An unexpected twist at the classical Arabic song recital

Waad al Bahri had big shoes to fill on Saturday evening at the Royal Opera House, Muscat. She replaced Syrian superstar Mayada al Henawi at short notice and performed the first half of a double-bill with Egyptian singer, Reham Abdel Hakim. Some people chose to cancel their bookings, disappointed at missing the famed Syrian songstress, but those who attended the Classical Arabic Song recital were not disappointed. There was a mixed crowd from Western and Arabic nations, men and women of all ages in the audience for the show at the weekend. The cancellation caused a programme reversal too, as thirty-seven-year old Waad, flown in from Egypt within the previous two days, opened the concert, allowing Reham to top the bill in Part Two.
The programme opened with the legendary Egyptian conductor and band arranger, Mohammed Al Mogy, on his second visit to ROHM after his performance of ‘Al Burdah’ in 2017. He conducted the twenty-strong Ensemble with an accessible, lyrical composition, “Moguiyat”, by his namesake, the much loved Egyptian composer, Mohamed El Mogui.
Waad al Bahri’s awaited arrival on stage in flowing, black embroidered gown was met by an encouraging round of applause from a curious public. The order of her programme was, understandably, mixed up and so a little confusing. She began with the enigmatic, “El Hob Elli Kan” (Once upon a Time, Love) by Baligh Hamdi. Immediately the warm strength of her voice was established in this rhythmically iconic chestnut. Her smoky vocal line quickly engaged the listeners with a controlled, passionate delivery. All through the entire performance Mamdouh Ahmed Surour provided some superb Nay solos, adding evocative flavour to the ensemble. Illuminated by appropriate coloured lights behind, Waad congratulated Omanis on the National Day to follow, and sang an a-capella improvised tribute from her heart with touching sincerity, despite the attempts of some to clap along. “Emta Hate’raf” was a more technically demanding song, which she performed beautifully across its wide range, accompanied by some fine Qanoon playing from Maged Naim Mohamed. The only distraction in her presentation was a nervous hair-flicking mannerism – which could easily have been rectified by a creative hairdresser.
“Han al Wedd” was a joyful, folksong-like number which Waad delivered in her warm, deep register with much rich ornamentation. It was an extensive song, including the Omani female backing singers, Nawal Khadoum Al Busaidiya and Khawla Harub Al Siyabiya.
A lush Qanoon solo introduced Baligh Hamdi’s slow, dark, “Ana Ba’ch’ak”, which is one of Mayada al Henawi’s favourite and anticipated ballads. Waad interpreted the narrative with sincerity and clarity, reaching a passionate height of expression at its climax.
The popular rhythmic, “Ya Mal Al Sham” was brilliantly presented, with a full-band sound, an enchanting violin solo from Mustafa Helmi and keyboard effects from Ahmed Sayyid Edriss. It featured al Bahri’s strong, unmetered style with vocal responses from the two male Egyptian backing singers. It was a perfect penultimate taster to her grand finale, saving the best till last. “Albi Dalili” is a popular waltz classic, an extended song in several sections, featuring a chromatic solo line with very high celestial chorus backing, culminating in a quasi-operatic ending. Waad al Bahri left the stage, and the audience, with the sense of a promise fulfilled from across the sea.
After the interval Egyptian artist, Reham Abdel Hakim renowned for her authentic performance of the songs of Umm Kulthoum, had a hard act to follow. She also extended best wishes for the 48th Omani National Day, and plunged straight into the declamatory, “An El Oshaq”, a strong, powerful opening, reflecting a confident stage-presence through gesture and projection.
A harp-like Qanoon solo introduced the slow, “Le’bet el Ayam”, based on a chromatic Arabic scale in an arrhythmic, ad lib style. It was a more complex classical song, beloved from Umm Kulthoum’s repertoire but executed beautifully by Reham with well-placed high vibrato and careful phrasing.
The short, well-known Rahbani Brothers’, “Sahar El Layali” moved from its slow introduction into the first truly upbeat rhythmic section, while “Enta Omri” had a very slow, plaintive style and complex rhythms, featuring an exciting solo from guitarist, Wahid Mamdouh el Hallaq.
Thirty-six-year-old Reham Abdel Hakim’s signature, “Feeha Haga Helwa” was the most lyrical – and popular – soundtrack of her repertoire, from the Egyptian movie, ‘Asal Eswed’. It was infused with classical Arabic rhythms and captivating melodic lines from the ten-strong violin section. The final, lengthy Umm Khultoum Medley opened with a lovely Qanoon intro and guitar solo, followed by Reham’s clear, passionate delivery in the less familiar number, nevertheless exuding a strong confidence and powerful projection. The next, more familiar piece affirmed a more poised classical style and reflected an experienced grasp of Kulthoum’s technique, range, and control. Her skilled ability allowed the silences to speak, and her tremendous vocal control and stamina enabled her to sing non-stop for an hour. Sadly the audience did not all possess her focus, and attention was waning as some people began to depart before the abrupt ending, sans encore. Having two female singers in their thirties back to back was a tough call, maybe a little ambitious, yet the contrast in their voices and styles made this a pleasant evening’s double-bill to take away and savour over Oman’s forthcoming National Holiday.

Text by Georgina Benison
Photos by khalid al Busaidi