Saturday, December 19, 2009

Voices of the (arab) nation : Arabism, songs and linguistic adaptability

In the days of the triumphant Arabism, when Cairo was not only the unchallenged political capital of the area but also its cultural one, there was no question about it: Arab stars had to express themselves in colloquial Egyptian even if classical Arabic was used from time to time for “higher” (or less popular) forms of cultural expression.

It was thus a real symbolic turn when the famous Abdel-Halim Hafez decided in the late 60’s, dressed in the local garment, to sing various pieces from the Kuwaiti traditions (see this interesting article, in Arabic, in the daily Al-Quds al-arabi.)

Today, it’s nobody’s surprise when an Arab singer, from whatever country of the area, uses another variety of colloquial Arabic: Egyptian stars sing in a so-called “Arabic of the Gulf” (a mere fiction as there is of course a fair amount of local variations), Lebanese or Iraqui starlets whisper in Egyptian colloquial, to say nothing of many popular voices from the various Maghreb countries who sing either in Egyptian or or forms of colloquial arabic.

During the three or four last decades, the Arab linguistic map has greatly changed thanks to the always growing cultural industries with their transnational media. Indeed, the new generations have probably lost some proficiency in “classical” Arabic, but they have developed new linguistic skills, especially an unprecedented adaptability to cross-over boundaries of all local variations of the Arabic language.

Many times, this linguistic ability is a mere gimmick in order for a singer to gain the favours of a special audience. But the shifting from a vernacular to another can also be used in very conscious way, as a political gesture. Latifa for instance was born in Tunisia and has worked, among others, with the Lebanese composer Ziad Rahbani and the Iraqi singer Kadhem al-Saher, after she has become a panarab star when she left her country for Egypt.

She is now promoting her new CD with songs in “Arabic from the Gulf,” a decision in line with the political stand she took in various circumstances, for instance at the 2004 Music Awards in Los Angeles when she declared that her happiness wont be complete without the liberation of the Palestine and the Iraqi people. When asked about the issuing of her new record with songs in the colloquial Arabic used in the Gulf area, Latifa explained, according to the Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar), that singing in another vernacular than you native one, when you are from the Maghreb or whatever other part of the Arab world, is a way to brake the borders drawn between the Arabs by colonialism (أحبّوا ذلك أم كرهوا، لا بدّ من كسر الحدود المرسومة بين العرب جغرافياً، فنياً وفكرياً. لأن هذه الحدود من ركائز الاستعمار).

And with the usual link to the original post in French, a rare video of the “brown nightingale” in a Kuwaiti song.

No comments: