x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Sounds for the season - in Arabic

In his latest Christmas album, the Lebanese musician Jean-Marie Riachi reinvents classic holiday songs with a Levantine twist.

The Lebanese composer Jean-Marie Riachi. Courtesy of Jean-Marie Riachi
The Lebanese composer Jean-Marie Riachi. Courtesy of Jean-Marie Riachi

The award-winning Lebanese composer Jean-Marie Riachi is no stranger to playing with tradition. In 2010, his album Belaaks, which gave jazz songs oriental arrangements and turned old Arabic songs jazzy, became a regional bestseller. Now, his latest album Castana: Cozy Christmas Carols reinvents classic holiday songs with a Levantine twist, in Arabic and English.

Why release a Christmas carol album in Arabic?

It's been a very long time since anyone has done these songs. There are religious songs being released but most are to be sung in the church and don't have the Christmas mood to them. I decided it was about time.

What was your inspiration for re-envisioning Christmas classics with Arabic instruments?

This is my style - a fusion of jazz bands with oriental instruments. I brought in three French musicians to play the upright bass and drums and added the oriental harp and violin but tuned it differently. And I added a lot of oriental percussion.

The lyrics are well known in English already but in the instrumentation it's really different to have the harp playing in place of the guitar.

I love the fusion that comes with a traditional flavour. The acoustic sounds mean more to me than electric. Electric is fashionable but it's not a music that can last. When we do a Christmas album, it isn't club music. I want people to be able to listen to it after 20 years and find that it still has value.

Young artists such as Yara and Lara Scandar as well as some lesser-known singers appeared on the album. What made these singers the right fit for Castana?

This is a really spontaneous album. It was not a planned product. We were working in the studio on Yara's album and I got the idea. I told her: "I'm planning to do a real live band playing Christmas mood music. What do you think?" and she said she was happy to join.

Then I called a few friends who perform in my piano bar [Rose] in Beirut. I'm so happy with the results. I'm happy to hear a simple, light album from time to time, especially at Christmas. You need a light mood.

Marc Reaidy, who sings Ya Talj Nzal with Christina Haddad, has an amazing voice and Christina has a Tina Turner-like timbre in her voice but can sing in French. They aren't famous but they are amazing. Everybody needs a new window and now Christina is part of a project with well-known artists, so it's a big plus for them.

The album has been the No 1 seller at Virgin Megastore in Beirut for three weeks. Why do you think people like it so much?

People are excited because they need new Christmas music that's different. All the songs are known but it's new versions. The most known one I did is Jingle Bells. There are 100,000 versions out there, but I did one as an instrumental.

This album isn't just for Christians. It's a mood album. There's a love song, a family song, a song about Beirut (to the tune of Santa Claus is Coming to Town) and that's the reason it's successful: because it's for everybody. It makes you live the spirit of the month. In December, everywhere you go throughout Beirut you see Christmas decorations, not only in the Christian parts. I wanted the album to capture that feeling.