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Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 15 November 2018

Emirati love songs discuss matters of the heart in the classy way

How the music and lyrics accompanying romantic Emirati tunes transcend the words ‘I love you’

One of the defining hallmarks of Emirati love songs include that the lyrics are well thought through and full of metaphors.
One of the defining hallmarks of Emirati love songs include that the lyrics are well thought through and full of metaphors.

If you have lived in the UAE for some time, you would be forgiven for assuming that the only local aspect of the annual Valentine’s Day weekend is the ludicrously elaborate hotel packages on offer – ranging from helicopter rides to string quartets playing the soundtrack to a romantic meal.

If you visited the malls this week, your ears would have been assaulted with so many cheesy western ballads, but you would be right in thinking the love song also plays a part in Emirati culture.

Fortunately, the Emirati love ballad is in rude health at the moment – and it can and has been done with more class.

There hasn’t been a weekend lately when my regular winter stroll down the Abu Dhabi Corniche hasn’t in part been accompanied by the bluesy oud tones of Shafaqat Bareq Lelah pumping out of the speakers of cars driven by young Emiratis.

The track – released by the enigmatic local music icon Mehad Hamad – is a bewitching blend of traditional folk and blues, and the mystery is augmented by the grizzled vocals of the popular 54-year-old singer from Sharjah.

In typical Mehad fashion, the track has several meanings. Friends of mine have suggested it is a vignette of historical desert life in the UAE. I have always viewed it as a love letter to love itself.

When Mehad discusses Shafaqat Barq Lelah, which is loosely translated as “blistering lightning”, he is discussing being struck by Cupid’s arrow and how love “is the medicine for the wounded” and how “it is a house enshrined in light”.

Released four years ago as part of the album Ma Tardini Hudud (I Don’t Have Limits), the normally low-key Hamad allowed me a rare interview to discuss the project. To be honest, it wasn’t an illuminating as I had hoped – Hamad is not one to explain the finer details of his work.

Perhaps sensing my helpless look, he gave me this morsel of insight: “The words come first. These songs, I work really hard on what I want to say to the people. The music part is easy once I know what I want to say.”

That is one of the defining hallmarks of Emirati love songs. The lyrics are well thought through and full of metaphors. There is rarely any of the throwaway and soapy lyricism associated with its regional and western counterparts. Writing and singing about emotions have always been considered a serious endeavour and given due respect. There is no greater example of that than the song In Hawaituna (roughly translated to If You Love Us) that’s sung by Emirati pop king Hussain Al Jassmi using lyrics written by none other than

the country’s Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed.

“It’s a song that does mean a lot to us still today,” Emirati singer-songwriter Omar Al Marzooqi tells me.

“The lyrics here are important, Sheikh Zayed wrote words that say: ‘If you love us, we will love you, we will miss you and we cannot stay too long without you’. It has different levels of course, a general love and a love for the country itself.”

Not every Emirati love song operates on such lofty ideals. They are also a useful avenue to discuss some of the topics affecting the current generation. And, when it comes to the matters of the heart, young Emirati guys – like most of us men – are finding this romance business tough stuff.

Marzooqi’s star is on the rise on account of his brilliantly catchy single Jan Jonouni (You Are Making Me Crazy), which has already clocked up more than a million views on YouTube since its release in late 2016.

He joins fellow Emirati singer Aidah Al Manhaly, who last year released his popular single Mitsaweh. He views love as craze-inducing.

Where the latter discusses the ways love made Al Manhaly lose his bearings and perspective, Al Marzooqi is more direct, saying the love interest in question in Jan Jonouni has made him lose his marbles.

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“This is not based on my personal situation,” he says, chuckling. “But it was born out of many conversations I have had with friends and the experiences of young Emiratis who felt this way when they felt love

for someone.”

This mix of socially aware lyricism and sturdy rhythms will largely preserve Emirati romantic tunes from falling into shopping mall muzak.

These tunes also provide a useful reminder that love shouldn’t be celebrated just one day a year. Instead, it should be acknowledged for its daily gifts of insight, even if it does drives you around the twist at times.