Wadi' Al-Safi And Sabah Fakhri Bring Arabic Culture To Las Vegas

'Two Tenors of Arabic Music' offer rare performance, recorded for rock manager Miles Copeland.

In an unlikely pairing, the world's largest hotel in the world's most

kitschy city served as the setting for Arab-world high culture when

Wadi' Al-Safi and Sabah

Fakhri appeared at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on March 11.

Al-Safi, the "pure voice of Lebanon," as he's known to fans, and Fakhri,

the "classical master vocalist of Syria," headlined a spectacular six-hour

show in the hotel's Grand Arena.

The event was a fund-raiser for the American University of Beirut

scholarship fund, and that institution's powerful alumni association

accounted for many of the Arabic-music pilgrims who filed past the slot

machines to hear these two veteran singers.

Although Al-Safi, 79, and Fakhri, 67, have rarely performed in the U.S.,

their status in Arabic-music circles invites comparisons to

COLOR="#003163">Frank Sinatra, Enrico

Caruso and Louis Armstrong.

While the audience for the "Two Tenors of Arabic Music," as the concert

was billed, consisted mostly of Arabs and Arab-Americans, the uninitiated

will soon have a chance to hear the extraordinary music performed that

night. Mondo Melodia, a California-based label run by Miles Copeland (who

also manages the rock star Sting),

recorded the concert. The resulting album, which the label expects to

release in May, will be the first international release for both artists.

The evening began with colorful traditional dances from the Adam Basma

Middle Eastern Dance Company. Lebanese violin and oud master

COLOR="#003163">Simon Shaheen served as the evening's musical

director, opening for each headliner with his inspired Arab-music crossover

ensemble, Qantara.

A breathtaking oud player, Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Shaheen also arranged and

led the string section that backed the performance of Sting and Algerian

pop-rai star Cheb Mami at this year's

Grammy Awards ceremony.

Al-Safi was scheduled to play for an hour with his 14-piece ensemble,

which included violins, percussion, cello, bass, oud, ney flute, qanun

zither and accordion. But after more than two hours, the impish septuagenarian

had to be coaxed from the stage while the crowd roared in adulation.

Al-Safi's appeal is rooted in nostalgia for Lebanese folklore. In the

1940s he began to orchestrate, and thereby urbanize, village songs, much

as Umm Kulthum — Arab music's

pre-eminent 20th-century musical figure — did for Egyptian folklore.

Al-Safi has composed more than 3,000 songs, and those he performed in

Vegas plainly awakened deep nostalgia among the largely Lebanese audience.

Aged but animated, Al-Safi shared vocal leads with his daughter-in- law,

Seham, whose smoky voice recalled that

of Fairuz, Lebanon's most popular

living singer.

Fakhri employed a beefier ensemble than Al-Safi's, with more strings,

percussionists and male vocalists. Fakhri is noted for modernizing the

repertoire of Andalusian music, which extends back to the centuries when

Moors from North Africa occupied what is now Spain and Portugal. Not only

is his music more classical and less folksy than Al-Safi's, it is also

more visceral.

While singing, Fakhri raised his arms from the elbow and turned from side

to side, occasionally spinning like the famed Sufi whirling dervishes.

Sufism, the mystical sect of Islam, is a powerful element in the Andalusian

music played in Aleppo, Fakhri's home city in Syria.

Fakhri joined his male chorus in hypnotic unison melodies, then broke

away into ecstatic soaring harmonies reminiscent of the late

COLOR="#003163">Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, another exponent of

Sufi music. Fakhri, too, kept the audience spellbound long past his

allotted time — until 2 a.m.

Copeland and Mondo Melodia, wagering that Arab music will be the next big

non-Western thing in America, will be hard pressed to condense this long

evening's music into a single release. The effort, however, is both

significant and long overdue.