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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

How Tunisian artist Mahdi Baccouch found success through singing in Lebanese dialect

From singing in cafes and at weddings to a record deal of his own, Baccouch tells us about his musical journey

Mahdi Baccouch moved to the UAE from Tunisia five years ago to further his career, and has signed with Universal Music Mena. Courtesy Luna Photography
Mahdi Baccouch moved to the UAE from Tunisia five years ago to further his career, and has signed with Universal Music Mena. Courtesy Luna Photography

He was once that pleasant voice in the background, but now Mahdi Baccouch is front and centre.

After years spent honing his craft in his native Tunisia and across the UAE in cafes, restaurants and at weddings, Baccouch finally achieved his career dream when he was signed to Dubai-based record label Universal Music Mena.

The long-awaited record deal meant a total career revamp – the suits of old were cast aside in favour of a more slick youthful get-up; the free gigs in Dubai cafes were over, replaced with full-blooded concerts with a backing band; and wedding appearances now only undertaken by special request.

And then there’s the music video which Baccouch shot on a lavish yacht on Dubai Marina for his latest single Bethadaki.

“Yeah, this is certainly a change, but a good one,” the singing talent says from his base in Dubai. “Shooting that video was an interesting experience because you are performing in a way and the weather was very hot. But it was fine as the song kind of suits it.”

Bethadaki is tuneful and breezy enough to be the soundtrack for a summer day out. Baccouch’s sweet and mellow voice sails over a sea of strings and oriental instrumentation backed with dance music beats. It is tailor-made for radio with a selection of regional stations already placing it on their regular rotations.

The distinct feature about the track is only known to those who know Baccouch personally though. The smooth, elongated Lebanese dialect of Arabic noticeable in Bethadaki is a far cry from the singer’s everyday Tunisian accent.

It makes the track even more ­impressive as his Lebanese impression is so pitch-perfect that radio stations across Lebanon are also playing the track.

Baccouch doesn’t feel it is disingenuous considering that most of his fans are aware of his background. He believes the Lebanese dialect is an instrument in its own right. “It is especially suited for love songs,” he explains.

“There is a warmth to the Lebanese dialect. It is soft, sweet and very affectionate. I grew up loving the songs of [veteran Lebanese artists] Fayrouz, Elissa and Wael Kfoury. So when I sing in that kind of style, I just feel that language is the best to get the songs across.”

UAE a land of opportunity

That considered approach to his craft comes from his studies of music composition. Born in Tunisia, Baccouch attended the capital city’s music conservatory in addition to fronting his own band – one that performed traditional folk and pop covers. He was a regular visitor to Dubai as his father was working there until he moved there five years ago to further his career.

I ask if that move was a rather brave decision considering the region lacks the gigging opportunities that Cairo or Beirut offer.

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That depends on what you are looking for, he replies. “You have to understand that in Tunis, where you can play live, there is no real music production companies or major labels,” he explains. “I mean, I didn’t come to the UAE to just sing in restaurants or parties, but to be close to these major companies who will hopefully see what I can offer.”

More new material on the way

While the live gigs were helpful in making ends meet, it was a Mother’s Day single that eventually gave him his big break. Released online in 2016, the original track Ommi Ya Malaki (My Mother, My Angel) that was sung in Lebanese, was an immediate hit – it was its social media appeal that attracted the attention of the suits at Universal Music Mena.

Baccouch has signed a six-song deal with the label and plans to demonstrate his versatility with follow-up tunes that will include Egyptian pop songs, ballads, and of course more Lebanese love songs.

And they will all have a UAE flavour with the artist planning to continue to maintain his base in Dubai.

“I mean, everyone knows about ­Lebanon and its music, for example, but what the UAE offers is different,” he tells me. “There are so many talented people here from the Arab world – people from Lebanon, Morocco and Egypt who work in the arts – so I feel that I am getting the best of many worlds.”