Text by Georgina Benison -
photos by Khalid Al Busaidi -
The turn out at the Royal Opera House Muscat on Tuesday evening was phenomenal. Never have so many Omani ladies thronged the hall at a sell-out celebration for Omani Women’s Day – featuring the Yemeni Superstar Balqees with her band, and Omani support acts. Tickets were like gold dust and there was a waiting list a mile long, so this reviewer was lucky to attend.
Anticipation in the mostly Arabic audience was palpable as the 10 string players of the Royal Oman Symphony Orchestra Ladies Ensemble filed on stage to open the evening. In what might be referred to as a “warm-up” act before the main attraction, the musicians selected two short but compelling numbers to engage and amuse.
Led by violinist Heba Othman Al Sherif, the fiddle players all remained standing for their performance of Mozart’s memorable Serenade, “A Little Night Music”.
The second choice was a perfect gem: Leroy Anderson’s pizzicato Ragtime, “Plink Plank Plunk”. It was beautifully timed, in tune and clearly enjoyed by the musicians as they swayed as they played.
All too soon they left the stage, followed by a pause – a very long pause - as the combined orchestras under Egyptian Maestro, Walid Fayed drifted on to their places, and waited for the ‘headline act’ to appear. She did eventually, in silken white, for all the world like a nubile bride, with carefully coiffured tresses.
At nearly 29 years old, Balqees is a Product, and there is little doubt that her stunning good looks have helped her gain the epithet ‘Best Singer in the Middle East’ in 2015 by Apple music.
Balqees was gracious in her opening welcome and then began her set with a song by her father, Ahmed Fathi, ‘In Yehremona’ (If They Deny Us).
Like most of her songs, it is unashamedly passionate and sung from the heart – often from a male perspective. Helpfully, the programme brochure provided an English translation of the Arabic words, so we few Westerners present could follow the songs’ meaning.
Balqees has a beautiful voice and huge stage presence and charisma, carrying the audience with her as she bemoans her lost love, her lot in life or her nostaligic dreams.
The lively third song amused with its invocation, ‘Oh Grape Farmers, don’t be so desperate to sell!’ A memory of happier days and more than just grapes, perhaps? This was followed by the stunningly moving, “Yakfi” (Enough) which clearly touched the listeners and showed the range and depth of Balqees’ vocal ability.
The Rahbani Brothers song, “Raj’een Ya Hawa” (We are coming back, my love) was instantly recognised and adored as one of Fairouz’ golden classics.
What followed was quite a surprise as Balqees moved away from the printed programme and delved into her Western classical repertoire.
“O Sole Mio” is a beloved Neapolitan romance-song and showed her versatility and linguistic skills which prompted Andrea Bocelli to declare her ‘the best Emirati soprano’ when she sang in his Abu Dhabi concert last year.
Balqees studied at the university of Abu Dhabi and she sings in a wide range of styles, including opera, but will be best known and loved for her Khaliji singing (music from the Persian Gulf region) since her acclaimed Qatari performance in 2011.
The second half of the celebration concert opened with the return to the Opera House of the much-loved Oman Oud Hobbyist’s Association, ‘Takht Oman’. Founded 5 years ago, they featured the established Ney flautist, Matluba Al Maimani who gave some fine improvised solos, pianist, Muluk Al Nofaliya and violinist, Radiyya Al Obaidani in 5 short numbers, recognised by the public, happily clapping-along.
The 8-piece ensemble played one familiar piece by the Rahbani Brothers and concluded with a traditional Omani folk-song.
Balqees’ second set was more confident and mellow, opening with another song by Ahmed Fathi, her father, “Dhabi al Yemen”, (Yemeni Deer), a metaphor for the beloved’s coquettish and teasing nature. It was followed by the title track from Balqees’ 2013 first album, “Majnoun (Crazy), which was a huge success then, and with the Muscat fans on Tuesday. Even greater applause greeted “Ya Akhi” (Hey You), a song set to a poem by Prince Fahad bin Khalid Al Saud – one of her many collaborations with Arabic Royalty.
In “Haqeer al Shouq” (Longing is hard) by Fayez Al Said, the heart-rending vocal line was defined by the superb Ney embellishments of soloist, Reda Mohammed Mostafa from the combined band.
The Balqees Ensemble from Egypt was augmented by the addition of 6 Omani singers and a keyboard player from the Khaliji Ensemble, along with 8 percussionists, a drummer and an Oud player from this region.
Another famous song from the Rahbani Brothers, the lyrical, ”Nassam Alayna Al Hawa” (The Air of Love Blew Upon Us) allowed for some fine solos from Qanoon player, Saber Abdul Satter Mahmoud and Oud player, Abdullah Albam.
If the audience were not already ecstatic and excited enough for one evening – and their frequent attempts to use their ‘phone-cameras bore witness to this – the show ended with a patriotic tribute to Oman, especially composed in folklore-style by Hamad al Mukhaini, “Shi’aru Seifin Wal Khangar Omaniya” performed by Balqees for the first time.
The auditorium erupted with wild delight at the mention of His Majesty’s name by an Emirati Starlet who we hope will shine brightly in Muscat again very soon.