If crisis breeds opportunity, then the Arabic pop industry may have found a new way forward this week.
Over the Eid break, a slew of high profile Arab pop stars took to online platforms Facebook and YouTube to deliver bespoke concerts in empty venues that were both stirring and innovative enough to hopefully evolve the stagnant regional live music landscape post-pandemic.
On Sunday, May 24, Iraqi crooner Kadim Al Sahir delivered an unusually stripped-down solo set for the Abu Dhabi Cultural Foundation.
Streamed on the organisation’s Facebook page, the “Caesar of Arabic Music” gave a performance of achingly intimate reworkings of his operatic hits on the oud.
The following night saw fellow Iraqi artist, Majid Al Mohandis, appear on the Shahid platform: bereft of his usual 30-plus-piece backing orchestra, Al Mohandis was joined by an eight-piece band as they delivered minimal takes on energetic Khaleeji pop hits.
Meanwhile, Nancy Ajram also kept it relatively low key with her Music Unites Us concert, streamed on YouTube on Tuesday, May 26. Ajram’s gig – shot on a Beirut rooftop – was also marked by a newfound air of intimacy.
With the camera a constant and swarming presence, the fast-paced show was constantly engaging, and the stripped down renderings of hits allowed Ajram’s underappreciated vocals to shine.
It's time to shed outdated perceptions of what a concert is
Judging by the enthusiastic social media responses, the three concerts were a success.
Fans hailed the tasteful revisions of favourite hits, and expressed delight at seeing their musical heroes at their most natural and comfortable.
If studied correctly by both artists and promoters, these shows could serve as landmarks for the regional music industry and herald a much needed rejuvenation of the Arabic pop concert experience once venues re-open.
The pandemic has demonstrated that many employees can be an equally – if not more potent – workforce from home, and so this crisis could also be an opportunity for Arabic pop artists and large event organisers to shed some of their own outdated perceptions of what constitutes a concert performance.
The pandemic is making people rethink the doldrums of the office cubicle, and it’s time for Arabic pop-stars to reconsider their own extravagant yet equally soulless work spaces.
Regional music lovers know exactly what I am talking about: there is that massive stage holding an incalculable number of orchestra performers dressed in suits or all in black (depending on the budget), while the star of the show stands immobile for two hours singing from a digital lyric sheet on an iPad placed on a lectern.
It’s an experience that we somehow grew to accept, with the only payoff being the quality of the vocals or the shimmering dresses of the divas.
Why the current style of concert worked for Umm Kulthum, but still needs to go
A concert experience is often a tacit agreement between the fan and the artist, with the former willing to shell out the cash and weather the discomfort of traffic and crowds, all in order for the latter to deliver a euphoric and soul enriching set.
When it comes to most concerts by Arabic pop stars, that deal is infuriatingly one sided, with shows often lacking in flare and spectacle.
What is even more galling is they are often the total antithesis to the artists’ lives online, which often portray a career in constant motion. That pace somehow stops dead once they step foot on the concert stage, however, and they regress to singing automatons for two hours.
This is why I so thoroughly enjoyed Al Mohandis and Ajram’s most recent Eid performances. As someone who has attended their concerts numerous times over the decade, it was great to see them naturally enjoying themselves.
This was a far cry from the stiff Al Mohandis I saw in Dubai in 2017, where he barely moved from his iPad and microphone, while Ajram’s stage actions over the decade have often been restricted to a few shimmies each side of the stage and air claps.
To be fair, however, such performances antics do have a reason for being. And they used to make sense.
The stand-still-and-sing format is a relic from the golden age of classical Arabic music, a hallowed time when hits were 30-minute operatic suites performed with symphony orchestras and consisting of pages of dense and poetic lyricism.
For such a format, no one expected legendary acts like Umm Kulthum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab to groove along to the cellos or pander to the crowd. Instead, by standing still in deep concentration they honoured their contract to the audience by delivering music that was nothing short of high art.
Music changes over time, so should its live delivery
Arabic pop music today is generally not of Kulthum calibre, however. And there is nothing wrong with that, because music sensibilities change over time.
However, just as the songs have become shorter and more up-tempo, artists need to complement that material with an equally dynamic stage performance.
Perhaps the positive reception of the audience-free Eid concerts points to the way forward.
It could herald a new era in which stripped down and fan-friendly acoustic performances are just as important as gala and orchestral concerts. Perhaps we'll see static and distant stage designs less often, and an embrace of new and engaging formats.
I hope this will lead to a new dawn that sees modern Arab pop stars display more natural showmanship, instead of relying on the crutches of well-worn hits and a decent voice.
It’s time: their fans deserve something fresh.