Tracking the rhythms of life
It is a social- media debate that has been simmering for weeks. Ever since its release in April, the origin of Nawal Al Zoghbi’s latest single, Tewellaa, has been a subject of much discussion. The syncopated rhythms point to the Gulf, the strings are positively Oriental and the lush singing accent can be placed firmly in the Levant. Despite all that, there is no distinguishing feature pointing to a specific country. The accompanying video, which has more than 2 million views on YouTube, is also maddeningly eclectic – the 44-yearold Al Zoghbi dons a red traditional Gulf dress while dancing the tango with a Mediterraneanlooking gentleman.
Speaking at the recently concluded Mawazine festival in Morocco, the Lebanese pop star lays the speculation to rest.
“The song is part- Emirati, actually,” she reveals. Perhaps in response to my puzzled look, she adds: “It is sung in an Iraqi dialect and its music is Emirati. I liked the song for its feeling and simplicity, and for the merge it creates between these two countries.”
Al Zoghbi says the video is also a nod to the UAE.
“I have always liked to shoot an Emirati song wearing the Emirati burqa,” she says. “I wanted to present something new. The idea behind the song is not complicated – it is more about glamour, looks, beauty shops, plus some tango.”
While the local character of the song and video is somewhat debatable, it has heralded a flurry of recent activity by Al Zoghbi, which includes singing the theme songs for two television dramas that were broadcast during Ramadan.
The tracks reflect some of the different styles that have allowed Al Zoghbi to maintain her enduring top-tier position in the industry. For the Egyptian drama Li Aa’la Se’er, the production of the theme song is intimate, as Al Zoghbi’s husky vocals convey the show’s signature melancholy atmosphere over a mostly skeletal piano.
For the lighthearted Lebanese romantic drama Caramel, we hear Al Zoghbi play the pop star on a jaunty track that has taken on a second life beyond the show on Arab pop radio. The songs mark Al Zoghbi’s entry into the Ramadan television market – a coveted industry slot because of the large audiences and binge-watching habits of viewers during the holy month.
For someone normally at the forefront of the latest music trends – she was arguably the first Lebanese pop star to sing in the Moroccan dialect and the Algerian folk style, with 2012’s Habib Dyali and 2000’ s Bledi respectively – she admits she was late in understanding the importance of the Ramadan market.
“It is all a new experience for me,” she says. “I used to decline such offers as I thought they did not add much to an artist’s career. But now things have changed. I feel that competition is good during Ramadan, especially in such big works.”
Al Zoghbi goes on to strip away the veneer of comradeship within the Arab pop industry – the whole thing is one big competition, she says.
Her recent awakening to such a view allowed her to recognise some of the major miscalculations she made during her three-decade career – the biggest of which was turning down career-defining opportunities, including the chance to be a judge on an unnamed television talent show about five years ago. “A mistake on my part,” she says. “Not many people know this but I was among the first artists offered to be part of the judging panel of an Arab talent show, but I declined. I just did not feel right to give my opinion about the talents – but now I regret not signing on.”
It seems strange such decisions still rankle, given her success. But Al Zoghbi is hardening up when it comes to career The idea behind the song is not complicated – it is more about glamour, looks, beauty shops, plus some tango Nawal Al Zoghbi singer goals. She talks of “my plan” and decisions with the cool precision of a business executive. Her next big project is an online reality-TV series following her in her daily life. Al Zoghbi cautions that it will offer fewer personal moments than the western standard Keeping Up with the Kardashians. The weekly episodes will mostly focus on her professional life and rarely delve into the personal, so don’t expect to see a lot of footage of her twin sons, she says. It is not that she did not try to get them involved – she says her children simply were not interested.
“I am one of those people who would love the fans to join me in my social life but in some cases there are a few red lines and that concerns my family, particularly my children,” she says.
“When you’ve got children you have to be aware of their feelings. Now I have twin boys and they simply don’t like their photos being taken, even if it’s a personal one with me. They don’t like cameras or being fussed over. That’s their personalities and I will respect that.”
Lebanese singer Nawal Al Zoghbi performs at this year’s Mawazine festival in Morocco.
Nawal Al Zoghbi describes her latest song as ‘half-Emirati’.