American singer Jennifer Grout became a sensation in the Arab world in 2013 when she auditioned for the talent show Arabs Got Talent, even becoming a finalist on it. However, Grout, who took a break from music for a few years following Arabs Got Talent, is making headlines again. This time for her recitation of the Quran.
Her recitation of Ayat al Kursi (The Throne Verse) – the 255th verse of the second surah of the Quran, Al Baqarrah – has garnered hundreds of thousands of views on social media platforms such as Facebook and Instagram. "I really had no idea they would become so popular. I get messages from people saying things like 'you're famous in Pakistan'," Grout, who is now based in the UStold The National. "As far as the recitations go, I'm still in my imitation phase. The recitations are all done in the style of Mohammed Siddiq El-Minshawi, whose recitation techniques I admire very much."
After debuting on Arabs Got Talent, Grout went on to perform around the Mena region in 2014, performing in Dubai, Kuwait, Qatar, Tunisia and Morocco, where she lived on-and-off for four years.
But why did the American singer, who converted to Islam in 2013, decide to take a break from music? One reason was that she became a mother in 2015. Another was that she felt she needed time to reflect on her career in light of some negative comments she had received online for her Quran recitations and singing.
While the feedback on social media has been overwhelmingly positive, Grout says, criticism for singing after converting has never escaped her. "There have been some who have criticised me for my singing, saying that it goes against the tenets of Islam. It's hard not to focus on the negative comments even if they are vastly outnumbered by the positive ones," she said, admitting that the comments affected her, causing her to fall into a "black and white mentality for a while".
Grout, who also plays the oud, says that, despite everything, she hasn't quit singing. "Tarab music is still my main focus. I just took a break from my career for a while."
In fact, it was listening to Quran recitations well before her conversion that helped her master her Arabic singing. She first came across Tarab – a genre of Arabic music usually associated with vocal music that gets its name from the concept of enchantment – as a student of classical music and she was hooked.
“Even for people who don’t understand the language, it’s very aesthetically pleasing,” Grout says, adding that she has spent the last few years learning Arabic. “The Arabic maqam, with its melodic system of quarter tones, is very different than Western music. Tarab is a hard genre to describe in English but it can be translated to musical ecstasy. When I first discovered it, it immediately drew me in. It touched my heart, it still does.”
Her mentor at the time, Mohsen Soua, encouraged her to listen to Quranic recitations as an exercise.
“Tarab techniques are influenced by recitations. Of course they are not the same, but the two share a lot of the same modal systems.”
However, in some ways, this is Grout's slow, but steady comeback. Grout is now part of the Brooklyn-based Arab Maqam Hang. She says she has performed with the group once so far, but is looking forward to more performances in the future. "I haven't been in the Middle East since 2017, but I'm looking forward to being back and hopefully, performing there."