'It is enough I am in Alexandria': Lebanese musician Rima Khcheich bridges past and present

Hatem El Salem, Tuesday 30 Aug 2016

Fusing jazz with the traditional musical genre muwashahat, Rima Khcheich beckoned the audience into a beautiful trance during her concert at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina on 26 August

Rima Khcheich
Rima Khcheich performs at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Photo: Butheina Shalan)

“It is enough I am in Alexandria,” Rima Khcheich told the crowd at Alexandria’s Bibliotheca with a laugh during last Friday's concert.

Khcheich performed in Alexandria as a part of the 14th Bibliotheca Alexandrina International Summer Festival and was joined on stage by Tony Overwater on double bass, Maaretn Ornstein on clarinet, Yuri Honing on drums, and Maarten Van Der Grinten on guitar.

Bringing classical Arabic music back to life, Khcheich has created a compelling concoction with the resonance and nostalgia of the muwashahat, a type of Arabic music featuring traditional instruments, and the soothing jazz component of band music.

A typical muwashah, which is common in classical Arabic music, is a form of Arabic poetry which finds its structure in the root of the word mushahta, meaning rhythm. Accordingly, a muwashah contains a continuous rhyme throughout each beit or verse. A muwashah in music usually begins with an instrumental or solo, as Khcheich and her band did not fail to present us with.

Thus, it is Khcheich’s exceptional musical background and immersion in classical Arabic muwashahat with a jazz-infused twist that draws fans to her concert – a fan base which piled in to the Bibliotheca just minutes after doors opened on Friday night.

Rima Khcheich
Rima Khcheich
Rima Khcheich performs at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Photo: Butheina Shalan)

Maarten Ornstein, Khcheich’s clarinet player, began the concert’s opening muwashah with his instrument, followed by the guitar, drums, and double base, as Khcheich began to sooth the crowd with her voice.

“This is a song for you; circles, stars, and the orbit
The companionship of the moon and the touch of bliss.
Your gravity is strong
And I am falling in love with you”

These are the words of the third song Khcheich performed, Falak (“Orbit”) off her album by the same name. Maarten Van Der Grinten, the guitarist, opened the song with a minute long guitar-solo, creating a mix of guitar strums of the classical melodies of age-old muwashahat, and Khcheich’s captivating vocals. The audience were left in awe.

Before opening Damaa w Zahra (“A Tear and a Flower”), a Zaky Nassif classic, Khcheich talked about how much she loves the qanun, an Arabic stringed instrument, the influence of which is obvious in her music.

It was during this song that one could draw parallels between Khcheich’s renditions of classical muwashahat and those of other Arab music icons such as Fairouz with her unforgettable Bent El-Shalabiyya (“Barefoot Girl”).

Rima Khcheich
Rima Khcheich
Rima Khcheich performs at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Photo: Butheina Shalan)

Through the sixth song, Ramany b'Sahm Hawa (“He Threw Me With His Arrow”), originally Dawoud Hosny’s, the musical pattern that reoccurs in each of her songs became clear.

As she prepared to perform each song, a band member would begin with a solo of some sort, allowing the audience to indulge in the jazz elements of her art while reminiscing in the songs Khcheich performed.

Towards the end of her concert, Khcheich introduced one of her more recent songs, which she did not name, by reciting the lyrics in limerick form, each word rhyming with the words before it; “wa oud jdoud, resas ouas, homr beed wsood” (“Promises, grandfathers. Bullets, snipers. Red, white, and black”).

Through her lyrics, Khcheich seemed to be talking about different hardships and experiences before comparing it to the love she had for her lover – “Ella wajaak ya habibi,” (“Everything but your pain, my love”).

Before closing her show, Khcheich sang none other than Sayed Darwish’s Aho Dah Elly Sar to the cheers of the audience and inviting them to sing along. 

“Masr ya om el aagayeb….shaabik aseel…” (“Egypt, mother of all eccentricities. Your people are genuine”).

As always, those words got the audience on their feet, mouthing the words as Khcheich waved her hands in the air.

Throughout her performance, the audience were enraptured. Many swayed in their seats; others mouthed the words along with Khcheich, always clapping at the end of each song.

Rima Khcheich
Rima Khcheich
Rima Khcheich performs at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Photo: Butheina Shalan)

As she came to a close, the audience gave Khcheich multiple rounds of well-deserved applause.

“It was beautiful! I just wish it was longer than just an hour,” one fan said after the concert.

Khcheich, like other singers of classical Arabic music, brings feelings of familiarity, nostalgia, and a stinging sense of longing for a time of different socio-political realities.

Khcheich seemed to beckon the audience into a beautiful trance, drowning out the wailing sirens and cars scurrying by on the corniche ahead of us and thus the realities that we experience around us.

Although many see this beautiful singing of muwashahat as something that is dying out in the face of modern Arabic pop music, it is people like Khcheich who prove those people wrong with the help of her savvy jazz friends, allowing us to experience such an intense yet beautiful zeitgeist at such an odd point in history.

It could have been the illuminated planetarium in the background behind Khcheich or perhaps the Mediterranean breeze that wafted through Khcheich’s hair as it did her voice, or it could have been both that left the audience on such a good note at the end of the concert.

Nonetheless, it was without a doubt Khcheich and her band, with their jazz-muwashahat infusion and Khcheich’s swaying with every note, that made a lasting impact.

Rima Khcheich
Rima Khcheich
Audience at Rima Khcheich concert at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (Photo: Butheina Shalan)

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