Nancy Ajram's songs are nothing short of momentous. Her promotional campaigns are run with the efficiency of a military operation and bumper sales follow as a result. The only time the Lebanese pop singer seemingly dials down the hype is when she releases a selection of songs closest to her heart. Her latest track, Lya, is a case in point.
Put out quietly last week, the soulful ballad has her replacing the usual energetic pop sounds with swooning strings and acoustic guitars. It provides a soothing backdrop for Ajram, 35, to wax lyrical about her newborn daughter, Lya.
In what is essentially a love letter to her offspring, Ajram assures Lya that, although she is her third child, "the feelings you gave me are as if I have experienced [motherhood] for the first time".
Despite the lack of promotion, the song still racked up more than four million views on YouTube in the first few days of its release. That's down to Ajram's fans knowing what to expect, as Lya is the latest in a series of songs she has dedicated to her children. To celebrate the birth of her eldest daughter, Mila, Ajram released 2009's upbeat Ya Rabi Tekbar Mila (May God Make Mila Grow), while in 2011 her middle child, Ella, had the elegant, string-laden ballad Hadri Laabek (Get Ready To Share Your Toys) dedicated to her.
Ajram wasn't the only one to celebrate motherhood in song recently, either. Last year, Emirati-Yemeni singer Balqees went all out when marking the birth of her son, Turki. She not only released the Khaleeji ballad Ahlan Ya Mama (Hello Mummy) in his honour, but also shot an accompanying video in which a doting Balqees stares dreamily at her baby before it flashes forward – 10 years in the future, seemingly – to her grown son playing Pirates of the Caribbean in the park.
For the artist and the fans
Releasing a song dedicated to your kid is nothing new in the Arab world. Stars such as Amr Diab, Assala Nasri and Ragheb Alama have all done it in the past. And why not? These releases are a win-win for both the artists and their audience. Dedicated fans are rewarded with a look into the private lives of their favourite singers, while these songs are more than about making a quick dirham for the artists; it's about them getting to truly sing from the heart.
"We should celebrate beauty with beauty whenever we can," Ragheb Alama tells The National. The veteran Lebanese crooner has a number of songs dedicated to his children, including the much-loved 1997 track El Hob Khaled.
"These songs are not about promotion of the artist, they are in fact very important to them," he says. "A lot of us travel a lot and we spend so much time away from our families because of what we do. These songs are messages to our children, reminding them that we love them and we miss them. We sing these songs also as a reminder to ourselves of why we do what we do."
The tracks by Alama, Ajram, and Balqees each form part of a resurgence of an Arab music tradition that stretches back more than 50 years.
How did it begin?
Lebanese singer and actress Sabah was behind the very first tune in the Arab world to be linked to an artist's child. It was in 1953 and, at the time, she was a promising talent in Egyptian cinema, having starred in films Zalamuni El Habaieb (My Loved Ones Wrong Me) and Bolbol Effendi (Mr Nightingale). When she was asked to present a song for Lebanese radio, Sabah sang the track Ya Huwaidalak. Much to her surprise, it was a hit across the Arab world and became one of her signature songs.
Such was its appeal that Sabah named her daughter Howaydah (loosely translated to "blessing") after it, when she was born two years later. As a result, Howaydah became one of the most famous tykes in the Arab world and there was a spike in newborns across region being named after her.
Then came the case of Lebanese singer Fairuz. As part of her starring role in the 1968 film Bint El-Hares (The Guard's Daughter), Fairuz sang the track Yallah Tnam Rima (Oh Lord! Help Rima Sleep).
Dedicated to her daughter Rima Rahbani, who is now Fairuz's manager, the song is a playful and semi-accapella lullaby, in which the singer urges her baby to "go to sleep and I will cook a delicious pigeon".
The song remains a favourite lullaby in Lebanese households and, as the name Rima is not used in any of the rhymes, the lyrics are adapted easily to include other children's names. However, the pigeon (hamam) reference can't change, as it rhymes with sleep (tnam).
Despite the popularity of these tunes, it was three decades before an artist dedicated another song to their baby, as celebrities attempted to keep their private lives private.
The big comeback
It was Moroccan-Egyptian pop singer Samira Saeed, who helped revive the tradition with her 1996 release Maleesh Ghirak. Dedicated to her son, Shady, the chirpy pop number disguised its touching lyricism, in which Saeed views the love of her son as an escape from the strains of showbusiness. She sings: "Your eyes, the first time you saw me. You gave me the most beautiful glance, it was a feeling that allowed me to live."
Diab, however, really brought the trend back to life. Just a few months after the release of Maleesh Ghirka, the Egyptian pop king's Habibi Nour El Ain (Darling, The Light Of My Eyes) was a hit across the region and remains one his signature tracks. Over summery flamenco guitars, Diab thanks his first-born daughter, Nour, for providing stability in his life. "You reassured me. You have all the story. I will be with you to the end."
Since then, the songs have continued to flow. Diab released another track for his daughter Kenzi (Ya Kenzi) in 2003; Lebanese artists Nawal Zoghbi and Carole Samaha released Tia and Tala in 1999 and 2016 respectively; and Egyptian heartthrob Tamr Hosny put out Taliya in 2014.
Speaking to The National in 2017, Hosny admitted his song was a hit in his household. Not only did he sing Taliya when he played with his daughter, Hosny also told us that there's a stack of unreleased songs dedicated to all of his three kids. It's good news for the family, but bad news for fans, as you'll likely never hear them.
“The only way is if I invite you to my house and see us perform,” he said with a laugh. “My wife and I create and sing songs for our kids, just as a way to keep the household fun and light. These songs are just for us.”
Thankfully, Ajram and Balqees don’t feel the same, and we can all expect to revel in their familial bonds for years to come.