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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 September 2018

Sharjah World Music Festival: Syrian exile Racha Rizk on how her roots still define her

We catch up with the Syrian singer as well as the Lebanese songstress Ghada Shbeir ahead of their performances in Sharjah

Racha Rizk with the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra in Berlin. AP photo
Racha Rizk with the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra in Berlin. AP photo

Distance and time have shaped the career of Racha Rizk. These two elements have influenced the Syrian singer’s body of work, which spans nearly three decades, and ranges from opera and jazz to rock and children’s television. Those disparate styles will come together when the 41-year-old takes to the Flag Island Amphitheatre stage on Friday at the Sharjah World Music Festival.

Rizk returns to the UAE on the back of her acclaimed solo album Malak; the first she has recorded from her home base of Paris. With six lengthy tracks discussing the societal issues afflicting the Arab world, from politics to family, Rizk was concerned that her geographical vantage point would eschew some of her lyricism.

“You know, as an artist you want to live with the people who appreciate and understand your work, and at the same time you want to learn about the environment as well,” she says. “Now that I have been living in Paris for a few years, I felt scared that on a creative level I may be losing touch with Arab concerns.” Doubts were allayed after the album was critically praised and snapped up by her dedicated followers. Indeed, it was one of the standout Arabic releases of last year.

Rizk incorporated her various styles: the rocking opener Sakru Chababik and the jazz stylings of the lovelorn Yemkenni Jannet recall her work with the Syrian jazz group Itar Shame’h, while the sheer melodrama of the strings-laden title track harkens back to her much-loved work as a vocalist for Arabic-dubbed versions of Japanese animated television series.

Her various influences are a result of a life in flux. Born in Damascus, Rizk began training as a singer as a child and, at the age of 12, won the annual Syrian talent quest Pioneers Children Competition, for the best singer in the country.

After graduating from a music institute in Damascus, Rizk performed nationally with various jazz bands and regionally as part of touring Arabic opera productions. Her burgeoning career at home, however, was cut short when the Syrian civil war forced her to flee in 2012, to Cairo, Beirut and then Paris.

The French capital has been her home for the past four years. Despite the relative safety and freedom there, she still longs for her homeland. “It’s always with you and it’s something you just can’t really ignore or move on from.”

It was for this reason that she joined the Syrian Expat Philharmonic Orchestra as a soprano. Founded in Germany in 2015, the 65-strong ensemble is made up of the large diaspora in Europe displaced by the war. The company tours the continent regularly in configurations ranging from string quartet and chamber, to full-blown orchestra.

She says she was compelled to take part in the initiative to counteract the anti-immigrant sentiment sweeping across Europe at present. “Some of the commentary happening regarding not only Syrians but refugees in general has been concerning and very negative. I see people, politicians and sections of the media saying all these vile things about us, and I wanted to somehow push back against it,” she says.

“This is what the orchestra was created for. It’s not just about showing the great cultural traditions of Syria and the Arab world, but to also show that refugees have a lot to contribute to society with their skills and talent.

“The funny thing is, I also met people whom I didn’t see since the conservatory in Syria, so it was also a great way to reconnect and talk about our time back home and when we were younger.”

Expect that same nostalgia at Rizk’s concert. For Generation Xers, her crystalline vocals soundtracked their childhood through the opening themes and songs from dubbed versions of the popular animation series Captain Majed, Digimon and Remi, Nobody’s Girl.

Make sure you stick around for her encore, which often finds her leading the crowd for a raucous

singalong of these much-loved tunes. With Rizk still lending her talents to the children’s network Spacetoon, she is looking forward to bringing warm vibes to the adults of tomorrow.

That said, she stresses that performing these songs is more than mere child’s play. “They are quite difficult to do. We only get the music and then I co-write the words and melodies. By doing that, I am really learning about this world of music that comes from Japan, with its rock and jazz elements. That helped me as an artist – so it’s a serious endeavour,” she says. “But at the same time, it’s great to see people’s faces just smile and get emotional. To feel like you played a part in bringing happiness to people is something that is just beautiful and that I am grateful for.”

When it comes to Friday’s fellow headliner Ghada Shbeir, she will take the audience even further back. In addition to compositions featuring classical Arabic poetry from great 20th-century writers, such as Lebanon’s Kahlil Gibran and Palestine’s Mahmoud Darwish, the 48-year-old will also perform her own takes of songs by Abdel Halim Hafez – the late Egyptian singer, composer and actor dubbed “the nightingale”.

Renowned for her technical virtuosity, Shbeir says today’s generation of Arab artists has yet to fully reap the fruits of previous generations. “Perhaps it comes down to a lack of focus as we don’t appreciate the rich resources that we already have, whether it’s the poetry or some of the great Arabic maqamat [modes] that we have, such as the one from Iraq,” she says.

“What’s happening now is artists are focusing on western compositions and adding Arabic lyrics or regional music touches. It doesn’t work. It’s like someone walking around wearing clothes that don’t belong to them.”

Ever the educator – Shbeir is professor of traditional Arabic vocalism at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik in Beirut – she explains that the Hafez orchestral compositions in the programme are an example of an Arab artist effortlessly straddling both worlds.

“What he and his peers, like Lebanon’s Assi Rahbani, didn’t do was just play over western music,” she explains. “Instead they studied it well and then blended Arabic music with it so well that it created its own sound. That’s how we know that it worked because the music created is fresh and nothing like we heard before.”

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Read more:

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Farida Mohammed Ali and Lotfi Bouchnak on preserving the heritage of their homelands

The poetic licence of Arab indie scene leader Tania Saleh

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But with more Arab artists emerging from social-media fame and television talent quests, can we expect such an authentic musical approach from future talent? “I think the listener should be given more credit,” she says, optimistically.

“With the internet, they have a wider access to these classic songs and they do listen to them. My students tell me this. This sharpens their ears and taste, and they eventually know when something doesn’t sound genuine.”

Racha Rizk and Ghada Shbeir perform at the Flag Island Amphitheatre on Friday as part of the Sharjah World Music Festival, which ends on Saturday. For more information, go to www.sharjahworldmusicfestival.com

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