Mawazine Sessions: Assi El Helani on folk music, the state of Lebanese pop and showing his gentler side on The Voice

In the final part of the series on leading forces in world music, we chat with the popular Lebanese singer, who says more so than talent he owes his success to hard work – a value he repeatedly emphasises to youngsters on The Voice.

Assi El Helani performs at the 2016 Mawazine Festival in Morocco. Photo by Wahid Tajani
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There are delicate-sound­­ing­ Arab pop-stars – and then you have Assi El Helani.

Nicknamed "The Knight of the Arab Song", the Lebanese singer is a powerful presence – both on stage and television screens as a mentor on MBC's ­reality-singing contest, The Voice.

Speaking of voice, his is a full-bodied husky tenor that captures the drama and heartache of the original and classic Levantine folk songs that have become his calling card.

When we caught up with the 45-year-old at this summer’s Mawazine Festival in Rabat, Morocco, El Helani said he is proud that he has helped to revive the once-­neglected Arab folk music genre.

More so than talent, however, he credits his success to hard work – something he repeatedly reiterates to the youngsters he guides on The Voice.

On The Voice, people are surprised at how kind and compassionate you are. Did the show bring out that side of you?

My participation in The Voice has been an interesting experience. When it was offered to me, I said yes because it would be a new challenge.

Now, if you ask me whether the show added anything to me as an artist, then the answer is no – but it gave me something from a personal perspective. You are right in that it gives me a chance to show my encouraging and affectionate side, something I always had, but never had a chance for people to see.

I still get people coming to me saying “I never knew you were like that”. I mean, it was always there – I just now had a chance for millions of people to see it.

That said, you are also straight-talking and to the point. You give contestants the unvarnished truth about the industry. How important is that honesty?

The thing is, we have to realise that no programme can create an artist. The only thing a talent show can do is bring an artist to a certain level. If the artist doesn’t carry on and do the hard work, evolve himself and be innovative, then he won’t get too far.

The real work begins after the show. That’s when you truly have to go out and find yourself.

Given that no Lebanese contestant has won a major talent show for the past few years – and the lack of major hits by Lebanese artists – there is discussion within the regional industry that it is a crisis for Lebanese pop music. Do you agree?

Not necessarily. The Lebanese song is doing well and there are lots of singers and actors who are super talented. That, to me, is success.

I don’t think there is some kind of crisis when it comes to Lebanese music. I think it all comes from this perception that success is perhaps defined by being at the top or the most popular in your field. But being an artist is more than that.

It’s a case of constant evolution and many people don’t understand that. It’s not just stardom, it’s also about the challenge.

When you started out in the early 1990s, you were singing Arab folk songs, which was not a popular style. How hard was it to gain recognition?

You are right that when I began I was one of the few people who sang Lebanese folk songs, and I made them popular. Now because of my success there is this idea that you have to sing folk songs to be a star – and not only that, you have to sing them like me.

They shouldn’t do that – people should find their own voice. Lebanese music can accommodate so many styles, but people, and I won’t say names, are taking other people’s styles, including my own, and passing it off as their own. That’s not right – people should go down their own road.

You are also developing a career as an actor in TV dramas and on stage, particularly the high-­profile 2014 production of Assi El Helm at the Baalbeck Inter­national Festival. Do you see doing more of this?

I did four stage shows at the Baalbeck festivals over the years, and people in the Arab world know that is one of the most important artistic events in the world. I feel lucky that I made my debut there.

It is from there that I ventured into acting. But if you ask me what I feel, then I will tell you that I am a singer first and foremost. Because what I do is sing folk songs, and that’s a specialised field, you really need to have a voice and technique to do these songs because they can be complex. That takes most of my time, because there are always ways to improve and get better.