Mohammed Assaf may be a star singer with a strong international fan base, but even he is able to appreciate a “pinch me” moment when it arrives.
Case in point: when the 29-year-old Palestinian teamed up with Lebanese ballad king Ragheb Alama for a sold-out show at Sharjah’s Al Majaz Amphitheatre last night.
Both artists performed as part of the venue’s month-long series of winter concerts, which began last week with the double bill of Egyptian singer Haney Shaker and Lebanon’s Wael Jassar, and will conclude at the end of the month.
The February 8 show was a memorable occasion for Assaf, as it was both his first time performing in the majestic venue in the northern emirate and co-headlining a concert with Alama.
Hardcore fans of Assaf would know that it was the Lebanese singer who coined Assaf's nickname, Al Sarookh (The Rocket) during his stint as judge on Arab Idol – the television talent quest which Assaf won in 2013 and subsequently launched his career.
"He played a really important in my life," Assaf told The National minutes before he went on stage.
“Our friendship grew stronger ever since, and Alama, bless him, continues to offer great advice when it comes to my career and life in general.”
An assured performance from Assaf
Alama doesn't really have much need to mentor Assaf these days, with the latter putting in the hard yards since winning Arab Idol.
While other singers of his generation often rely on slick visuals and social media to keep their careers ticking, Assaf has taken the old-school approach by performing and touring consistently.
The year is only two months old, and Assaf arrived in Sharjah fresh from a tour of Canada and a concert in Saudi Arabia.
That experience shone through in what was an excellent set at the amphitheatre. Kicking off with his latest hit, the Iraqi-folk pop of Makanak Khaly, Assaf breezed through an 80-minute show that covered the various styles of Arabic popular music he has tackled over the last five years.
There was the upbeat rai number Rani, the elegant balladry of Zekryatna El Helwa, the Arab and western pop mash-up of Roll with It and, of course, his signature song – his thumping cover of the Palestinian resistance anthem Ali al Kufiyyeh.
Alama keeps it classy in Sharjah
When it came to the latter, Assaf’s mountainous tenor voice pierced through the backstage room where Alama met the regional press.
Dressed in a black suit, Alama, 56, stopped the interview for a moment to savour Assaf’s voice with a satisfied smile.
“He is doing so well, right?" he said. “Especially considering this is the most challenging time for an artist. It is that time in your career when you are working hard to establish your identity as an artist.”
That's a hurdle Alama overcame more than three decades ago after first emerging on to the Lebanese music scene in 1982. He has since built a legacy of composing and performing ballads exploring all facets of love, from the passionate phase of Nasseny Donya and Habib Albi to the more mature and refined feelings of his latest singles Baacha' Albik and Tar El Balad.
When it comes to the new material, Alama states the tracks are part of an album set to be released later in the year.
“I am still working on it,” he confirms. “So I just released a few singles over the last three months. Now I am taking a break and seeing how these songs are received, then I will return to the studio and continue with the project.”
One can sense that Alama does view his live performances as a break – the man simply has too much fun on stage.
With hits stretching three generations, everyone from parents to grandchildren sang along to the words of the smooth Lebanese folk of Ya Bint Al Sultan and the summery Mediterranean vibes of Ana Esmi Habibak during the Sharjah show. Alama revelled in it all and indulged the crowd with anecdotes and song requests. Looking at the crowd, his smile was laced with the satisfaction of seeing his hard work paying off.
More shows to come
Two more shows are left in Sharjah’s Al Majaz Amphitheatre winter concert series.
On February 15, Kuwaiti stalwart Nabil Shuail, whose powerful voice is behind the hits Ana Nater and Ma Arwa'ak, will perform.
He will sing with rising Emirati star Eida Menhali.
The concert series ends on March 1 with the anticipated appearance of Nawal Al Zoghbi. The Lebanese singer has nearly three decades' worth of hits including El Layali and Albi Da'a.
Also on the bill is Iraq's Majid Al Muhandas, whose energetic take on Khaleeji pop, particularly the tracks Bayni W Baynak and Saharni Halaha, make him a regional live favourite.
Tickets for all concerts begin from Dh100 from www.platinumlist.net