A sweetly incongruous start to Ramadan with Nai Barghouti

Barghouti delighted her capacity audience.

BEIRUT: Pierre Abou Khater Amphitheater played host to an evening of sweet incongruity Friday evening with “Mounyati,” a concert of Arabic classical music featuring vocalist and flautist Nai Barghouti.

Accompanied by a rock-solid ensemble led by oud maestro Charbel Rouhana, Barghouti delighted her capacity audience with tunes drawn from the historical canon and more recent numbers associated with divas like Asmahan and Fairouz.The incongruity of the performance lay in the fact that the focal point of this seasoned group of musicians and well-worn repertoire is a tender 15 years of age. Barghouti is no amateur, though, and the music that arose during this show was in no way that of a student concert.

Barghouti hails from a prominent Palestinian family whose members include writer Mourid Barghouti and poet Tamim Barghouti. She credits her father Omar Barghouti as one of the driving forces of her musical life.

Like many of the most accomplished female vocalists in this line, she started training young (apparently beginning with her mother at the age of 5). Since then she has studied with Palestinian composer and musician Khaled Jubran – who along with Rouhana arranged the music for this evening’s concert.

The evening didn’t begin with an ensemble-accompanied vocal piece but a solo flute composition that Barghouti dedicated to the people of Qana, who are burdened with the sad distinction of having twice faced massacres during Israeli military offensives against this country.

Having won her audience’s hearts, Barghouti was joined on stage by the ensemble. The concert got going properly with a “Layl,” an improvisation for voice and oud, that got the blood coursing through the veins of this roomful of tarab aficionados.

Over the course of her 10-tune program, Barghouti belted out two solid hours of music – give or take, as the audience demanded an encore. She was occasionally given a brief respite as most of the ensemble’s players – Ayman Homsi on qanoun, Antoine Khalifé on violin, Sari Khalifé on cello, Elie Khoury on bouzouq and Rouhana himself – stepped up for improvisations of their own.

The heady mix of readily recited lyrics, familiar tunes, crisply delivered accompaniment and solo improvisations, topped off by Barghouti’s vocal range – which is youthful but of oddly rich timber – reduced the audience to putty in the performers’ hands.

It’s the male response to the tarab of female vocalists that’s most intriguing to observe.

Sometimes it’s silent. One tall, thin gentleman watched the entire concert with the fingers and palms of his hands pressed against his cheeks, unmoving except when – during a particularly moving grace note in one solo improvisation or another – both hands rose a few centimeters away from his face to shake, as if in carefully restrained ecstasy, at the ceiling.

The performance evidently made him perspire a little, as, between numbers, he produced a bottle of hand sanitizer. He quickly applied it, politely offered the bottle to the lady seated next to him, then allowed his hands to return to his cheeks.

Other times it’s less silent. Manly moans and groans are commonplace in concerts like these and Barghouti’s show was no exception. A couple of rows behind the hand-sanitizing man, a fellow with a strong tenor voice wasn’t content to moan, bursting into song to accompany Barghouti in the chorus of several of her songs. The row of ladies in front of him glanced at him from time to time, their faces mingling amusement and embarrassment.

The concert’s name was derived from “Muwashah Mounyati ‘Aza Istibari,” a tune that’s known among lovers of this tradition. Followers of contemporary music will recognize it from Rima Khcheich’s innovative, earthy recording of the tune on her record “Falak.”

Khcheich has followed a trajectory of study and performance not unlike that of Barghouti, but in recent years she has deployed the classical canon, and her considerable vocal talent, in more experimental, yet soulful, settings. Her “Mounyati,” for instance, is accompanied by percussion only.

Anyone introduced to “Mounyati” via Khcheich’s work might have been intrigued by how different was this classical interpretation – not least the tempo, which is so sprightly that Barghouti’s vocal seemed to be racing to keep pace with her accompanists.

“Mounyati” opened up questions about which career path this gifted young vocalist will follow in the years to come. Based on her reception at the amphitheater, it will be greeted warmly by lovers of tarab.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on July 23, 2012, on page 16.




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