Abu Dhabi Classics will end its season this year with a concert spectacular featuring the enigmatic chanteuse Majida El Roumi. It may not be the usual operatic festival closer we are used to, but then again, Roumi is not your typical Arabic singer.
For the past four decades, El Roumi, 63, has built a career melding classical Arabic arrangements with modern and historical regional literature.
Her celebrated catalogue is marked by its various genres, from Arabic folk and sacred music to Mediterranean pop and arias. These influences not only arise from her background, but from a will to not have her career defined by popularity.
"I am not interested in any of that," she told The National in a 2015 interview at Morocco's Mawazine Festival. "The way that I see it is that life needs to have a balance. In Arabic music today, too much leans towards music that is entertainment. That is OK, but I feel that the artistry of it should be given some respect, too. Since the beginning, I have tried to approach my career that way."
With that being said, El Roumi's career began in a way reminiscent of many fellow Lebanese artists of that era. Born to a Christian family in the southern Lebanon city of Tyre, El Roumi grew up listening to the likes of Umm Kulthum, Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Fairuz. In a similar case to the latter, El Roumi's talent and early popularity was shaped by the onset of the Lebanese Civil War. After participating in the influential television talent quest Studio El Fan and winning a slew of music awards, El Roumi found initial success singing patriotic odes such as 1975's Am Behlamak (I'm Dreaming of You) and the 1976 debut album Albu Wadaa (Farewell).
In addition to her crystalline and operatic vocals, it is El Roumi's love for Arabic literature – in which she graduated from Beirut's Lebanese University – that allowed her to build a career devoid of radio fodder.
A lover of the Arabic word, she sought to work with esteemed lyricists such as Said Aki and Ali Al Sharqawi, in addition to taking on the works of poets such as Palestine's Mahmoud Darwish in Nashid El Salam and 12th-century Andalusian poet Ibn Zarmuk (Wajaba El Shoukrou). "Poetry is really my first love," she said in a 2018 appearance on the Egyptian talk show Ma'akum Mini Al Shadly. "I am always surrounded by books and I always refer to poetry when I am preparing a concert. It remains a big source of inspiration for me."
It is that appreciation for her region's heritage that allowed El Roumi to be viewed globally as a cultural ambassador for the Arab world.
Over the past three decades, she broke ground for Arab artists by performing on the hallowed stages of New York's Carnegie Hall in 1990, London's Royal Albert Hall in 1995 and the Athens Concert Hall in Greece in 2009.
When asked about her unique international appeal, she puts it down to the lyrical subject matter. Whether it's through Arabic folk rhythms or western string arrangements, El Roumi states that her messages of love and tolerance know no language.
"It is something that we all feel, no matter where you are," she said in a 2015 interview with Sky News Arabia. "Once you stop believing in that you are simply walking on two legs without really living. A lot of the songs that I sing affect people in different ways, depending on people's circumstances. It's also the same way for me when I perform them. Some songs hit me harder than others."
One thing is for sure, though, with her own orchestra in tow, audiences will be able to experience the full gravity and beauty of a El Roumi performance. Expect a beguiling atmosphere, and the sound of a few teary sniffles from audience members, as Abu Dhabi witnesses one of the region's most important artists in full flight.
Majida El Roumi will perform at part of Abu Dhabi Classics on Friday, February 7 at 8pm at du Arena, Yas Island. Tickets begin at Dh195 from www.ticketmaster.ae