By Elisabeth Myers
Washington- The question has been asked as to why Jennifer Grout’s recent performance of songs of Om Khalthoum at “Arab’s Got Talent” contest is causing such a stir.
The short answer is that it is because of the venue in which this not uncommon phenomenon has arisen in the public eye of the Arab world. But Jennifer Grout is by no means the first non-Arab to sing in Arabic, although she may be one of the best.
Those of us “westerners” or Americans who have been singing in Arabic for decades know that the phenomenon is always met with astonishment — by both Arabs and non-Arabs alike. But what I have not observed before is the amount of overt hostility and suspicion in many people’s reactions to Ms. Grout performing Arabic music. The more relevant questions are:Why is this the reaction?Is it valid?And is it even relevant?
There has been much speculation on social media as to where this young musician is from and what religion she is. Some have suggested that with her claim of simply being “American” she is deliberately hiding her ethnicity and religion, thus reflecting negatively on her musical accomplishment and credibility.Comments submitted on YouTube on the videos of her performance on the talent show especially seem to suggest that by singing a genre of music that is not her native milieu she is an upstart meddling in things she has no business doing.After all, they suggest, “Arabs Got Talent” is for Arabs.
It seems to me that these reactions entirely miss the point.This young woman, only 23 years old, is an artist. She chose Arabic music as her medium because, as she says, she fell in love with it several years ago.According to news accounts, she has studied with notable Arabic musicians such as Simon Shaheen and continues to work to perfect her skill. In fact, according to the panel of judges, she is already very good even in comparison to native Arab musicians.One of the judges characterized her voice as “sweet” and her Arabic as having only a hint of a foreign accent.
It seems to me that the negative reaction fails to recognize the passion of the artist, the spirit that motivates a musician.Musicians play for the love of the music. We sing these songs because we love the classical Arabic music tradition and want to honor the memories of our musical heroes such as Om Khaltoum and Fairouz. Such a love is worthy of celebration, not condemnation.
Music crosses territorial boundaries, cultures, and languages. There is a long tradition of musicians promoting world peace through cross-over genres of music. On my way to Morocco last summer, I met American jazz bassist, Charnett Moffett, who was on his way to play the 2013 Gnawa festival in Essaouira.Some 40 years ago the Rolling Stones had a hit with their album The Pipes of Jajouka, incorporating Moroccan folk music into rock.Of course, opera singers are not all born in Italy, the birthplace of opera.Should talented Lebanese opera singers such as Randa Rouweyha and Cynthia Samaha Melki whom I heard at a recital earlier this year give up performing their art because opera is not their native milieu?
No musician stands on his or her own.All musicians have had teachers, mentors, coaches and musical heroes whom they revere and to whose excellence they aspire.As I prepare to perform a show this weekend and next featuring Turkish, Greek, and Bulgarian music, I am inspired to say that the bottom line is that it simply doesn’t matter where Jennifer Grout is from, what religious tradition she believes in, or that she doesn’t speak Arabic. What is important is that she is performing a genre of music that she loves at a level that is world class regardless of her ethnicity.Over night she has made a style of music that is no longer popular with Arab youth the talk of both the Arab world and the Western world.
This young, talented musician should be applauded for having the courage to follow her heart and perform the music she loves for the most demanding and critical audience there is for this genre — the Arab public. Let us leave aside politics and religion and divisiveness, and focus on the fact that music can and should bring people together.
At bottom, musicians are artists. The music speaks to us.Through us, we hope it speaks to you- and stirs your soul toward harmony, enlightenment, and peace.
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