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Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 15 October 2018

Mawazine 2018: Marwan Khoury on showcasing the depths of Arabic music's history

Singer, composer, TV star – and now he’s writing a musical. We meet the indefatigable Marwan Khoury

Marwan Khoury at the Mawazine Festival in Morocco. Courtesy of Wahid Marawan
Marwan Khoury at the Mawazine Festival in Morocco. Courtesy of Wahid Marawan

You can hear Marwan Khoury’s influence everywhere. The veteran Lebanese singer and composer’s touch is evident in the many Arab radio staples he wrote over the past two decades for the likes of Carol Samaha (Itla’ Fiyee), Nawal Zoghby (Tia), Majida Al Roumi (Ahibak Jiddan) and the Lebanese diva Elissa, including Bitmoun.

There is also his string of lovelorn songs commissioned for the opening credits for television dramas such as the Ramadan favourites Cello, Mesh Anna and 24 Karat.

Then of course, we come to Khoury’s own catalogue of hits which includes the rich balladry of Ya Shoq, Kel El Qasayed and Khedni Ma’ak.

Working on a popular musical

With his legacy virtually sealed when it comes to Arabic popular music, Khoury says that his creative fires are still burning bright.

He is now undertaking his most ambitious project yet.

“I am working on a musical,” he reveals at the Mawazine Festival in Rabat, Morocco. “This in a way is my final hope when it comes to my career.”

Pressed for further details of the Arabic adaption, he says that “it is a popular musical known internationally. So I am currently working on writing the songs and compositions. This is still early in the process, but it is exciting for me.”

The project is part of a creatively fertile period for the 50 year old musician, who also found personal success on the small screen. One of the surprises last year was his acclaimed music television series Tarab.

Broadcast on the London-based Al Araby network, the interview series acts a sonic travelogue through Arabic music’s rich history.

As the host, each episode has Khoury sitting down with a leading music personality as they break down the characteristics of different genres, ranging from the classic sounds of Egyptian crooners Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Umm Kulthum to the more niche fields of Moroccan folk.

Learning from the greats

It was a labour of love, Khoury says, as he confirms that a second season of the show is due to begin production next month.

“It is one of the best things I have ever done. I wanted to show people the depth of Arabic music history. The show was useful for me as well, because by studying the greats I learned new things that I can use for my own career. When you talk about the great singers of our time, you can’t help but learn new things.”

But more than instilling a sense of pride within Arab audiences, Khoury says part of the show’s goal was to also educate a new generation of aspiring singers.

“That was part of it and we wanted to show that raw talent is simply not enough,” he says. “While that is something we can’t ignore, talent needs to be supported by learning about your craft and giving it its due. During the show I studied not only the way Abdel Wahab sang – who is one of my greatest inspirations – but the calm and considered way he behaved off the stage. This helped me personally, and I wanted to share that with the viewers.”

Music is for everyone

The success of Tarab has certainly rejuvenated Khoury. His strong show on Saturday night, as part of the Mawazine Festival, was peppered with anecdotes on the songwriting process as he performed a set of his personal hits and those he created for others.

When it comes to writing for others, Khoury – who studied music composition in university in Lebanon – says the process is not so clear cut.

“Well, I am always writing and doing something. Sometimes I would do a piece and I realised that it suits a particular person. Then I am asked to write a song specifically for someone, and in that case, it’s not even like writing. I look at the process at that stage as something quite similar to drawing.”

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But not everyone appreciates people taking on the work of other talent. While not providing names, Khoury says there are certain peers who don’t like the idea of artists veering out of their zone.

“There is a sensitivity about fellow artists covering other people’s songs. They can get very protective about their music,” he says.

“The way that I look at it, the song comes from the composer and then it goes to the singer and then it belongs to the people.

“So when I sing a song, let’s say by Carol Samaha, whom I love, I look at it as you are getting two gifts in one. But ultimately, it is just a celebration of art and that is something that should be enjoyed by everyone.”

Check out Arts & Culture for all the latest news and interviews from The Mawazine Festival in Morocco. The festival continues until June 30