BEIRUT: From behind the red velvet curtains of Metro al-Madina, four musicians emerge to take the stage, resplendent in matching black suits and red bow ties. Stage right sits Ziad Ahmadieh with his oud. Mohammad Nahas positions himself beside him, behind his qanoun. Alongside, violinist Ziad Jaafar prepares his instrument. Rik (tambourine) in hand, Bahaa Daou takes a seat stage left. Finally, veteran vocalist Abdel Karim al-Shaar takes his place at the center, says a warm welcome to his audience and sits down, just centimeters from the front row of tables.
The music begins.
This evening’s program features one single song, “Hayarti Albi Maak” (You Confused my Heart), a much-loved standard from the songbook of Umm Kulthum – the woman dubbed Star of the East back in the 1960s.
The tune of this rapturous 40-minute torch song was composed by Riad al-Santabli to accompany Ahmad Rami’s lyrics. The version performed by Shaar and his ensemble is 50 minutes longer than any extant recording of Umm Kulthum’s original but just as potent.
Like Umm Kulthum, Shaar studied the art of “Tajwid” (Quranic recitation) as a young man. The Tripoli-born vocalist is distinguished among his peers for his mastery of the vocal tradition that features both the tuneful articulation and ornamentation of Arabic phrasing as well as the mental and physical stamina needed for long hours of performance.
After decades of exposure to the 2.5-minute pop song model, it may be difficult to conceive of sitting through the concert performance of a single long-form piece. Yet, at Shaar’s March 20 performance of “Hayarti Albi Maak,” the audience at Metro al-Madina was transported through a wide array of emotions, emerging at the other end exhausted yet elated.
Shaar and his ensemble are faithful to Umm Kulthum’s version of the song, though they do repeat a few refrains more frequently, and the rhythm of the music is slowed to allow for this.
Shaar also introduces some of his own vocal improvisations – “layali” (from “layl,” night), an unmetered modal departure from the set lyrics. An hour or so into “Hayarti Albi Maak,” the audience’s classic music aficionados recognized the words of another Egyptian tune “Leh ya Binafseg,” (Why are You Alone) composed by Riad al-Sanbati and made famous by vocalist Saleh Abdel-Hay.
Having referenced a line from “Leh ya Binafseg,” Shaar moves into a “layali” then back to “Hayart albi Maak,” holding his audience rapt. Later on, he weaves in the chorus of “Ghanili Shway Shway” (Sing to Me Little by Little) – an Oum Kulthum tune from the soundtrack of the 1945 film “Salama.”
Throughout Shaar’s performance, many audience members confidently sang along. As is often the case with well-performed tarab music, the sounds emitted by the performers were punctuated by eruptions of “Ouf!” and “Allah!” from the spectators.
The applause at the end was enthusiastic, and Shaar returned for a brief encore – some 30 minutes in length.
Abdel Karim al-Shaar will restage “Hayarti Albi Maak” at Metro al-Madina Saturday evening. Doors Open at 9:30 p.m. For more information, please see www.metromadina.com or call 01-753-021.