Track­ing the rhythms of life

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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.”

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Pho­tos by Youness Hamid­dine

Le­banese singer Nawal Al Zoghbi per­forms at this year’s Mawazine fes­ti­val in Morocco.

Nawal Al Zoghbi de­scribes her lat­est song as ‘half-Emi­rati’.

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