“I still get nervous every time I go on stage,” confesses the Lebanese singer and television talent-show judge Ragheb Alama, who will perform at Cavalli Club Restaurant & Lounge in Dubai this Wednesday.
“I think that’s why when I am with the Arab Idol contestants, I tell them, ‘I know you are scared and stressed, but these factors actually increase your adrenalin levels, giving you the courage and ability to sing better’.”
Alama, 49, will headline Layalli Cavalli, the venue’s new quarterly entertainment evening, by performing a selection of songs from his back catalogue of chart-topping albums, which include El Hob el Kebeer (The Great Love) released in 2004 and the platinum-selling Baa’sha’ak (I Adore You) of 2008.
Fans will also be hoping to hear some of his latest material, in particular tunes from the album Seneen Rayha (Years Gone By), which hit the shelves two years ago and an as yet unreleased song called I Want to Ask You a Question.
“I sang it on Arab Idol last week and will release the single next month,” he says. “I’ll maybe also do another album next year and I’ll be releasing a duet I recorded with the great Turkish singer Askin Nur Yengi, called I am Lost Without You.”
When not laying down tracks in European and Middle Eastern recording studios, Alama’s time is currently spent in Beirut filming Arab Idol’s first series, which launched on MBC last December and rapidly became one of the network’s most highly rated shows.
Accompanied by the producer-composer Hassan El Shafei and the Emirati singer Ahlam, Alama heads the panel of three judges and hopes to give a break to a talented singer in the same way that he received one.
Born and raised in Ghoubeiry, Beirut into a large family with seven siblings, Alama began playing the oud at the age of 8 and his talent was regularly showcased on local radio stations from 14 onwards. Then, after scooping the Platinum award for his performance in the 1980 talent show, Studio El Fan on Tele Liban, opportunity knocked.
The young artist released his debut single Bukra Byebrom Dulabak (Your Luck Will Change Tomorrow) in 1983, swiftly followed by albums and a string of number-one hits including Ya Rait (I Wish) and Aan Jad (Seriously) in the years thereafter.
In 1989, he released Alby Asheq’ha (My Heart Adores Her) accompanied, for the first time in the Arab world, by a music video. He broke the mould again in 2010 when a B-side compilation album, Starz Vol. 1, featuring the Good Stuff (Remix) collaboration with Shakira was sold in a chain of coffee shops across the Middle East.
Despite having received countless accolades throughout his three-decade career, including two coveted Murex d’Or Awards, Alama has not let commercial success change him.
“I’ll always remember that time when I was 17 years old,” he says. “Studio El Fan – the singing, the waiting – every minute. And I think because of that I treat the contestants on Arab Idol sensitively. I am happy to say I have developed close relationships with them and it feels good to be part of the success of others – this is a reason I accepted the job.”
An amalgamation of the popular American Idol series and Britain’s equivalent reality show Pop Idol, Arab Idol had more than 5,000 hopefuls auditioning last winter in locations from Egypt and Tunisia to London and the UAE. Of the top 20 chosen from nine Arab countries, just five budding singers remain, with the overall winner to be announced towards the end of next month.
Alama declines to be drawn on which finalist has the perfect combination of talent and tenacity.
“All of them do, to be honest,” he says. “I cannot say one name and as part of the jury it’s not my job to influence people’s votes. The public should make up their minds freely and without my recommendation.”
In this respect, Alama concedes, he differs greatly from his outspoken and frequently scathing US counterpart Simon Cowell.
“I think he is great and I like to watch him, but his way is a western way,” he says. “Our personalities are completely different. In the Arab world, there’s a more sentimental approach – things can be taken more personally. And maybe my style is very different because I was once a contestant.”
Dry ice, dramatic outfits and drum-rolls aside, Alama takes his on-screen mentoring responsibilities seriously and is determined to impart as much wisdom as he can, knowing only too well the value of an industry insider’s perspective.
“When I started out, I wanted to sing classical songs,” he says. “But the producers and directors of the show took me aside and said, ‘Look, you are a good guy but you are a young guy and your voice is better suited to pop music’ and that advice was very good for me.”
So strong is Alama’s faith in the vocal capabilities of Arab Idol’s contestants that he plans to take the final four on tour with him this summer.
“The countries haven’t been decided yet but probably Dubai, Morocco and maybe Tunisia,” he says. “As you know, the Arab world has a lot of problems right now so we’ll go to the most politically stable and secure countries we can and we’ll maybe do the tour in June.”
Alama fully expects to be playing to packed stadiums and doesn’t believe the region’s appetite for reality talent show performers will start to wane any time soon.
“In the Arab world, this is the first time the programme has been done and people are extremely happy with it,” he says. “So I don’t think they are bored of it. I don’t know what the future holds, only time will tell but, honestly, I don’t see people tiring of it yet.
“Especially the fans, I am speaking to them all the time and I see how attached they are to it – they know all the details about the contestants and the movements of the jury and everything we say. They are really in love with it!”
When Alama wraps up his Idol duties next month, the father of two – sons Khaled, 14, and Louai, 11 – looks forward to indulging in more of his favourite family pastimes.
“I have a custom-made trike from the United States,” he says, “and I love to go on rides with my children.”
A fan of the open road and the great outdoors, the singing sensation has made it his business to promote a greener, cleaner region through his work as an Ambassador of Climate Change for the United Nations.
“I think about the next generation and what we’re doing that’s hurting the climate,” he says. “God gave us a wonderful world and we are ruining it, poisoning the oxygen which is such a basic requirement for life. Lebanon is just one country that has a lot of pollution – this is a big problem worldwide.”
In the past two years, Alama’s music has become increasingly tied to his social beliefs and most recently he strove to heighten environmental awareness through the eco-themed number one single Betfell (You Go Away) and title track of the album Seneen Rayha, released by his own company, Backstage Production.
Is he ever likely to unplug his microphone and embark upon a political career to champion the cause full time? Never say never.
“I am addicted to two things – the environment and human life,” says Alama. “But I also believe I was born to be creative.”
Doors at Cavalli open at 8pm on Wednesday. A five-course set-menu is available on the evening, priced at Dh650 per person. For more information and reservations, call 04 332 9260 or 050 856 6044 or email email@example.com
Arab Idol is broadcast at 10.30pm every Friday and Saturday and Arab Idol “Extra” is broadcast every Wednesday at 10.30pm on MBC1