaction show on Al-Jazeera a Palestinian Authority spokesperson is extremely careful not to over politicise Assaf. Assaf in interviews has been a proud Palestinian and managed to avoid sectarian politics and stick to an 'art bringing people together' type message.
There has been some mixed Israeli reaction. Avi Issacharoff in the Times of Israel said he was "moved", that Assaf's voice "managed to make its way into my soul." Then there were the complaints about a song's lyrics about longing to return to Haifa and other towns now in Israel. Netanyahu even complained to John Kerry, of all people.
These struck me as a bit hypocritical and hyper-sensitive and also insensitive. Assaf's grandmother was driven out of the town of Bayt Daras during Operation Lightning whose aim in 1948 was "to compel the Arab inhabitants of the area to 'move' and by striking one or more population centres to cause an exodus."
I'm not getting into the never ending weeds of that but the kid obviously feels a familial pull, whoever you want to blame for his familial history. Singing about the fact of something lost is a pretty long tradition in all cultures.
Two songs after the jump. The first one is gobsmacking but I couldn't work back from the Arabic description to an English title, did try, please feel free to inform me. The second is the anthemic Alli al-keffiyeh (Raise the keffiyeh, which upset some sensitive souls).