Thirty million Kazem fans can't be wrong. Throughout the Arab world, Iraqi superstar Kazem Al-Saher inspires fanatical devotion. His albums sell stupendously, which makes it surprising that his 12th album, The Impossible Love, released on Sting manager Miles Copeland's Mondo Melodia label, is his first U.S. release.
"If not the Arab singer of the '90s, he's one of the elite," said journalist Mohammed Cherkaoui of the Voice of America. "He's probably the most famous Arab singer since the '70s."
Al-Saher, 39, has been famous around the Persian Gulf for 12 years, ever since his pop song "Obart Al Shat" (I Crossed the Ocean), released while he was still a senior at Baghdad's Music Academy, launched his career.
"It made the Arabian world and the Arabian community all over the world know my name," Al-Saher acknowledged. His involvement with working-class Egyptian pop music known as "shaabi" infuriated his professors, however, so to prove himself serious, "I turned to the hard songs and classical lyrics, and to opera."
The result was the classically inspired "La Ya Sadiki" (No, My Friend) an ambitious 50-minute epic co-written with lyricist Aziz Rassam that paid homage to the venerable Iraqi classical tradition.
In the early '90s Al-Saher befriended one of Syria's greatest poets, Nizar Qabbani, who had written lyrics for the legendary Egyptian vocalist Umm Kulthum. The lyricist worked with Al-Saher until Qabbani's death in 1998. His final verses became "Al Hob Al Mustaheel (The Impossible Love)" (RealAudio excerpt).
"Nizar Qabbani was one of the important lyric writers who affected me when I was a child," recalled Al-Saher. "I remember reading his poems happily when I was 14 years old."
Qabbani, the leading avant-garde poet of the Arab world, "brought the language from the sky to the earth," said Cherkauoi, adding, "Qabbani adopted Kazem as a spiritual son."
While his reverence for Arab classical music shines even through his pop writing, Al-Saher is no slave to the past. He sometimes juxtaposes unrelated maqams, or scales, something never done previously in Arab music. He's also credited with reviving maqams that have faded into obscurity. Al-Saher said he did this in order to stake original territory. "I like to look for the strange and hard things."
One strange thing for a composer enamored of orchestral textures is to step into the contemporary digital-dance world as Al-Saher did when he allowed global fusioneers Transglobal Underground to remix "La Titnahad" (RealAudio excerpt).
"Sometimes I like my songs to take other directions," Al-Saher said of the collaboration. "So I let the remixers add their touches to complete the dramatic line."
Now based in Cairo, Al-Saher could easily ride the pop wave and keep churning out albums of the romantic epics his fans adore. But that wouldn't be enough for an artist who claims to prefer "the hard way." So Al-Saher continues to record more grandiose and complex compositions. His latest venture is an opera based on the legend of Gilgamesh, which he hopes to unveil soon.
"I love our great classical musicians and what they've achieved, making it easier for us to create. I feel happy when I turn between different kind of music to satisfy my fans and myself. Music is my life."