In the Arab World, Pop Stardom Can Be A Touchy Subject

By Y. Euny Hong
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 5, 2005

How do you become a pop star in a region where you might be arrested for shaking hands with your fans?

In April, Saudi singer Hisham Abdel Rahman, winner of the Arab reality TV show "Star Academy" (similar to "American Idol"), was mobbed by fans at a mall in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. When he began to shake their hands and kiss them, he was detained by the religious police, whose official name is the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. Abdel Rahman's offense: Some of the fans were women, and he had touched them. He was released later that day.

Most Arab countries are far more culturally liberal than Saudi Arabia. In fact, the Arab world's pop industry superficially resembles our own, with the Arab Top 20 playing on the radio and in discotheques throughout the Middle East. A dozen or so major record labels dominate the scene, mostly based in Egypt and Lebanon. Arab television boasts more than half a dozen music channels, as well as several talent search programs propelled by viewer phone-in voting -- "Star Academy" is just one such program; another is "Superstar," from the same production company that created "American Idol."

Even so, the lifestyle of an Arab pop idol does not closely resemble, say, that of American Idol Carrie Underwood.

The differences between Arab and American pop stardom begin with the manner in which artists are discovered. Aspiring American pop singers usually first make an audio demo. In the Arab world, however, would-be recording artists often make a video first, at their own expense, which they then send to one of the satellite stations devoted to broadcasting such videos. These videos, in effect, become high-profile audition tapes. If a record label signs an artist to a recording contract, his or her subsequent videos display more professionalism. Still, for many Arab pop stars, there exists an initial, cheaply produced, often ridiculous music video that they'd probably rather bury.

"They use their life savings for this one shot at fame," says Hassan Mahfouz, manager of top Egyptian boy bands. "Sometimes [the homemade video is] just girls jumping around in their nightgowns."

Another distinct aspect of Arab pop is its overall mood. The overwhelming majority of the songs are in a minor key, and themes tend to focus on longing, melancholy and strife. For example, Nancy Ajram, a Lebanese pop star, has a hit whose title translates to "We Will Quarrel." Ajram is on her first North American tour. (She will appear at the grand opening of the Prince Cafe's Adams Morgan branch, 2400 18th St. NW, at 7 p.m. Thursday and at the Crystal Gateway Marriott at 8 p.m. Saturday.)

A few aspects of Arab pop music are borrowed from Western pop. The songs of Haifa Wehbe (stage name: Haifa W), a top Lebanese pop star, have a breathy, gasping quality reminiscent of Madonna or the young David Cassidy. And her dance hit "Ma Sar" sounds close to Europop; in fact, last year it was one of the most played songs in dance clubs throughout Europe.

But that is not to suggest that Arab pop is an East-West fusion. On the contrary, it has an irreducibly Arab sound.

Arab pop is far more deeply rooted in traditional Arabian music than Western pop is rooted in Western classical music. For example, Ruby (full name: Rania Hussein Mohammed Tawfik), an up-and-coming Egyptian pop singer, makes frequent use of traditional Arabian instruments in her recordings, including the nai (reed flute), the kanoon (lute) and the tabla (hand drums).

Traditional Arab music also is based on a scale structure that differs from Western music. The former allows for smaller increments between notes. Although a Western octave contains 12 tones, the Arabian octave can contain as many as 17. This is possible because traditional Arabian stringed instruments allow for increments of a quarter-tone or even smaller; Western instruments allow nothing smaller than half-tones. Imagine a piano with additional keys inserted between the existing keys.

An Arabian scale, therefore, sounds vaguely like a minor-key scale played on an out-of-tune instrument -- out of tune, that is, from the standpoint of the Western classical music tradition.

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