When Hiba Tawaji applied for the French version of the television talent quest The Voice in 2015, some colleagues were mortified.
Twenty-four years old at the time, the French Lebanese singer was a star on the rise in classical Arabic music circles, having played a number of high-profile concerts and performed in musicals in Beirut. The fact that she was also personally mentored by the famed Lebanese composer Oussama Rahbani meant her career was already on the up.
Confidants argued that her road to excellence shouldn’t be sullied by the cheap thrills of a television show. Tawaji disagreed and signed up anyway.
"It was a practical decision," the now 30-year-old explains prior to last Saturday's performance at the Mawazine Festival in Morocco. "The fact is that sometimes being two minutes on a national show like The Voice is better than two years working and trying to get known. The show was like a trampoline and I can't deny that it launched me even further forward."
That's because Tawaji spent close to two months on the nation's television screens.Ever since her bewitching audition performance of Michel Legrand's Les moulins de mon coeur (in which she sang the second verse in Arabic) elicited a standing ovation from the judges, Tawaji progressed to the semi-final stage before she was eventually dropped by her mentor, the French-Lebanese pop-star Mika.
The national recognition resulted in her starring as Esmeralda in the French production of the musical The Hunchback of Notre Dame in addition to continuing her oriental-inspired work with Rahbani.
Meeting a master
This collaboration led to her Mawazine Festival performance in Rabat last week. Alongside Rahbani, who led the band on the piano, the duo performed selections from Tawaji's four albums they both worked on together, including the latest release 30. In the young singer, the 53-year-old Rahbani says he found "a startling voice" that's versatile for all stages.
In addition to the albums, Rahbani also enlisted Tawaji to star in his musicals, including his high-profile production of Don Quixote, which premiered at the Byblos Festival in 2011.
With a reputation verging on the puritanical, Rahbani (who is the son of Lebanon’s pioneering composer, the late Mansour Rahbani) first met Tawaji in Lebanon 10 years ago. He recalled her arriving to the audition fresh from five years of intensive vocal training, which didn’t necessarily mean she was ready to enter “the Rahbani School” of music.
“Everybody tells me, ‘you should listen to this person’ or ‘they have a great voice’. But when I first heard Hiba sing I got a few glimpses of how cultured and elegant her voice was,” he says.
"But then the next song she sang was Der Holle Rache by Mozart. Now I don't think she or her teacher realised how challenging it was for someone so young to sing that. It was a wrong choice. But I was so impressed by her musical intelligence that I took her on and we have worked together ever since."
Finding her own voice
Tawaji acknowledges she has strayed from the standard career path to stardom. While she entertained offers to sing and perform radio-friendly Arabic hits over the years, Tawaji rejected them in fear of being lumped into the already saturated Arabic pop market.
It is her blend of western and eastern musical influences, she says, will ensure her career longevity. “It is about having your own identity as an artist. What I am doing with Oussama, for instance, is that we both use our own respective crafts to create something different,” she says.
“The crowds coming to the show are growing, which is great considering I have been doing this now for ten years. But ultimately, I have come to view success not just as numbers, but to stay true to myself and not compare myself to anyone. I have my own path and I intend to take it.”
Check out Arts & Lifestyle online for all the latest news and interviews from The Mawazine Festival in Morocco, which runs until June 30