Keen to dust off some of Om Kalthoum’s vast repertoire, the Tunisian singer Ghalia Benali has chosen to rework some of the Egyptian legend’s songs on her new album Ghalia Benali sings Om Kalthoum. The result is an update full of affection and respect.
Some called her “the fourth pyramid”, for others she was “Star of the East”. The nicknames given to Om Kalthoum all testify to the fact that the Egyptian diva, whose life spanned most of the 20th century, occupies a special place in Arabic music, which she took way beyond the Mashreq and the Maghreb.
“We used to listen to it all the time at home. Her photo was in my parents’ bedroom. I felt like I knew her very well,” recounted Ghalia Benali, who has been living in Belgium for twenty years. Inspiration, perhaps, for the almost homely way that she has chosen to approach the work of the woman she refers to as her “grandmother”.
This tribute album is not “an end in itself” but rather “a real need to go back to basics”. To help her keep the right distance from the original versions, played with a big orchestra, she worked with a trio of musicians (oud, percussion and bass) and sought to put more emphasis on emotion than strength.
In the studio, the team had to let go of their apprehension, forget that they were dealing with a monument and let the music take over without trying to control it. Not such a simple task. “When a westerner enters Om Kalthoum’s world, he comes up against a wall. How do you tackle such a complex world?” sums up bass player Vincent Noiret in the CD booklet.
Ghalia started by selecting a few songs that she particularly liked, such as Al Atlal, which she’s known since she was four. Initially one hour long, the song was cut down to just 22 minutes. On Biridhak ya Khaligui, she simply introduced the track to the oud player by singing it to him and then got up in front of the microphone. Which is a good way of avoiding the often-tempting trap of imitation.
Ghalia Benali Ghalia Benali sings Om Kalthoum (Music & Words/Codaex) 2010
Translation : Anne-Marie Harper