BEIRUT: Rima Khcheich strode onto the Masrah al-Madina stage Friday evening and, nodding a brief smile at her audience, began to sing “Ayyouhal Foulkou.”
Composed by Mohamad al-Qassabji, with lyrics by Ahmad Rami, this number from the Umm Kulthum songbook is well within the vocalist’s repertoire.
Aside from a daf (frame drum) and an oud sitting on a nearby table, dormant, the vocalist was alone and unaccompanied during her opening tune. Anyone who grew up listening to Arabic classical music, folk tunes and pop numbers of yesteryear may know how difficult this can be.
The 20th anniversary celebrations of Masrah al-Madina have commenced. The brain child of actor-writer-director Nidal Ashkar, the theater space was founded in Clemenceau’s Minkara Building (now hosting Saleh Barakat Gallery) and shifted to Hamra Street’s Saroulla cinema space a decade or so ago.
To mark its second decade, the institution has unveiled a 13-day program of 26 events – theater, song and dance, film, a roundtable – featuring some of the city’s best-known performing arts talents.
The ball got rolling Friday evening with a double bill of theater and music.
The evening opened with a performance of “Exit the King,” written by Romanian absurdist Eugene Ionesco, translated into Lebanese Arabic and directed by Fouad Naim. The play tells the story of an aged king confronted with the certainty of his own death and the ruin of everything he’s built.
Khcheich took the stage after the interval. For the next hour, she dipped into a playlist including muwashahat she’s visited in her albums and past concerts. Interspersed with the Arabic classical works were such pop tunes as “Btindam,” penned by Sami al-Sidawi early last century and made famous by Widad.
The performance was marked by its informality, with the vocalist telling stories between tunes and opening up the second half of the show to suggestions from the audience – prompting unique renditions of “Souleima” (by Khaled Abu el Nasr and Nawfal Elias) and Mohamad el Mougy’s “Al helw leh taqlan qawi,” popularized by Sabah.
Solo shows are rare for Khcheich. Conventionally the numbers in her repertoire are performed by vocalists accompanied by a takht, a small ensemble of classical instruments – oud, percussion, qanun, nai, etc. – that provides the rhythmic and melodic context for her interpretation and improvisations.
Khcheich seldom performs with takht – the most notable exception to this rule came about five years ago with her concert (and subsequent CD) devoted to the tunes of 50s-era Lebanese pop superstar Sabah.
Though Khcheich has performed smaller, less formal, concerts with local collaborators like Rabih Mroue, she’s best-known for pairing her classically trained Arabic vocals with European jazz accompaniment – most frequently involving ensembles of European players centred on double-bassist Tony Overwater.
In past conversations, Khcheich has worked valiantly to convey the various ways in which working with jazz musicians is unlike performing with takht. Jazz musicians, it seems, don’t bang out the songs’ rhythms and melodies as literally as the Arabic ensemble, but elaborate independent musical canvases upon which to showcase her vocals.
Her control of the vocal line is consistently powerful, nuanced, and unerring. Describing how these musical arrangements sound to those raised on traditional instrumentation, Khcheich has recalled the remarks of a Lebanese colleague – noted oud-player Charbel Rouhana – uttered after one of her jazz-inflected concerts.
Though she was performing with an ensemble of musicians, he noted, she was alone on stage.
Friday night’s show saw Khcheich perform several tunes while seated, accompanying herself on frame drum and oud.
Other times, she sang as if in ensemble – standing, her left hand raised and gesturing, keeping time with an absented tune, playing only in her brain.
Masrah al-Madina’s 20th anniversary celebrations continue daily through Oct. 26, with most days hosting two acts, performing at 7:30 and 10 p.m.