Mawazine Festival 2017: Fares Karam’s music comes straight from the heart
Fares Karam is an increasingly rare breed. The veteran Lebanese singer, who rose to fame in the early 1990s, is one of the few Arab male pop stars who unapologetically flaunts his masculinity – from the controversial subject matter of his lyrics, to his appearance.
There is no careful grooming when he greets the media during his appearance at the Mawazine Festival in Morocco last week.
Instead, the bleary eyed, barrel-chested 43-year-old arrives sporting fuzzy grey stubble, a casual pair of jeans, a black shirt and a “let’s get this done” attitude.
“It’s not that I don’t respect what you guys in the media do,” he says.
“It’s just that interviews are not really my thing. But I do understand that these kinds of things are important in my career.”
This is also a chance for him to counter some of the misconceptions surrounding his work.
Karam’s muscular form of Arab pop, which is heavily infused with the party-ready sounds of the Levant’s Dabke music tradition, has attracted criticism for its narrow-mindedness – sonically and lyrically.
The latter draws the most scorn: on his biggest hits El Tannoura (The Skirt), Shefta (I Saw Her) and Neswanji (Player), Karam is either far from subtle in declaring his affection for the opposite sex or telling a poor lass to hit the road for doing him wrong.
This all-or-nothing lyrical approach is not a gimmick, says Karam. Instead, it points to an internal battle he attributes to him remaining one of the Arab entertainment industry’s most eligible bachelors.
“A lot of people find these songs fun or light-hearted, but if you look deeper, you realise it comes from real pain,” he says.
“These songs I sing are about that emotional struggle. And I am not saying it is unfair, as we all have our own battles. But what I am talking about in these songs is that it is not in your hands to have a loving relationship. It goes both ways.”
He clearly has been stung by some of the criticism, however. He admits the online backlash to the video for Bala Hob Bala Bateekh last year – in which he appears lounging by a pool with scantily clad females serving him watermelon juice – forced him to create a more subdued video for his latest single Nam Nam.
“I am not putting any women with me on this new song,” he says of the video, which will be released in two weeks.
“Instead, I got a young girl and I play her father. It is more sensitive and I hope that people will like it.”
With his albums regularly topping the charts and sell-out international tours – he recently returned from a successful run of shows in Australia – Karam says fans young and old respond to his music for a reason, and so his success warrants more respect.
“It is because I am talking about daring issues,” he says.
“With respect to my peers, none of them are as direct as me. I talk about real-life situations that people face, but in a way they identify with.
“I go to my shows and I see young and old people dancing. I remember one night an 80-year-old grandmother came to my show. I feel real gratitude for that.”
Karam was born in the southern Lebanese town of Jezzine – he immortalises the mountain landscapes on the track Jabali.
He was one of the stars of the first wave of Arabic television talent shows, winning Studio El Fan in 1996, an influential show credited with discovering several Lebanese stars, including Majida El Roumi and Ragheb Alama.
Surprisingly, perhaps, Karam is a critic of the current glut of talent shows, which he believes are purely driven not by music, but by the potential profits that can be squeezed out of viewers hooked on social media.
As a result, a generation of young, talented artists are not being given their due.
“Fans have lost focus,” he says. “There are so many talent shows who all want you on their social media – you can’t pay attention to people with genuine talent.
“I think it is hard for people to become stars and that’s a shame. The whole process – the programme, the social media – it swallows up all the attention.
“There are people who have voices that are 5,000 times better than mine – and they disappear with each season.”
• Nam Nam by Fares Karam is out now
Updated: May 22, 2017 04:00 AM