Jahida Wehbe on how the Arab world's greatest poets inspire her songs

The Lebanese singer will perform during the Abu Dhabi Culture Summit

Lebanese poet and singer Jahida Wehbe. Photo: Youness Hamiddine
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Whether she's performing at a concert or speaking at an academic conference, Lebanese singer and poet Jahida Wehbe is always in her element.

Those same creative characteristics, which define her career, will come together when she takes part in the Abu Dhabi Culture Summit, which is set to run at Manarat Al Saadiyat from Sunday until next Tuesday.

In addition to performing select songs featuring lyrics by revered Arab poets Kahlil Gibran, Mahmoud Darwish and Rabaa Al Adawiya, the artist is looking forward to mixing it up with delegates from different disciplines.

It is an atmosphere she relishes, Wehbe says, as it takes her back to her academic days studying psychology in university, in addition to completing a degree in vocalism and the oud at the Lebanese National Superior Conservatory of Music.

“I think it is vitally important for artists to expose themselves to as many different cultural arenas as they can,” she tells The National.

“And the Abu Dhabi Culture Summit is extremely important because of what it represents. We are talking about how culture can essentially shield us from ignorance.

“Culture makes better communities and keeps us away from all kinds of extremism and discrimination that ultimately leads to wars and violence.”

It's the same belief that has powered Wehbe's career, which seamlessly blends music, literature and theatre.

She first made an impression with the brilliant breakout album, 2013's Katabtany, a fusion of restrained music ­compositions paired with poetry by the likes of late German Nobel Prize winner Gunter Grass and Algeria's fierce feminist writer Ahlam ­Mosteghanemi.

From then on, she expanded her literary reach: in 2014's Shahd, she teamed up with the Belgian 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.

In 2017, Wehbe took her craft to the small screen by collaborating with Abu Dhabi TV on a series of 30 spiritual music ­compositions and videos to be aired nightly during Ramadan.

Wehbe disagrees with the notion that her work can be considered as niche.

“I just want to provide a different approach with the music that I am making,” she says. “I am trying to simulate and address people's conscience and thoughts because there is a lot of music right now that speaks to people's bodies.

"I am trying to readdress that balance in my own way but doing it in a style that is inviting and modern.”

An example of which is her successful Divas show, which toured Dubai and the wider region, including a performance at the 2020 Baalbeck Festival in Lebanon.

A mix of theatre and a live concert performance, Wehbe performed songs and monologues by some of the Arab, French and Mediterranean world's greatest female singers with modern jazz arrangements.

Her latest single Beirut Tuffhaton Lil Bahr, is another stirring example of that forward-thinking approach.

A collaboration with Sary and Ayad Khalife, the sons of revered Lebanese composer Marcel Khalife, it is a melange of musical styles, with Wehbe's rich and husky tones paired with a vibrant and improvisational score with Sary and Ayad on violin and piano respectively.

The lyrics celebrating Beirut's splendour and tenacity are also an amalgam of poetry by Darwish, Adonis, Boland Haidari and Khalil Hawi.

"I wanted to gather poetry that speaks of the contrasting natures of Beirut,” Wehbe says. “It’s an iconic city that lived through everything from periods of ambition to despair to beauty and misery.”

Wehbe confirms the track will feature in the new album Salt and Shadows, to be released next year.

"It is a project that features wonderful and rich Arabic poetry," she says. "Both Sary and Ayad Khalife are producing and playing and I am responsible for the melodies.

“It has been a great experience because the music, while recorded in the studio, has a very organic and live feel and there is also a lot of improvisation."

While the Abu Dhabi Culture Summit has limited places for the public to attend, Wehbe reveals she aims to be back in Abu Dhabi with a new show.

"It is a collaboration with the Brussels Jazz Orchestra and is inspired by the short story anthology One Thousand and One Nights," she adds.

“I am currently in discussion with the Department of Culture and Tourism — Abu Dhabi about bringing this project, which started in Europe, to Abu Dhabi," she says. "God willing, there will be some good news soon in the future."

More information on the Abu Dhabi Culture Summit is available at culturesummitabudhabi.com

Updated: October 19, 2022, 3:35 AM