Caesar of Arabic Song radiates powerful charisma on stage

The anticipation in the foyer before the “Caesar of Arabic Song” appeared at the Royal Opera House Muscat was palpable. The mostly Omani audience of all ages, girls in groups and men with friends, was buzzing with excitement on Thursday evening as they checked that their tickets were in order and which door to enter by. The two scheduled performances by famed Iraqi superstar, Kadim al Sahir were sold out within a day of going on sale last May, and so negotiations were made for another performance to be added on Friday.
Sixty-one-year-old Kadim al Sahir is renowned for the way he sings romantic poems, so unsurprisingly the theme of Love featured high in his repertoire. He has composed all the music of his songs, to lyrics by Nizar Qabbani, and has a huge following in Arabic countries. Loved for his powerful charisma on stage — and of course his expressive passionate singing voice — it was no wonder that Omani concert-goers were talking about little else this season.
The auditorium was still surprisingly empty ten minutes before curtain-up, and although it quickly began to fill, people continued to file in after the show had begun. The ushers were kept busy showing late comers to their seats and later fielding the mobile phones which are distracting in the dark.
Kadim brought with him a 20-strong Ensemble of the best Arabic musicians from Iraq, Egypt and Lebanon with five backing singers to accompany him. The band was conducted by Qanoon player, Hassan Falih Abbas, who provided some impressive solo introductions to many of the songs. Once seated, the Ensemble provided a syncopated rhythmic introduction to the first song, and when Caesar himself entered a few moments later, the atmosphere was electric. The crowd let out a communal gasp of awes and cheers, yelps and cries of song requests which continued at each pause between the numbers. Unfortunately by Thursday evening, Kadim was not feeling his best and it was clear by mopping his brow he may have had a fever. So the interval was cancelled but to satisfy the feverish demand for favourite songs he showed amazing stamina and sung for two hours, non-stop. His powerful passion was sustained throughout the performance and no hint of tiredness was apparent in his voice, such was his professionalism. Amazing lighting effects from technician Suhail Barakat turned the hall and stage into a dazzling arena in rival to any Carnegie Hall creation.
‘Min Kitab al Hob’ translates as ‘from the Book of Love’ and it provided a good metaphor for the whole concert. With Kadim al Sahir’s rugged good looks and perfect teeth in a never ending smile, he wowed and enchanted with every song he sung. ‘Kuni Imraa’ (Be a Woman), ‘Small Matters’, ‘Valentine’s Day’, ‘Contradictions’ and ‘Your Body has a Dangerous Fragrance’ give a hint to the flavour of the night. He did not follow a strict programme order but rather responded to the yells of requests and altered the song-order to suit. The fluid nature of the show made it tricky to follow programme notes, but infinitely more enjoyable for its surprising spontaneity.
The second song was slow and mournful, featuring a stunning intro with solos by guitarist, Tareq Ali Kadim and Abbas on qanoon. The fifth song took a change of direction to a modern Jazz-rock style featuring superb improvisation on grand piano by Sahir al Sahir. Later, a popular heartfelt slow number opened with a moody intro from the backing choir followed by Kadim’s deep, sensuous invocation which enchanted and beguiled the audience. Whenever a lively rhythmic refrain was heard, spontaneous handclapping took over such as in the ever popular, ‘Zideeni Ishqann’ which began with a moving qanoon solo followed by an exuberant break from the five percussionists About half way through he spoke to the audience for the first time, praising the unity of Arabic nations whether Omani, Iraqi, Lebanese or — well, the Arab world as one, and despite weariness setting in, he inspired his public to ecstatic applause.
In contrast, a beautiful slow ballad with only piano accompaniment, ‘Quli Uhibbuka’, allowed for a Broadway style of singing from stage right, with evocative improvised violin solos in between. Another favourite had the choir shouting the percussive refrain in a strong, rhythmic dialogue with the soloist. It was followed by an almost filmic score with brass effects, electric guitar and audience vocal participation drawing to a passionate, enthusiastic ending. Another in an Arabic syncopated rhythm led to the final Rock-style song, with booming bass guitar riffs from Muthanna Al Awsi and fans singing along. The show ended abruptly after 120 minutes of continuous music and song. There was no encore, and yet one left the packed hall with the distinct feeling that this second visit to ROHM will not be this Iraqi Superstar’s last.

Georgina Benison
Photos: Khalid al Busaidi