INTERVIEW: Lebanese Ghada Shbeir promises a versatile programme for Alexandria's audience

May Sélim, Monday 31 Aug 2015

The renowned Lebanese Ghada Shbeir's concert will close the 13th Bibliotheca Alexandrina Summer Festival. Shbeir talks about her journey with music and Arab-Andalusian heritage

Ghada Shbeir
Ghada Shbeir (Photo: courtesy of Ghaba Shbeir)

A real surprise is awaiting the music lovers and especially those fond of Arabic music. Lebanese singer Ghada Shbeir will give a concert on 4 September, during the closing evening of the 13th Bibliotheca Alexandrina Summer Festival.

The renowned Lebanese singer's repertoire includes Middle Eastern folk songs of Assyrian, Arab-Andalusian, and ancient Maronite origins.

Shbeir is also an established academic and professor at the Beirut Conservatory. She has published two books on music: one on Sayed Darwish and the other on Arabo-Andalusian music.

Ahram Online (AO): How did it happen that you came to Alexandria?

Ghada Shbeir (GS): It started with my role of Malak Al-Arabi in Ibn Battuta. Composed by Hisham Gabr, Ibn Battuta is a musical that was first performed in Bahrain in 2013. I was recommended for the role by the Bahraini Minister of Culture, May Al-Khalifa, who already knows me from my several visits to the country, whether singing in concerts or participating in conferences during which I focused on discussing the concept of improvisation in Arabic singing. After Bahrain, the richer version of the same musical was staged in Muscat, Oman. Maestro Hisham Gabr, who is also director of Bibliotheca Alexandrina Arts Centre and an organiser of the BA Summer Festival, invited me to sing at the festival's closing night.

AO: Improvisation is your hallmark. What draws you to this form of expression?

GS: I am very interested in revival of this kind of art. Improvisation is in fact a peculiarity of Arabic music and singing. When practicing this tradition, I am always faithful to the main melody, however, following the notes and the modes. And then, being a performer, musicologist and composer, I know how to start improvisation on that.

AO: You studied the musical heritage of the Middle East region and dedicated your life to profound explorations of its many facets, including repertoire of musicians such as Oum Kalthoum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab (1902-1991).

GS: The songs sung by Oum Kalthoum or Abdel-Wahab are perfect examples of a valuable ground for improvisation. Usually the main song which has words, set to music, is about ten minutes. The singer, however, does the rest adding all the embroidery. Oum Kalthoum had a very strong musical education background and knew how to do it very well. Her variations on a theme could extend up to two hours.

AO: You move in time a lot, infusing new life to the Arabic music heritage. You also give a contemporary edge to all the compositions of the past, in fact rescuing them from oblivion. What is your philosophy behind those creative experimentations?

GS: Principally, I do not sing to become a star or make good money. I want to make art and explore deeply the wealth of our music heritage. All the CD's that I released also aim at further preserving this heritage.

AO: Your albums such as Al Muwashahat (2006), Qawaleb (The Modes, 2009), are among your best known CDs. Al Muwashahat brought you a BBC World Music Award. In Qawaleb you explore songs written by Sayed Darwish, the Egyptian iconic singer and composer. Why the choice of Darwish?

GS: Darwish is an undisputed master of Arabic music. I studied his compositions as part of my PhD thesis. Darwish offers great wealth to us. Despite his death in 1932, his music continues to represent the most exceptional work of the Arab world. 

AO: Al Qasida (The Poem, 2010) introduced you as a composer. In it you also collaborated with other composers and worked on the poems by Abdel-Aziz Al-Saoud Al-Babtain. In the Andalusia album you travel all across the Arab-Andalusian territories. We knew that you are currently working on Al Qasida 2 and Al Muwashahat 2 that are set to be released at the end of 2015. You keep reaching out to a large chunk of repertoire. What will you present to the audience in Alexandria?

GS: For Alexandria, I prepared a selection of different songs, from different stages of my career. It will be a rather versatile programme. I'm not sure, however, I'll sing Assyrian chants- it depends on the audience. Maybe I'd give it a try with a piece that is two to three minutes long.

Friday 4 September, 8:30pm
Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria
Check the festival's complete programme here

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