Culture

A night of high camp cabaret with Bilal

BEIRUT: It was a performance that could only have taken place in Beirut. Alcohol flowed and diamonds glittered. Audience members shook their hips, waved their arms and enthusiastically exerted their vocal chords to the stains of a selection of dabke hits familiar to anyone who’s spent an evening in some of Hamra’s livelier bars.

On stage, an eclectic cast of characters provided top-notch visual entertainment – never mind the music.

A man, stylishly clad in a bright red beret and wraparound sunglasses, plucked out an electric bass line. Next to him, a fellow dressed like a Druid, his black hair cascading down the back of his long white robe, clasped a wooden flute.

Clad in a smart suit and tie, a bald-headed bruiser with a bodyguard’s build looked as though he had stepped out of a board meeting. Alongside him sat a beefy fellow clad in an eccentric combination of embroidered waistcoat and aviator shades.

Holding this motley crew together was the star of Monday night’s performance, MusicHall’s own “Gypsy Prince,” Bilal.

The story of the singer’s rise to fame is a contemporary Lebanese fairy tale. Discovered as a 14-year-old shoe-shiner on the streets of Beirut by eccentric Greco-Lebanese impresario Michel Elefteriades – whose own story resembles the plot of a Lifetime movie – Bilal was plucked from obscurity and catapulted to the lofty heights of the MusicHall’s stage.

Bilal is a member of Lebanon’s community of Doms, descendants of a nomadic clan of gypsies from Asia and the Middle East, many of whom today make their homes in Syria, Jordan and Lebanon.

Often called nawal – a disparaging term for gypsies – members of Bilal’s community face stigmatization and discrimination, and the vocalist is known for using his position in the limelight as a means of publicizing these issues.

Monday night saw the singer take to the stage to perform his signature repertoire of Lebanese hits with a gypsy twist, accompanied by six guest performers, billed as the Yugoslavian Gipsy Brass Band.

Those familiar with Bilal’s features from the event’s ad posters may have been expecting a skinny, waif-like figure with a nervous look in his eyes. The performer who swaggered onstage Monday was an altogether different creature.

His long locks tied in a ponytail reaching halfway down his back, Bilal appeared clad in a black suit and white shirt, accentuated by a blue silk cummerbund and bowtie. Playfully shaking his hips and shoulders in perfect time to the music, breaking into bursts of lively dabke during the instrumental sections, he resembled a Sicilian mafia don on holiday.

In keeping with Elefteriades’ lucrative brand of cabaret-style performance, Monday’s show was as much about pageantry as music.

A whirling, leaping, twisting dancer periodically took to the stage and made his athletic way out along the catwalk. Dressed in leather boots, richly embroidered sherwal trousers, a turban and a smock, he performed impressive feats of twirling, causing lengths of knotted rope and walking sticks to rotate at high speed.

A middle-aged drummer was apparently so carried away by the excitement that he couldn’t resist periodically abandoning his instrument to beat his curved drumstick wildly against the amps and the stage’s wooden planks.

On two occasions an Adonis-like young fellow clutching an enormous hand drum descended from the sidelines to flash his cut-glass cheekbones at the ladies in the crowd, sliding on his combat-trouser clad knees down the wooden catwalk like a confused rock star.

His appearance served to highlight the all-male cast of the performance, which achieved a pinnacle of high camp when Bilal and several co-stars engaged in a dance-off.

Although the vocalist took the opportunity to give a short speech about the common problems facing Europe’s gypsies and the Middle East’s Dom population, the focus of the set list was not Domari or Balkan music but well-known Arabic pop tunes.

The six Eastern European guest stars provided the show’s Balkan elements – instrumental introductions for the most part.

The foreign guests led two numbers. A lively rendition of Goran Bregovic and Emir Kusturica’s “Mesecina,” sung by an enormous french horn player in a red silk shirt, was greeted with indifferent stares by most of the audience. After an accomplished instrumental number, an awkward pause ensued.

A stage hand explained that Bilal had gone to change his clothes and was late returning to the stage. Evidently supposed to provide distraction while the star put his wardrobe to good use, the former-Yugoslavs appeared to have run out of steam. Amid widespread, good-humored laughter, the audience – accompanied by several of the performers – began chanting the singer’s name.

Happily, Bilal returned soon afterward, resplendent in a sparkling black shoes and a black shirt glittering with silver sequins. Letting down his hair figuratively as well literally for the second half of the show – “He must use a lot of shampoo,” stage-whispered one audience member – he managed to rouse the entire auditorium to its feet as the evening’s final notes rang out.

An evening of high camp, high quality, highly amusing cabaret-style entertainment, “Bilal and the Yugoslavian Gipsy Brass Band” was the epitome of Elefteriades’ unique brand of regionally infused kitsch, nicely lubricated by an impressively stocked bar.

Bilal performs regularly at MusicHall in Downtown Beirut. For more information, please call 01-371-236.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 22, 2014, on page 16.

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