BEIRUT: Unlike many artists in Lebanon, and elsewhere in the Arab world in recent years, vocalist Rima Khcheich has not fallen into the trap of copying the charismatic diva Sabah.
In “Min Sihr Ouyounak” (The Magic in your Eyes), her tribute album to Sabah (b. 1927), Khcheich revisits some of the titles the legendary singer had interpreted during her appearances in Egyptian cinema.
With several artists releasing remakes of Sabah songs and a biographical TV drama released for Ramadan last year, the competition to claim Shahroura’s musical legacy is ruthless.
Khcheich was among the first vocalists to pay tribute to Sabah.
During the 2010 Dubai International Film Festival, she performed a selection of the legendary Lebanese actress and crooner’s film songs.
“Min Sihr Ouyounak” is a recording of Khcheich’s May 2011 concert at the American University of Beirut’s Assembly Hall. Though she hasn’t altered the songs’ original orchestration, Khcheich’s vocal character rules the album.
A reinterpretation of the Sabah repertoire was “never among my projects,” confides Khcheich. “I was asked by [DIFF] organizers to come up with a tribute to Sabah, and I grew to enjoy working on her songs. Everything was so new to me, and I put in a lot of love in this.”
Renowned worldwide for her collaborative work, which mingles tarab with jazz, Khcheich says the Sabah world was quite alien to her. “But there are many beautiful tarab songs in Sabah’s repertoire,” she continues. “It was these hidden gems I was after.”
The 30-something vocalist offers a thorough, yet contemporary, reading of Sabah’s tunes, bringing a different texture and new dimensions to the songs.
Written for Sabah by such renowned 20th-century poets and lyricists as Salah Jaheen, Maamoun al-Shennawi and the Rahbani Brothers, the lyrics are rendered somehow more profound and multilayered by Khcheich’s vocal dexterity
In Khcheich’s interpretation, “Ana Hina Yabnil Halal” (I’m here for you, boy), penned by leftist poet Jaheen, ceases to be a young girl’s simple plea to her lover, and obtains a socio-political facet. “I am here for you, boy, I am not after fortune or money,” she sings, her voice lingering significantly over the appropriate words. “I dream of a happy and tranquil life.”
Rather than emulating the energy of Sabah’s powerful voice, Khcheich sings popular tunes like “Ya Kawini, Ya Ali” (My Torturer Ali) and “Habibit Oummaha” (A Mother’s Love for her Daughter) with a murmuring warmth.
Her rendering of Lebanese pop numbers like “Marhabtein” (Two Hellos) and “Aal Nadda” (Oh Dew!), shuns Sabah’s trademark jabali (mountain) interpretation, which is marked by a raucous delivery.
Rather than Sabah’s strong vibrato, Khcheich weaves mawals (a sort of variation on the Arab muwashah, or improvisation), a signature of her vocal technique, into the songs.
In “Aaal Nadda,” for example, she incorporates a muwal upon reviving the passion of a long lost love, her voice oscillating from gentle murmurings to a more powerful, higher-register ornamentation.
The vocalist says she didn’t want to radically reinterpret the Sabah songs she selected. “That was not the purpose of this project,” she says. “Reinterpreting the songs would have been time consuming.”
Khcheich’s accompanying orchestra (given a final mix by Notta Studio’s Wassim Jarrah and Jean Madani) revives the music of Sabah collaborators – brilliant composers like Farid al-Atrash, Mohammad Abdel-Wahhab, Filimont Wehbe, Sayyed Mekkawi – with sharpness and depth.
Wassim Helou’s skillful play on the tabla and Imane Homsi’s oud talents set the tone for the concert and drive the musical ensemble.
The fact that it’s a live recording adds to the charm of “Min Sihr Oyounak.” The audience response to the singer and the music is clearly rapturous, bringing yet another dimension to the music.
Though her vocal style differs drastically from that of Sabah, Khcheich was unable let go of one key trait of Shahroura’s persona – the diva’s immaculate coquetterie. Yet Khcheish remains her own sort of coquette.
“I am on my way to meet my baby. I am going now straight away,” Khcheich warbles in a tune from Sabah’s 1964 film “Afrah al-Shabab” (Youth Fun), directed by Lebanese filmmaker Mohammad Salman.
Khcheich says that the songs selected for her Sabah tribute concert invariably reflect her own character. “I chose the songs that resemble me and interpreted [them] in my own way,” she says. “In a form that best resembles me.”
Rima Khcheich will perform songs from “Min Sihr Ouyounak” at a pair of concerts at Masrah al-Madina this Friday and Saturday at 8:30 p.m. For more information call 03-284-715.