The International Festival of Ehden Captures Kadim Al-Sahir at His Pinnacle

Nelida Nassar  08.28.2013

Under an illuminated sky and surrounded by the caress of a crisp breeze, the outdoor arena of the Ehdeniyat International Festival, situated at 1500 meters above sea level, welcomed a great number of older guests (presumably season ticket holders and sponsors) that began to stream into the middle of the amphitheater, as a great number of younger audience members poured excitedly into the back and the wings. The monumental stage and the side screens, which were placed just several steps back from the stage, were the best arranged I have ever seen out of all the festivals I have attended in Lebanon. The perfectly calibrated acoustics allowed the sound of music to flow out easily, inviting the Edhen Mountains’ bucolic landscape, flora and fauna to drift in.

For a decade, the festival has been an idyllic haven for the world’s top musicians. Kadim Al Sahir, an extremely talented Iraqi singer who enchants his audience with his velvety voice, was the evening’s star at this year’s closing event. He has conquered the Arab world with his beautiful songs, which are poetic and marked by great humanism and patriotism. A remarkable artist and composer he has made a strong impression with his unique compositions, sparking a revival in contemporary Arab music while preserving its “oriental” character and authenticity.

Al Sahir sprang to the stage with a youthful energy which carried over into his performing as the evening progressed. Wearing a smart grey suit, with a matching wool scarf around his neck, the cool evening temperature did not deter him from immediately warming up the audience’s spirit with songs of love, longing, passion, and poetry which continued uninterruptedly for two and a half hours. His charisma and unusual combination of pop and traditional music – he insists on using a full live orchestra rather than background electronics and synthesizers – help him stand out among the musicians of the Arab world. And his precise rhythms and perfect intonation, along with rich textures and musical versatility, are unique.

His orchestra of mostly Iraqi musicians in exile (who reside in different countries across the world) played both traditional and modern instruments, including drum, daf, tabla, dirbakeh, electric guitar, piano, kanun, violin, and cello. Al Sahir was also accompanied by a chorus of eight singers, four of whom are Lebanese women. Several lighting effects vividly demonstrated the sense of mystery, melancholy, capriciousness and drama which seemed to be as much part of Al Sahir’s musical language as they are of the lyrics’ he sang. With a warm smile and incomparable natural elegance (which brings him boundless popularity in the Middle East), he offered a rich repertoire of his greatest hits, opening with Jbeil Ishq (A mountain of passion), and continuing with Ashur Bel Bard (I feel the cold), Zidini Ichkan (Add to my passion), Ghaliya (Precious), Kouli Uhibuk (Say that I love you), Mustabeda (Dictator), Kolak Ala Baadak (You are all together beautiful), Kouli (Say it), Mawlati (My majesty), Tamessi Be Layla Hekaya (You shall become in one night a tale), Hatha Al Lawn (Even the color), Uhibuki Set El Nesaa (I love you the best among the ladies), Alamtini Hubaki (You taught me your love), Rabie Yehreskun (God bless you), Ya3eesh Hatha l Watan (Bless the country).

The songs he performed were mostly called for by three female admirers in the audience who all on their own succeeded in orchestrating the show. At one point, Al Sahir apologized for singing a tune with the orchestra sounding off-key, and with great humility and candor they started again. On stage, Al Sahir displayed an unparalleled professionalism and equal affinity with his orchestra and his audience, particularly evident when he acknowledged that seventy percent of the program they had prepared for the evening was altered by fans’ request, stressing that his only desire was to make them happy. With his smile and dreamy, shy side he was able not just to move the crowd – he conquered it completely.

The orchestra played was totally immersion in the music, yet was able to convey the slightest nuance with striking effect.  This was a truly absorbing performance with each instrument coming to the fore almost by turns, either in solo or duo passages. The strings blended their tones wonderfully well, with minimal vibrato which never detracted from the proper intonation or the warmth of the overall sound, and they were well supported by the piano, which never sought to dominate the ensemble. Their entire repertoire of intricate textures came across superbly.

Al Sahir is devoted to honor the prestigious Iraqi and Baghdad poetry style of muwashahats dating back to 1760, he is the one who developed the finest Arab music and made accessible to a wider audience many lyrical poems, including those of the poet Nizar Qabbani. Baghdad poetry is the most noble and perfect form of the maqam beginning with the tahrir, which represents the nucleus of the maqam and establishes its emotional content. Al Sahir and his band alternated rhythms and free melodic passages through increasingly higher tone levels. In some maqamat, the tahrir was preceded by an instrumental introduction of fixed meter. At other times it was completely replaced by a badwah, a vocal introduction in which short and long tones were juxtaposed by Al Sahir in alternately high (meyana) and low (taslum) registers.

Moreover,  Al-Sahir’s brand of tarab – one of the most important terms in the musical aesthetics of Arab culture – induced in his numerous fans a heightened emotional response: rapture and enchantment, as well as joy or sadness. His fans screamed for encores, and he gracefully complied.

Al Sahir crafts supple, elastic, versatile pop with Qabbani’s inscrutable poetic wordplay. The result was evocative, even moving. Perhaps the best thing about the concert was how neatly the music and lyrical themes fit together. Al Sahir’s musical skill was dazzling, as he bounced between pop and traditional Arabic music within the same song, and he never indulged in hubris or excess. The performance of this highly focused artist was also a testament to the strength of the creative partnership he maintains with Qabbani. Having achieved a level of creativity, originality, critical acclaim, global success and philanthropy that few others can match, Al Sahir is a perfect Arab cultural icon who is sure to have a lasting impact on the region.

Noteworthy, too, was the warm welcome and the exceptional hospitality and grace of the festival’s public relations executive Mrs. Nathalie Khawaja, who offered our team a truly memorable evening.

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