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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 20 August 2018

Hala: Only sweet 16 and already a pop queen 

Being a pop star isn’t all about the bright lights, the stage and adoring fans. It can also mean a 7am wake-up call. And that was the case for Bahraini singer Hala last Saturday, who had to make her way to an empty Dubai Festival City Mall for a two-hour rehearsal session to brush up for her concert later that evening.

But she showed no signs of interrupted sleep. The 16-year-old, who still attends school in Bahrain, was a bundle of energy as she went through her routines with a dance troupe and nailed the notes of the half-dozen songs that made up the evening’s set list.

A team of technicians were also working that morning, looking after the sound and lighting, as were staff from Hala’s record label, Dubai’s Platinum Records (which is also home to Arab pop superstar Mohammed Assaf and Iraqi singer and The Voice Kids mentor Kadim Al Sahir). In fact, label chief Taymoor Marmarchi was even there to ensure nothing was left to chance.

It all goes to underscore how important this gig was to Hala's career.

Marmarchi explains that a detailed approach is vital when working with a young artist. “It requires a huge level of patience, commitment and tailoring our strategy differently. That’s not only because Hala is still going to school and the sensitives of that, but she is also a teen idol, with kids who look up to her; following her and emulating her,” he says. “But it is an opportunity for her to break down boundaries, evolve the music industry and pave the way for a new generation of artists to come; to be a pioneer.”

It all goes to underscore how important this gig was to Hala's career. With the exception of sporadic performances in the region, the singer has been largely absent from the limelight for the best part of four years. Saturday’s gig was not so much a comeback, but a career transformation from former child star to teen pop queen. This also included dropping her family name of Al Turk and rebranding herself as Hala. “This time it does feel a little different,” she admits while speaking to The National during rehearsals.

Back with a new sound

Sitting with the mannequins showcasing her colourful, casual summer clothes collection – designed in collaboration with Polish fashion brand Poca & Poca – Hala exudes a quiet confidence as she discusses life and her career. “I really missed this,” she says. “The stage is where I feel the most natural. It is a direct feeling; you know what I mean? In that you are there, in the bright lights, in front of the fans, and you can see that you are making them happy when you’re singing. I love that. I am looking forward to being back there again, but I’ve changed a little bit since the last time.”

Indeed, Hala has received a full sonic makeover, with the cute pop ditties of old replaced with a more polished, clubby sound. Her two new singles released in as many weeks are a case in point: OK Habibi boasts a slinky hip-hop beat and features an English verse rapped by up-and-coming Iraqi-American rapper Julian. Meanwhile Mamnoo Ellames is a more oriental, yet modern affair, with Hala's voice displaying newfound heft.

A child star with big numbers

This is a far cry from the time she first entered the public consciousness as part of the inaugural season of Arabs Got Talent in 2011. Eight years old at the time, Hala charmed the celebrity panel with her red dress and toothy smile as she sang Ma Yeseh Ela Al Saheh by Emirati pop star Ahlam. The judges were bowled over; Lebanese pop diva Najwa Karam praised Hala's confidence and poise while her father, a music producer, stood at the sidelines weeping with joy. Hala recalls that period as tumultuous as best. “I didn’t know what to expect,” she says. “I was nervous the whole time, and during the early episodes, whenever I went on stage, I just wasn’t feeling OK. But then you see the reaction from the people and the fans and that gave me the confidence to pull through.”

Hala may have been knocked out in the semi-finals, but by then, she had lodged herself in the hearts of millions. With her path set, she immediately launched into a recording career with a string of colourful and slickly produced child-friendly pop singles that amassed more than a staggering half a billion views on YouTube – I Love You Mama and Zahgana received 364 million and 183m views respectively.

Faced with such astounding numbers, Hala acknowledges the achievement, but is keen to move on from discussing the past. It is understandable; seven years ago can seems like a life-time for a teenage artist. “But of course I am very happy with these songs and how people loved them,” she explains.

“They were children’s songs and I am happy I did them. But things have changed in that I grew up, my personality and my voice developed and now I am doing other styles of music.”

Being a mother of a pop-star

Some of that growing up has extended to Hala ’s family life, which was partly the reason for her time away from the public eye. Her family were plunged into a messy and public court case when her father, Mohammed Al Turk, married Moroccan singer and Arab Idol contestant Dounia Batma in 2013.

As a result, a custody case was heard, which resulted in Hala ’s mother, Mona Al Saber, being granted full custody of her. Meanwhile her two younger siblings are to live with their mother until they turn 15.

While Hala s father was a constant presence in her career in the early years, it is now her mother shadowing her during her comeback trail. During Saturday’s rehearsals, Al Saber came across as a protective yet friendly figure as she watched her daughter working the stage.

In addition to snapping photos and recording videos to upload on Hala ’s social media accounts (to her 3.2m followers on Instagram and 46,000 on Twitter), Al Saber plays the role of gatekeeper with a gentle touch. In one exchange with a teen who requested the possibility of friendship with Hala owing to their “shared interests”, Al Saber told her gently that she’d pass on the message after their numbers were exchanged. “When you are dealing with a teenager, as a mother, it can go up and down. A lot of it is down to self-control and you do bite your lip a few times. When they get to this age, you learn to take it easy. Take things as they come and allow your child to have their space,” she says. “All I can do as a mother is provide guidance and support, and help my child to be aware of the situation. I view that as a big responsibility.”

Al Saber brushes off the suggestion that her life would be very different had her daughter followed her earlier dream of being a dentist rather than a singer. “It is not beneficial to be dwelling on ‘what ifs’ or ‘could haves,’” she says. “I have always been a person who deals with the present and I always tried to teach that to Hala. This is life, we deal with it as it comes.” That said, Al Saber is still a mother and she couldn’t resist planting a big kiss on Hala ’s forehead at the end of rehearsals. “Not here mum,” Hala says with mock embarrassment.

“My mum is my best friend,” she says at the end of practice. “I tell her all my secrets and she is always here with me. She gives me support and I feel better when she is with me, especially now that I am back and performing again.”

Back with a bang

Al Saber was there throughout Hala s performance to a packed crowd of nearly a thousand. The 45-minute show was smooth, with rapper Julian making a surprise appearance during OK Habibi.

Backstage after the show, Hala was all smiles as she high fived her dancers and hugged her friends. “That felt so good,” she beamed. And with that, she was whisked out of the mall with her mother by her side.

The days ahead look to be paved with new music, more live shows and more lessons to be learnt.

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