GEORGINA BENISON –
Muwashahat” is an Arabic poetic form and a secular musical genre, whose roots parallel those of Flamenco from southern Spain in reverse. Literally meaning ‘girdled’ or a belt worn by women in ancient Andalusia, it brings a beautiful metaphor of a song on which various rhythms, ornaments and melodies can be hung to delight and excite listeners. It was therefore a great coup for the Royal Opera House Muscat to engage Badr Rami, now considered to be one of the most remarkable voices on today’s Arabic music scene, to perform on Saturday evening. He appeared together with his father, the Syrian-born Maestro and violinist, Mohammad Rami Zeitouni and his 19-piece ‘Angham Achark Ensemble’ (Music of the East). The Muwashahat form developed specifically in Aleppo, Syria because of its position at an ancient crossroads in the Arab world. Strands of traditional music could be heard there from North Africa and throughout the Middle East.
On Saturday the Ensemble sat on stage in a perfect arc, with four choir members behind. Maestro Rami Zeitouni stood at the front, fiddle in hand, and opened with a traditional introduction on maqam (scale) Rast by Tatyos Efendi. It set the bar high for the quality of musicianship to be expected from this exclusive performance, and they did not disappoint throughout the non-stop 2-hour show. When the singer himself came on there was rapturous applause as if for a long-lost friend. Dapper and smiling, the 31-year-old Moroccan-born Syrian artist, Badr Rami is already an icon of genuine Arab Tarab and ‘Muwashahat’ songs, some dating back a thousand years.
He began with the traditional folksong, ‘Muwassah: Ahinu Shawqan’ (I long to return), a brief four-line stanza yearning for the homeland and a cool, nostalgic drink.
Badr Rami has a naturally well-placed, beautiful voice and what was striking throughout his performance was the wide vocal range he uses, especially long, high sustained notes at the climax in each song. Subject matters, such as longing for a homeland, a loved one, a drink and unrequited love make it a truly secular tradition. ‘O Chanter’ recalled the sound of the Oud heard in the taverns, and by the end the audience was enraptured by Rami’s warm vocal timbre, echoed especially by qanoon responses.
The beautiful ‘Ya Man La’ibat Bihi al Shamoul’ (Swayed by the Northern Winds) was enchanting and mesmerising, the bass choir giving gravity to the nostalgic sentiment. The slow opening suddenly gave way to lively, rhythmic music, encouraging the audience to clap along and lifting the mood entirely.
There can be up to 3 different rhythms (awzan) during the development of each song, keeping listeners and musicians alike on their toes, and here Lehdil Mohammad on Riq, Sadiq Lahassan on Daf (both tambourine-like) and Ghabouqi Hamid on darrabukkah (goblet drum) really came into their own, with fine sound-balancing.
The Maqam Rast section was concluded with a moving improvised Oud solo from Al Ghazi Tariq. Rami’s talent was discovered at a young age. He studied oud and violin, like his father, and was nurtured by family friend Sabah Fakhri, who is a renowned symbol of genuine Arab Tarab music. He was the master who Badr learned from and who opened his eyes to the wonders, references and various singing styles of Tarab.
The Mawwal ‘Na’am Sara Taif Man Ahwa’ (The shadow of my beloved) was composed by Fakhri to lyrics by Imam al Buseiri and the passionate, heart-rending sentiment was equalled by Rami’s profound expression and intensity in the opening section. Each time the rhythmic section began and instrumental passages allowed, Badr Rami moved about the stage with stylised dance moves, much to the amusement and delight of his fans, and this was part of his endearing stage presence.
Some more folk songs followed in maqam Rast until another dazzling virtuoso violin solo in maqam Hijaz from Rami Zeitoun led to a new section. ‘Foq Elna Khil’ (We Have a Lover Up There) and ‘Al Boulbol Nagha A’ Ghosnel Ful’ (The Nightingale Sang on the Arabian Jasmine flower) were alternately moving, lyrical, lively and rhythmically varied, punctuated with Sami-dances and out of time clapping. “My Love’s teeth are White as Pearls” was especially catchy and rousing with the refrain, ‘Lulu bi Lulu’ compelling all to sing or clap along. An impressive qanoon improvisation by Kolei Mansour was arresting. Cellists Rodani Abdul Ali and Fahim Zakaria had a brilliant pizzicato ostinato between the refrains of ‘Iba’at Li Gawab’ (Send me a Word) with some great falling sequences from the singer, and then came the final song.
‘The Elixir of Love’ was another composition by Rami’s personal tutor, Sabah Fakhri, and was filled with his emotive vocal virtuosity which had echoed the streets of Aleppo and courtyards of Andalusia via the concert halls of Egypt and Lebanon. Badr Rami is greatly admired for his charismatic performances and exceptionally strong vocals. He is devoted to preserving the authentic songs of his heritage and delivering them in his own unique, infectious style which reaches audiences, Muscat included, and gently touches their souls.