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 Shaheenserved as the evening's musical
director, opening for each headliner with his inspired Arab-music crossover
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
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
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
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.