x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

What the judges of the Arab version of The Voice have to say

We talk to the judges of the new Arab version of The Voice. Contestants on the show will be competing for the prize of a lifetime: a recording contract with Universal Music MENA.

The Voice US's Adam Levine, Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton. Christopher Polk / Getty Images for NBC Universal / AFP
The Voice US's Adam Levine, Christina Aguilera and Blake Shelton. Christopher Polk / Getty Images for NBC Universal / AFP

It is the programme responsible for unleashing new stars from the US, the UK, Europe and Australia and now it has finally arrived in the Middle East.

Premiering on Friday on MBC1, the Arabic version of The Voice enlisted four of the Arab world's biggest music stars to find the competition's inaugural winner.

Speaking from The Voice's Beirut studio, the Iraqi star Kadim Al Sahir, the Egyptian pop queen Sherine, the Tunisian superstar Saber Al Rebai and the Lebanese singer Assi El Helani shed light on why they got involved in the show and what they hope to offer the contestants.

On signing up

In a key twist differentiating The Voice from the likes of Arab Idol or Arabs Got Talent, the musical stars are coaches as opposed to judges.

Whereas celebrities in other talent shows fly in weekly to dispense judgment on each musical performance, The Voice has the coaches mentoring the contestants.

The hands-on approach excited and terrified the Dubai-based Al Sahir. He admits the anxiety leading up to the first day of shooting rendered him a recluse for nearly a month.

"I would worry so much that I wouldn't get out of my house or even drive," he confides.

"The pressure is big because I do want this show to be great."

For Sherine, known for her hits as well as being constant tabloid fodder, it was The Voice's optimism that had her wanting to sign up.

While she promises to be fiercely competitive, Sherine believes The Voice's format is less mean-spirited than rival programmes.

"That was the thing that convinced me to join, actually," she says.

"I like the fact that I don't have to attack or comment on someone's appearance, I just have to focus on their performance."

Al Rebai relishes the thought of fans viewing him from a different angle.

"You will see a new side of [us], something which you won't see on stage," he says.

"But you know what? I also see myself as part of the audience, cheering on the contestants."

Coaching styles

Al Helani, who also got his career start after winning the defunct Art Studio talent show on TV in 1987 as a 17-year-old, plans to be encouraging but surgical in his approach to contestants.

"I will look after them," he promises. "I want to find out their strengths and weaknesses and help them at every stage. They will definitely be pushed."

While the programme relies heavily on singing techniques, Al Rebai - who tours the Middle East and Europe regularly - says he will pay close attention to the contestants' stage performance and presence.

"Sure, as a coach, I will help them pick the right songs, iron out some weaknesses and help them with arrangements. But at the end of the day, I want them to deliver a great performance," he says. "The performance has to feel alive, active and not just static."

Sherine, presently one of the most high-profile female Arab stars, will adopt a down-to-earth approach to quell any nerves from star-struck contestants.

"I will give them all of my knowledge," she says. "I want to show them how to hold themselves when performing and how to project their personality from the stage."

El Saher, who forged his songwriting chops amid war in his homeland of Iraq, says he hopes to share his experiences with the contestants.

"I want to tell them about our generation's history, what we had to go through to get our chances," he explains. "To find real opportunities took us about 10 years of running around from place to place, but this taught us self-reliance and how to have faith in our abilities."

On being competitive

There should be no love lost among the coaches; they are all in it to win.

Sherine has no qualms in making unpopular decisions if it means producing the best results.

"There is no favouritism or nationalism involved in this show," she says. "If there are two contestants, let's say one Egyptian and one Algerian, and one of them had to go, it will be based on their performance solely. At the end of the day, it is an artistic competition."

But in some cases, image does matter, according to Al Rebai. He warns he cannot block out a contestant's physical appearance when it comes to his assessment.

"I may comment about the weight and tell the contestant to become lighter as it would allow him to breathe better and deliver the notes correctly," he says. "I may even consult dieticians and trainers for some contestants if need be."

Al Saher is having none of that, preferring to focus on the sincerity of the performance instead.

"I respectfully disagree with Saber on this point. There are artists who are bigger, bless them, but that is their personal choice," he says.

"What I am looking for is both a great voice and performance because that's what being an artist is all about. That comes with being confident - which I will help them with - because only that will see them through in their journey."

The real winners

The winner may receive a recording contract and instant stardom, but the judges forecast that the programme's effect will ripple through the Arab music industry.

"These shows were not around during my time and they do make a difference," Sherine says.

"The fact that one can perform straight away on stage and have it watched on television, that is an immediate career boost none of us had when we started out."

Al Helani views his fellow judges as team members rather than competitors.

"We are all working together to achieve the best result," he says.

"We all want this programme to be special because it really has a great concept behind it. I think every one can benefit from it."

Al Rebai feels he won already for being put in a position that will allow him to influence the next generation of artists.

"To be there from the beginning and discover the next big star is very satisfying," he says.

Al Saher agrees. "At the end, we are just here to support them. The contestants, they are the real stars of the show."

The format

With over 25 countries producing their own version, the global popularity of The Voice lies in a dynamic format that blends musical performance, competition and reality television.

Stage 1: Blind Auditions

Some aspirants were invited to appear on the programme while others will go through an extra "producers' audition" before performing in front of the judges. In the Blind Auditions, the coaches have their backs turned to the contestant when they are performing, unable to judge the singer's physical appearance or fashion sense. If impressed by the contestant's voice, the judge must press his or her "I Want You" buzzer then turn to face their new team member. If more than one judge presses the buzzer, then it is up to the contestant to decide which judge would be their best fit. The auditions end once 12 members are assigned to each coach's team.

Stage 2: Battle Rounds

Each team of 12 is halved to six, courtesy of the Battle Rounds. Coaches pick two team members for a vocal duel in front of a studio audience, with the best singer advancing to the next round.

Stage 3: Live Shows

The tears and fears are found here. Contestants square off live with a live television audience deciding which contestants remain, while the coaches become judges and are weighed down with the emotional task of giving other proteges their marching orders. Some contestants will be offered a last ditch performance to earn their coach's "save".

Stage 4: The Final

Each coach will have one contestant left, who will then go on to sing an original song before the television audiences' votes will dictate who is crowned The Voice. The winner receives a record deal with Universal Music; there is no cash prize. Semi-finalists will also receive performance contracts with MBC.


Meet the host

It's not only the contestants and coaches feeling the nerves before Friday's premiere.

The Egyptian actor Mohammed Karim is looking forward to his debut performance as host.

He chose to front The Voice in particular, one of many offers extended by Middle Eastern networks, because it required more out of the host than merely introducing coaches and contestants and narrating the action.

"If that was it, then they would have to find another person," he says. "The main thing for me was what it will add to me and what I will add to it."

While he can't reveal any of the opening episode's surprises, he describes his role in the series as being "unusual".

"I put all of my soul into it," he says. "I want to make it a bit crazy and also fiery."

Born in Cairo, Karim spent his high school years studying in Los Angeles, where he caught the acting bug.

"My parents didn't understand it so I had to start from scratch," he says, laughing. "I didn't know anyone, I had to knock on doors and give pictures."

His persistence paid off with initial small parts in Egyptian adverts, eventually making way for starring roles in acclaimed films like Shahat's Store and Stolen Kisses, the latter winning him a best actor award in the Alexandria International Film Festival in 2008.

Karim says he sees his younger self in many of the contestants on The Voice.

"This is why when someone says help me out I just have to because I can feel what they are going through," he says.

Perhaps his biggest contribution to the show is his ability to look on the bright side.

"I think it is important to be an optimist," he says. "I am looking forward to see what's going to happen. I love the challenge and can't wait to see the feedback from the audience."

The Voice will premiere on Friday at 10pm on MBC1.