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.

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.

Ringtone downloads are subject to piracy as well, however, making it extremely difficult to track sales with any real accuracy.

But many believe that is all about to change, partly because of contact with the West. American and European interest in Arab pop has increased in the past few years as world events have drawn attention to that region. The French Top 20 regularly includes songs of the Rai genre, an upbeat brand of Algerian pop that was unheard of in the West before the early 1990s. U.S. nightclub DJs have begun using Arab pop standards for dance mixes, such as the hits of the 1950s Egyptian diva Om Kalthom (Egypt's Edith Piaf). Sting collaborated with Rai singer Cheb Mami to record the 2000 single "Desert Rose." And such movies as "Black Hawk Down" and "Ocean's Twelve" have included Arab pop in their soundtracks.

Just as Western eyes are turning toward Arab pop, Arab pop is looking westward, too -- for tips on star-making. Sabri, who lived in the United Kingdom for 23 years, explains the techniques he is adopting for his protege, Ruby: "There are very few talent agents in the Middle East, and the ones that do exist don't think tactically. I know how a superstar is made in [the West]. They are directed all the time; they don't make a lot of appearances everywhere." By contrast, many Arab pop singers have no agent independent of their record label and make the bulk of their money by performing at weddings and private parties.

This is backbreaking work, and Sabri wants Ruby to have no part of it. "It's not appropriate for a superstar," he says. (Tell that to Destiny's Child, which recently accepted $2 million to perform at a bar mitzvah for the son of U.K. billionaire Philip Green.)

In spite of these setbacks, American pop hasn't completely taken over the Arab world. Mahfouz says Egyptians, for example, buy much more Arab pop than American pop, at a ratio of about 7 to 1.

Even so, Arab pop stars such as Haifa believe that for Arab pop singers to expand their careers in the West, they will have to make at least one compromise: doing some songs in English. "Look at Shakira," Haifa says in an interview. "She is a Latina singer, but no one in America heard of her until she recorded a CD in English. But the way she sings and dances is still [Latino]."

Haifa isn't worried, in other words, that singing select songs in a different language would be tantamount to succumbing to Western hegemony: "You will never lose the flavor of the Oriental mood even if you sing in English. We will still use Arabian instruments, and [even English recordings] would still have some Arabic words like ' habibi ,' " which means "darling."

Ajram takes a slightly different view: She foresees performing songs in an even mixture of Arabic/English or Arabic/French but would prefer not to switch over entirely to a European language. On the other hand, she says, the choice of language itself is irrelevant because "the music itself is changing. American music already influences [Middle Eastern] music" and vice versa.

In other words, the evolution of music is an unstoppable force unto itself and ensures that artistic exchanges will continue, with or without a translation.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company