INTERVIEW: 'Let music reign' - Lebanese singer and composer Abeer Nehme

Nourhan Tewfik , Friday 8 Apr 2016

Ahram Online spoke to renowned Lebanese musicologist Abeer Nehme, who held a vibrant concert at Cairo's El-Genaina Theatre on Thursday

Abeer Nehme
Lebanese singer and composer Abeer Nehme during her concert at El-Genaina Theatre on Thursday, 7 April. (Photo: Ahmed El Saaty)

On Thursday, Cairo's El-Genaina Theatre hosted a concert by Lebanese singer Abeer Nehme, in the presence of her enthusiastic fans.

Nehme, who is also a musicologist and composer, performed a selection of traditional Lebanese songs, as well as songs from her upcoming double album with composer and oud master Marcel Khalifa. 

Thursday's concert marked the official launch of El-Genaina's April programme, which will bring several musicians to Al-Azhar Park's stage, including a performance by The University of Gnawa and Aziz Sahmaoui scheduled for Friday.

Turath inspires Nehme’s music project. Her repertoire features novel experimentations with Arabic traditional tarab, ancient Aramaic music, Andalusian muwashahat, traditional folk songs, opera, and Western music.

Nehme sings in 25 languages, and is also an actress, qanoun player, researcher and producer. Juxtaposed together, these different genres and practices render Nehme one of the most important and inspiring musicians in the Arab region today.

Her repertoire comprises a number of albums, including Abeer Salaty and Al Mutanabbi...Mousafiran Abadan (2014) celebrating the renowned poet Abu Al Tayyeb Al Mutanabbi, Belaaks (2009), Aroma of My Prayer (2009) and Belaaks II (2015) , among others.

She also performed the soundtracks of Lebanese productions including Al-Bosta (Philippe Araktanji, 2005), and TV series Meryana (George Najjar, 2003).

Nehme is very well-versed in the academic study of music. She is currently an MA candidate at the Université Saint-Esprit de Kaslik (USEK), and holds a BA degree in Musicology and a diploma in advanced traditional Arabic music performance from the same university.

In 2012, she presented the first season of her documentary series Ethnopholia Music of the Nations, in which, as is mentioned on her official website, she “travel(s) worldwide on the search for the roots and origins of folk and ethnic music.”

In this programme, the second season of which is currently underway, Nehme engages with an inspiring process of documentation, in the process preserving and paying respect to the world’s diverse music heritage. She challenges the notion of hegemony in music whereby some countries’ repertories dominate the music scene to the neglect of others, by shedding light on otherwise forsaken music traditions.

She is an award-winning musician, having received the Arab Radios Union Golden Award for her song Faha Al-Shaza (2010), the Murex D'or (2010), an Honorary Award from the Apostoliki Diakonina in Greece (2007) amongst other awards. 

Ahram Online spoke to Nehme about her rich music repertoire, as well as her upcoming projects. 

Ahram Online (AO): What does it feel like to be back in Cairo?

Abeer Nehme (AN): This isn’t my first visit to Cairo. I performed at the Cairo and Alexandria Opera Houses back when I was a college student, studying musicology at USEK University at the time. This, however, is my first official concert in Cairo and I hope it will be followed by many more.

Egypt occupies a very special place in my heart especially that it is "Umm Al-Donya" ["the mother of the world"]; the mother of music and art. Egyptians have long been the pioneers of originality in arts and across other fields too. Iconic Egyptian composers and musicians left their own imprints on the Arabic music repertoire and on Arab musicians too.

AO: In one interview, you reflect on your varied repertoire saying that your Arab heritage is always the starting point from which you proceed to visit other musical genres. Tell us more about your music project and the philosophy that underpins it.   

AN: I was born into a family that loves and appreciates heritage music. My father was a self-taught musician, and he taught me everything I have come to know about music.

I started to compose and sing at the age of 4. By the time I was 8, I had begun memorising songs by Asmahan, Umm Kulthum, Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Fairuz, Wadih Al-Safi, Zaki Nassif and others who are considered the pillars of oriental music.

My father was adamant that I would not be exposed to songs of a lower musical level, and so he insisted I only listen to his choices on the radio.

Together, the different types of music I encountered during my studies, or even later as part of my quest as a musicologist, helped broaden my scope.

I consider my voice a blessing from God; a blessing which I’m really grateful for and strive to be worthy of. As I see it, we should root ourselves in our own musical heritage in order for us to be able to reach other music genres. Every country/culture I encounter leave me with the realisation that I’m still at the beginning of this path, and that I’m a small drop in a big ocean of treasures. Every place is home to a rare musical treasure.

Abeer Nehme
Lebanese singer and composer Abeer Nehme during her concert at El-Genaina Theatre on Thursday, 7 April. (Photo: Ahmed El Saaty)

AO: How has the academic study of music influenced you?

AN: Université Saint-Esprit de Kaslik (USEK), where I acquired my music degree, is a very important university in Lebanon. My qanoun studies, Oriental music degree and my other studies combined helped put me on the right path, but my family’s culture and my own life experiences are essentially what taught me music. I always say that my father is my original school of music. The choices I made in my music career and the experiences I encountered are what then determined my path.

The study of music is very important. But some iconic musicians did not necessarily have the chance to acquire a music degree and ended up teaching us a lot about music. So in a way, studies are a plus for every musician, but the experiences we encounter are what make us who we are. 

AO: You were also the vocal coach at the Arabic talent show The Voice.

AN: This was such a unique experience, made all the more so by the students in my team with whom I developed a strong bond. I'm in constant contact with them and I really wish them the best of luck. They are very talented.

We paid attention to the smallest details. I tried to be there for them as much as I could, and I wanted them to shine. And they did.

The thing with these programmes is that people see the end result, that is the final performance, but behind such end result lie a lot of perseverance, worries, dreams, and hard work, which rendered it a difficult yet beautiful experience.

AO: In your upcoming music project, you collaborate with Lebanese musician and oud master Marcel Khalife (who participates in this project as a singer, composer and also as a producer). Can you tell us more about it?

AN: My project with Khalife is in the form of a double CD -- one album.

I’ve always wanted to work with Khalife and it turned out that he aspired to do the same. His music has this magical ability to transport you to other beautiful parts in the world.

In this album, I performed different music genres. We collaborated with a number of international orchestras including the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, Qatar Philharmonic Orchestra, and the Paris Philharmonic Orchestra. The album comprises lyrics chosen from the repertoires of the Arab world’s most iconic poets.

The album will be available in the market very soon, and I hope people enjoy it.

Abeer Nehme
Lebanese singer and composer Abeer Nehme during her concert at El-Genaina Theatre on Thursday, 7 April. (Photo: Ahmed El Saaty)

AO: The album will comprise selections from the rich repertoires of iconic Arab poets like Palestine’s national poet Mahmoud Darwish, Lebanese poet Ounsi El-Hage, and Syrian poet Adonis. How did the process of selection came about and how central is the written word to your music project?

AN: While I do believe that music is a language in and of itself, one that does not necessarily require any lyrics; but I must say that lyrics do give the song a specific identity and frame.

Choosing the lyrics for this album was a rather profound and exciting endeavour.  We took our time and chose selections by the aforementioned great poets. We also chose a selection from the poetry of famed Egyptian poet Salah Jahin, titled Ana Zay Ma Akoun Asfoura (As if I’m a Bird).

AO: The second season of your television programme titled Ethnopholia Mousika Al Chououb ("Ethnopholia Music of the Nations") is currently underway. What kind of research and preparations did this project entail, and how does this programme fit with the idea of revisiting musical heritage that reigns in your own music repertoire?

AN: Since I was little, I was curious to search for, listen to and perform different and eccentric music styles and to also meet other people who practice these different musical traditions. In Ethnopholia Mousika Al Chououb, this dream finally became a reality.

It was initially my husband Julio and my idea and our company was the executive producer of this programme, with Julio as the project manager. Season 1 comprised 13 episodes, as for season 2, it includes 26 episodes (20 of which are directed by my brother Georges, and the other six are directed by Aurelie Chauleur).

The programme is produced and broadcasted by Al-Mayadeen TV and each episode is an hour long, and documents a traditional genre of music in a specific country. I prepare and present all the episodes. A huge crew stands behind this documentary, including the artistic director Alain Weber, in addition to directors, photographers, cameramen and producers. It was the crew’s passion, perseverance, faith and hard work that helped make this project possible. 

Each episode, the crew and I meet natives from a different country. We encounter people who still hold on to their beautiful musical heritage. We choose the communities we feature according to the importance of their musical heritage and its rarity.

During the preparations phase, many things would go unplanned, and trust me, they would end up being the best things that happen to us. Sometime we reached places where there was no electricity, at other places such as in Amazigh and India we saw how primitive life is still predominant.

We also filmed in Luxor, Egypt. It was in the midst of the recent events there, which rendered the filming very difficult. We didn’t manage to film everything we had planned, but we did our best nonetheless.

I only performed in classical English, French and Arabic until 2011 when I was a permanent guest and leading performer in one of the most prestigious musical and cultural television programmes, One Thousand and One Nights, screened on TRT TV station in Turkey.

I was accompanied by the Turkish Orchestra and I performed more than two hundred Turkish traditional songs. But my repertoire grew bigger because of Ethnopholia, which helped me become a fluent singer who can now perform in more than 25 languages. It’s not about the ability to sing in different languages as much as it is about this marvelous experience I have encountered.

The world witnesses a constant bloom of cultures and heritages, and as such, this process of Ethnopholia never ends. We just need to open our eyes to be able to see it.

Abeer Nehme
Lebanese singer and composer Abeer Nehme during her concert at El-Genaina Theatre on Thursday, 7 April. (Photo: Ahmed El Saaty)

AO: You have also participated in musicals, correct? 

I began my theatre career playing the leading female role in Elias Rahbani’s  Andalusia, Jewel of the World (2007). I collaborated with Rahabni again in Eela which was staged in 2010. I also worked with the great Antoine Ghandour and Raymond Jbara in Noukaddim Lakom Watan ("We Offer You a Nation") which was staged at the Casino du Liban for months in 2013. 

In 2014, I played the leading female role in Mantek Al-Tayr ("Conference of the Birds") at the opening of the Fes Festival of World Sacred Music 

I very much enjoyed and loved my theatre experiences. It is a world in and of itself, and very much different than performing in a concert. I still receive offers for musicals from all over the globe but unfortunately I cannot always accept them, since theatrical performances need full commitment.

AO: Today, the Middle East’s music scene is home to a very vibrant process of fusion (particularly a blend of turath and western music) practiced by different Arab musicians. How do you read this kind of creative reality?

Today, we live in a huge village. People are now closer to each other more than ever, due to technology, smooth movement across countries and many other reasons.

Music, especially the turath, is the best language capable of bringing people together.  I wish to see our musical dialogue grow, discover the beauty in what makes us different from one another and understand that the other ‘different’ person is similar on so many levels. Only then will we come closer to one another. Music can bring people together in spite of their preferences and differences. This isn’t to say we’re supposed to fade or dissolve into one another but to rather complete one another.

 And who knows, maybe then we won’t have to experience any wars.

The Middle East today is a sad site of war, pain, poverty, and hunger, which also reflects on the state of music and arts in general. Maybe the key to rebuilding our societies lies in improving our music, which will set us free, forcing us to leave extremism behind. As Nietzsche put it,  “Without music, life would be a mistake.” Let music reign. 

Abeer Nehme
Lebanese singer and composer Abeer Nehme during her concert at El-Genaina Theatre on Thursday, 7 April. (Photo: Ahmed El Saaty)

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