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Lebanese musician Rima Khcheich on harmonising classical Arabic music and jazz

In this interview, Lebanese musician Rima Khcheich discusses her beginnings, aspirations to mould Arabic music heritage with contemporary melodies, as well as her most recent project Hawa

Nourhan Tewfik , Monday 19 Oct 2015
Rima Khcheich
Lebanese musician Rima Khcheich (Photo: part of promotional material for Cairo Jazz Festival)
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“He who has captivated hearts with his beauty, was charmed at last. And he spent his night complaining about his ardent love.”

So sings Lebanese musician Rima Khcheich from the lyrics of the Fotenna Muwashah (Fotenna is an Arabic verb that refers to a person who was mesmerised by love), one of many old, and abandoned muwashahat (a genre of classical Arabic music which came to light in al-Andalus-now Southern Spain- and is an important facet of Tarab), revisited, and re-introduced by Khcheich throughout the past years.

An inimitable voice, Khcheich has secured a huge fan base in the Arab world with her brilliant amalgamation of turath (Arabic heritage) and western music, including jazz melodies. Besides revisits to the Arab music library, Khcheich has also performed new compositions.

Khcheich’s repertoire includes: Orient Express (2001), her debut solo album Yalalalli (2006), Falak (2008), and most recently Hawa (2013).

Moulding the dream

The story opens in the village of Al-Khiam, South Lebanon, where Khcheich was born in 1974.

“I was lucky to grow up in a home where music was associated with passion,” Khcheich tells Ahram Online in an interview conducted the day following her concert at this year’s edition of Cairo Jazz Festival.

In the concert, Khcheich was accompanied by her Dutch band, whose line-up comprises Maarten Ornstein (clarinet), Maarten Van Der Grinten (guitar), Tony Overwater (double bass), Ruven Ruppik (riq).

“My parents were of great support. My father who was a qanun player encouraged me and took me to the [Layali Lubnan (Nights of Lebanon)] TV talents show, and then to the children’s choir led by Salim Sahab which I joined at the age of nine.”

Khcheich’s profound upbringing in Arabic traditional music, during which she became acquainted with the music of Oum Kalthoum, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Wadie El-Safi, Zakariyya Ahmed, and Mohamed Fawzy, saw her join the Beirut Oriental Troupe for Arabic Music also with Sahab, where she performed as a soloist for a good 17 years.

"In no time I came to be known as the little girl performing muwashahat. In fact, I grew up singing in a classical manner all my life, accompanied by oriental takht [the traditional Arab ensemble which includes the oud, qanun, nay and kaman, and sometimes riq], or Arabic orchestra.”

“I was receiving offers to perform in restaurants but my father turned them down. He was determined that I go on to study music,” Khcheich adds.

Even though, in the choir, Khcheich was performing one song per concert, she would also memorise all the concert's other songs by heart. “When you’re a child, you remember more adeptly. I also had this musical ear that allowed for such quick memorisation,” she explains.  

In parallel to her budding music career at the time, Khcheich joined the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music where she acquired a diploma in oriental singing.

“When it came to a university degree, I decided to choose a field that would complement my music studies, and hence studied BA in Communication Arts at the Lebanese American University (LAU),” explains Khcheich.

“I learnt a lot, I even acted and worked on a play during the course of my studies. I tried to work in the TV field, conducting behind the camera work, but I didn’t belong there. I wanted to do just the music all the time,” she adds.  

Reintroducing Muwashahat with a hint of contemporariness

After almost two decades of performing classical muwashahat, Khcheich took off on a new adventure more than a decade ago, this time presenting a reintroduction of this classical music form aided by modern Western arrangements.

“There is much difficulty in presenting heritage, because people remember them in a certain way, and might not accept your renegotiation of it,” she asserts. 

The story began when Khcheich met Tony Overwater from the Dutch Yuri Honing Trio, a jazz ensemble, during a concert of theirs in Beirut in 1998. An avid collaboration ensued between both musicians, taking the form of a fusion of contemporary melodies and traditional Arabic lyrics and singing. Since then and precisely starting 2001, Khcheich and the trio have presented a powerful amalgamation of muwashahat and western jazz, as well as other contemporary Arabic songs of Khcheich’s.

“I found that this area resembled me. I am a classical person, but I also associate myself with the current moment. As such, I have no problem experimenting with the non-traditional,” Khcheich clarifies.

“My music projects therefore aim to bring in western instruments, and present these old songs with new music divisions, and different sounds.”

As she sees it, being well versed in classical Arabic repertoire allows one the space to experiment and embark on risks.

“This solid background in classical Arabic music enabled me to present this genre in a contemporary manner without distorting its value. Also, my deep knowledge of muwashahat and the fact that I began my career at a young age meant that I had this luxury to choose from a huge repertoire of classical Arabic music.”

Khcheich’s project would be introduced in her first album The Orient Express named after a Dutch-Lebanese-Iraqi band that attempted to amalgamate between traditional Arabic music and jazz.

The renegotiations of muwashahat continued in Khcheich’s debut solo album Yalalalli and later in Falak, both of which embraced an array of classical Arabic songs, and muwashahat performed alongside western instruments, in addition to new compositions.

“The Dutch musicians bring in the jazz element of the project. They add the harmony needed to this kind of music, all the while preserving it.”

“Also, performing the muwashahat means there is much room for improvisation. Each instrument is a major contributor to the song,” she adds.

Hawa: taking muwashahat a step further

“I’m always learning, and constantly discovering forgotten creativities from turath,” Khcheich explains as she commences to discuss her most recent music project Hawa.

In this album, Khcheich takes her experimentation with muwashahat a step further.  

"The project encompasses my new vision of the muwashahat I had began singing at the age of eight. In a way, I tried to add my personal touch to this musical genre in Hawa.”

The album comprises 10 muwashahat and one dawr (an established composition that gives space for improvisation), most of which have no known composer or lyricist.

“In past projects, and while recording with the Dutch musicians, I’d always choose the muwashahat that were flexible enough to be played with the saxophone, drums, and other western instruments,” Khcheich says.

“With this project however, I did not want to compromise with my choices to accommodate what the musicians can do, and rather focused on what I wanted to do, then left it to the other elements to adapt,” she adds.

This different approach translated into a different choice of instruments. “We introduced the clarinet because this instrument can play all Arab maqamat [plural of maqam; Arabic music scale, modal structure], as well as the riq.”

In Hawa and before in Falak, the music was recorded live in a studio, in the presence of the musicians.

“Live recording allows you to maintain the essence of classical Arabic music,” Khcheich explains.

But this also meant “there was no room for any mistakes.”

Despite fears it would not reach a big audience because of the density of muwashahat genre, especially for youth, Khcheich was nonetheless happy “because I wanted this project, which deals with a genre that represents a big part of me and which I’ve literally been singing all my life, to be in my repertoire.”

Contrary to what Khcheich had imagined, the album secured a huge outreach, and it was also awarded the Artistic Creativity Award from the Arab Thought Foundation.

“I was very happy with the news because only a few artists still present this kind of music, and it usually is not distributed well enough, and hence does not reach many audiences,” Khcheich explains.

From celebrating Sabah to mentoring the youth:

Khcheich also never shies away from opportunities to celebrate some of Arabic music’s legends, evident by her tribute to late Lebanese singer and actress Sabah. In 2010, Khcheich was invited by the Dubai International Film Festival to honor Sabah, which she undertook, presenting an array of songs from the late icon’s films in 1950s and 1960s.

Back in Beirut, Khcheich presented the same concert again at AUB as part of the Beirut Spring Festival.

“The concert was recorded, and I wanted to release it on a CD.”

The album, titled Min Sihr Oyounak, which is the title of one of Sabah’s songs and which is performed in the album, includes Khcheich’s loyal revisits to 11 of Sabah's chef d’oeuvres, including Habibit Ommaha, Rayha Abil Habibi, Rouh ala Mahlak, amongst others.  

In as much as Khcheich was able to appeal to youth with her smart reintroduction of muwashahat, she continues to reach out to them also as a professor. For the past 12 years, Khcheich has been teaching classical Arabic singing and muwashahat to students at the Lebanese National Higher Conservatory of Music. She currently teaches Arabic music at the Lebanese American University and the American University of Beirut.

“For the past 15 years I’ve been traveling to Massachusetts, in the US on an annual basis where I teach voice and classical Arabic singing to non-Arabs interested in learning Arabic singing and muwashahat at Mount Holyoke University,” Khcheich adds. “So teaching has become an integral part of my life.”

From music as a space that witnesses the preservation and renegotiation of heritage, to politics as the space where hope unfurls, Khcheich, who lives in Beirut, is a supporter of the current civic movement unfolding in the city.

“I am with and support this herak (movement), because it belongs to no political faction, party, or leader just as I myself do not follow any of these categories. It is also the first time that Lebanese citizens-from all sects and backgrounds-come together asking for common demands and minimum rights,” she explains.

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