Prince of Arab Singing regales Muscat crowd

Majid el Mohandes is something of an icon in the Arabic world, earning himself the title of ’Prince of Arabic Singing’. It was therefore quite a scoop for the Royal Opera House Muscat to engage him for not one, but two evenings at the weekend to perform different programmes to sold-out houses.
The 47-year-old Iraqi singer studied aeronautical engineering in Baghdad, acquiring the nickname, ‘Al Mohandes’, (the engineer) while pursuing his music studies in secret.
Audiences in Oman are clearly glad he did, as the success of his first single, ‘Mushkilah’ (The Problem), in 80s Baghdad began his upward spiral into the Arabic recording Hall of Fame, leading to his recently released album, ‘Al Dunya Dwara’ (What goes Around Comes Around), which he sadly didn’t sing on Thursday night.
Majid brought with him a full orchestra, comprising 12 violinists, eight solo instrumentalists, nine traditional Saudi percussion players and five backing singers. They were coordinated under the baton of 38-year-old Egyptian conductor, Midhat Khamis El Kholi, who has been working with Mohandes since 2009.
In relaxed Arabic style, the concert allowed for late-comers and talking in the auditorium, while Sound Engineer Musa al Baqali had his work cut out for him balancing the nine percussionists with Majid’s solo voice.
The first number of the concert was composed by Mohandes himself, ‘Ana Zurtu Oman’ (‘I visited Oman, I loved it before I even saw it, ….. Your people are truly amiable) after a performance at the Salalah Festival, which of course endeared him further to the fans. After some re-balancing the much quieter, lyrical, ‘Tehebak Ruhi’ (My Soul Loves You) was accompanied by Oud, Qanoon, Izz Ezz Al Din Shahwan on Electric Guitar, Roland Keyboard played by Basil al Hashimi, and string ensemble.
Majid el Mohandes has received many epithets for his singing such as, ‘Voice of Diamond’ and ‘Lord’. In 2016 he won ‘Most Photogenic Arab Star Award’, along with ‘Best Arab Singer Award’ in New York City, in 2017 at the Arab Music Festival in Beirut, and his stunning good looks have, no doubt, helped him along the way.
A lovely string melody introduced Turki al Shaikh’s ‘Hudua’ (Silence), and then the percussion crept in with poignant interjections. It was beautiful and the audience remained politely attentive. The fourth song, the ballad-like ‘Ana Blayak’ (Me without You) was introduced by a stunning solo on green electric fiddle, played brilliantly by Mahmoud Surur sometimes imitating a Nay, while Wissam Al Baidani’s saxophone riffs gave the edge in many of the songs: ‘A thousand tears fall for you…..even the breath I take hurts inside, Without you’. Female backing vocalists, Dua Abd Al Baki and Huda Sulaiman, added hugely in such call-and-response-style songs.
However, the not-so-patient punters decided to make their voices heard by calling out requests. A programme change ensued and things really took off.
‘Atshan’ (Thirsty) encouraged all to sing along to the chorus with some hand-clapping to enhance the rhythmic drumming of Mustafa Abbas Husain in his Perspex box.
The lengthy, ‘Tinadik’ evoked a similar response, and then ‘Ghab al Qamar’ (The Moon has Gone) met with spontaneous cheering as a string intro led to a slow, improvised cadenza from Mohandes, Qanoon – played superbly by Shadi al Jundi – and Guitar from Sharif Sulaiman.
As a metre was introduced with rhythmic backing, the public began clapping again, between stunning tenor saxophone interludes. The programme order was thrown to the wind as a beautiful Oud solo, played expertly by Hassan Khasuri, led to the eighth hit of the night, bringing in lively, rhythmic exchanges between the 12 violin players and the now-tamed Saudi percussionists.
Choir members took a strong role, leading the audience participation in choruses and responses. A particularly virtuoso electric fiddle effect introduced one of Majid’s most famous songs, ‘Wahishni Moot’, (Miss you so Much) in his most mellow tone of the concert. There was more melos in his voice than had been heard so far, showing the warmth suggested by his ‘Romantic Singer’ nomenclature.
‘Jannah, Jannah’ (Paradise) was meant to be the Finale of a nearly two-hour set without a break, and concert-goers were already beginning to drift out in numbers.
But, after further conferring and a hiatus, a final jazzy number provided an unrequested encore, and brought the performance to an unceremonious end. One hopes that Friday’s set will have better sound balance from the start, and a more organised running order.