Mawazine sessions: A spiritual connection with Jahida Wehbe

In the latest instalment of the Mawazine sessions series, Saeed Saeed chats with Lebanese poet and singer Jahida Wehbe about preserving classical Arab music and passing the art form to the next generation.

Lebanese poet and singer Jahida Wehbe stresses on the importance of safeguarding classic Arab music. Photo by Youness Hamiddine
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Among all the melodrama, talk shows and comedies that serve as a hallmark of Ramadan television, Jahida Wehbe’s music acts as moments of ­reflection.

The acclaimed Lebanese singer and composer collaborated with Abu Dhabi TV (owned by Abu Dhabi Media, which also publishes The National) on a ­series of 30 spiritual music ­compositions and videos to be aired nightly during the holy month.

The ethereal pieces find ­Wehbe’s rich and husky tones paired with evocative oud instrumentation, as she sing poems dating back to the 12th and 13th centuries and written by some of the Islam’s great Sufi poets such as Shahab al-Din Yahya ibn Habash Suhrawardi and Abu al-Hasan al-Shushtari.

A poet herself, Wehbe says the collection is akin to a greatest hits of her literary heroes.

With plans to compile the pieces for an album that will release later this year, Wehbe is excited at the prospect of presenting them to a new generation of Arab ­listeners.

“There are poems that have been on my mind for a long time, and I have decided to present them to people,” she says from the recently concluded ­Mawazine Festival in Morocco.

“There are poems that made me feel that I am meeting a loved one – it is like a beautiful person with whom I try to create an interaction, so that the poem brings out beautiful things from within me.”

Passion and literature have ­always been a hallmark of ­Wehbe’s work.

Born in the Beqaa Valley east of Beirut, Wehbe took the academic route to show business – she completed a degrees in psychology and studied the vocalism and the oud at the Lebanese National Superior Conservatory of Music.

Wehbe credits her psychological background for imbuing her with a sense of purpose in her music career.

Her classical Arabic and ­operatic repertoire is not merely for entertainment, she states.

“I want to reach people and ­instruct them to illuminate a dark spot in them. I consider this music from a spiritual aspect,” she says.

“Music should offer ­something. There are many entertaining songs on the market – music that moves the body and entertains people. We too seek to entertain people, but through the thought and feelings.”

It’s that desire to stroke the ­intellect, as well pleasing the ears, that makes Wehbe ­standout in a crowded industry.

Her brilliant breakout album, 2013's Katabtany, is a seamless blend of her restrained music ­compositions with poetry by the likes of late German Nobel Prize winner Günter Grass and Algeria's fierce feminist writer Ahlam ­Mosteghanemi.

“I was trying to discuss a wide variety of issues with that work,” she recalls. “From love to existentialism and life in Lebanon.”

Her follow-up albums saw her expanding her literary reach: for 2014's Shahd, she teamed up with the Belgian- based quintet Osama Abdulrasol Ensemble (led by the famed Iraqi qanun player) to provide musical accompaniment to poetry by literary greats such as Chile's Pablo Neruda and Syria's Adonis.

Both albums found Wehbe achieving the delicate balance of exploring difficult subjects without losing her audience.

It is a high-wire act she relishes.

“It is exciting for me to push myself, but at the same time, it is all about creating a sense of ­equilibrium,” she says.

"When I did the piece by Günter Grass (Don't look Back), it was challenging, because the work asks tough and philosophical questions. But I performed it against flamenco backdrop that makes people sing the song which automatically has them focusing on the lyrics."

Where Wehbe’s singular vision should always guarantee her a regional audience, she is ­concerned at the lack of support given to her peers.

Citing the lack of organisations designed to safeguard classical Arabic music, she points to herself and colleagues as playing an under-appreciated role in preserving the art form. That said, Wehbe believes artists themselves have to step up more and give back and support their heritage.

“The problem is the lack of collaboration among the institutions that embrace the intellectuals and artists themselves to offer their production and knowledge for the coming generation – who instead learn from whatever they hear on the internet. We are living in an automated world, but our music and notes do not benefit from such automation. All these notes and great musical intellect are going to waste,” she says.

“We need a more collaborative and loving spirit. As an artist, I offer the new generation my knowledge of music. We should come together to offer what we know to the new generation, ho I feel have now become ­hybrid from all the intertwined music and who now have an ­unclear culture mixed between the east and the west.”

• Next week on the Mawazine sessions: Tunisian singer and composer Lotfi Bouchnak