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

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Furthermore, Arab music is known for staying within a narrow range of notes. One would not find a song like "The Star-Spangled Banner," which spans several octaves. This narrow range accounts for the extensive use of trilling in Arab music; think of snake-charming or the Bollywood sound, and you're on the right track.

Arab music purists worry that using modern Western instruments for Arab pop compromises the sound. Western instruments, they argue, are overly precise and can't produce the microtonal variations of traditional Arabian instruments, in which a song never sounds the same twice.

But it's not just the instruments that are too modern, according to Islamic critics of Arab pop.

Female pop stars, in particular, bear the brunt of the criticism. Just ask the aforementioned Nancy Ajram, the only performing artist to be named one of the "43 Most Influential Arab Personalities" in the April 26 issue of Newsweek's Arabic edition.

Ajram is the darling of the Arab world, with catchy, sultry, belly-dance-worthy tunes like "Ah Wa Noss" ("Yes and a Half").

Coca-Cola recently chose her as its official spokesmodel for the Middle East and North Africa; she is idolized by millions. Yet because of her provocative dancing in her music videos, this Lebanese Christian has been called a kafira (infidel) by Islamic religious officials.

In 2003, the Egyptian Parliament banned the video for another of her songs. (The legislature's jurisdiction covered only Egyptian television stations; the video was still seen in Egypt via satellite from Lebanese broadcasts.) By Western standards, the video is demure. She is shown swaying her hips and arms while wearing a black dinner dress that covers her ankles.

In an interview with The Washington Post, Ajram's first with a U.S. publication, she protested that such objections couldn't be valid, because "children love me. And the first quality of a child is innocence. When I go up onstage and see a child imitating me, I can tell they're not catching any dirtiness."

In addition to assaults on their purity, Arab recording artists face more worldly obstacles: those connected to the bottom line.

For one thing, the Middle East is notoriously lax on enforcing copyright laws. Consequently, fame does not necessarily correlate with money. Sherif Sabri, who manages Ruby, estimates that 80 percent of sales of her first album, "Eb'a Abelni" ("Keep Meeting Me"), come from the more than 42 different brands of bootleg records in circulation.

That's right, bootleggers in the Arab region have brands. In fact, they are so unafraid of reprisal that it is common for them to advertise their names, addresses and phone numbers on the CD covers they have illegally copied. None of this revenue goes to the singer or her record label.

A major source of income for some Arab pop stars, according to Mahfouz, is ringtone downloads for mobile phones. While this service exists in the United States, it is much more prevalent in the Middle East. "Well, at least we're ahead of America for something," jokes Mahfouz, who attended a Pennsylvania military academy as a high schooler.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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