The angel in her voice
She is said to have the voice of an angel, and indeed she does. Rania Khallaf
attended a musical night with singer Lena Chamamyan
This week saw the second musical night held by the Mawred Al-Thaqafi organisation at the Genena Theatre in Al-Azhar Park. The annual Hayy festival is a rare opportunity for Egyptians to get to know different singers and musicians from around the world.
On Saturday, it was the second concert by the distinguished Syrian-Armenian singer Lena Chamamyan, a rare break from the usual tradition by the Mawred.
An hour before the concert was due to start, the mostly young and well-educated audience began to hurry to buy their tickets. At 9.30pm sharp, the concert began. Chamamyan looked spectacular in a full-length white dress with a gold sash tied around it. The saxophone player and distributor Bassel Raggoub added a romantic twist to the night. His improvisation in the opening was a perfect welcome to the world of music.
Chamamyan began with one of her best songs, Ya mahla al-fos'ha ya eini ala Ras Al-Barr (Oh, how nice it is to take a tour around the coast of Ras Al-Barr).
Born in Damascus in 1969 to an Armenian father and a Syrian mother, Chamamyan held her first concert when she was only five years old. "It was at my school, but it was a great event to me. My parents used to support me a great deal. They used to give me records as birthday gifts," she says, smiling broadly.
From early on she was open to different currents of music, "I used to learn singing in the Armenian way in church," she says. "And then we had different ways of azan [the call for prayers] in surrounded mosques, in addition to listening to excerpts of the Quran, and to classical Arab singing."
While studying commerce Chamamyan became involved in amateur singing. Shortly after she graduated, she joined the Higher Institute for Music in Damascus, where she studied for another four years.
Chamamyan is considered a distinguished member of a new generation of female singers that includes Rima Chechich from Lebanon, Soad Massi from Algeria, and Kamilia Joubran from Palestine. All these have, in one way or another, adopted the genre of world music, which in short combines old regional music with modern music such as jazz and pop.
Chamamyan attributes the rise of a new generation of female singers to the new era of Internet technology and the new cultural policies that have recently been applied in several Arab countries, as well as the international prizes awarded to world singers. However, she complains that Syria lacks a powerful cultural body to organise music festivals or exchange programmes.
"Now that about 50 series are being produced yearly, Syrian television drama has taken the biggest portion of the cake," she says. "It has flourished at the expense of musical and theatrical ventures."
Her musical character is a complex of Armenian, oriental, soft pop and opera music, a mix that depends on expressing feelings and giving more space to the rise of the voice rather than musical instruments.
"It is the first time for me to perform two nights running in the same place. It makes me so thrilled," she says. "It is really great to connect to a bigger number of Egyptian audience each year."
The concert's programme included some of her popular songs, especially from her first album Hal Asmar Elloun (That Black man) that was released in 2006, as well as other songs such as Ya mesafra fil bahr gay awada'aek (Hey, sea- traveller, I just came to say good-bye) and Oly ya ghannam, (Tell me, Shepherd), a popular Syrian song, in addition to other Syrian wedding songs. She also sang a Kurdish song called Ya Dalhu (O' my heart). And then she called upon the audience to sing along with her an Armenian song, "Who amongst you does not know how to speak Armenian?" she joked.
The second album Chamamyan has put out, Shamat, released in 2007, includes some songs she has written herself such as Sha'am, a song that, although sounds like an operatic aria, was warmly acclaimed by the Genena theatre audience.
Chamamyan is busy preparing for a radio programme on world music. The show is called Dawzana, which means in the Syrian dialect the state when the members of a musical band tune up their instruments on stage before the start of a concert. The programme will shortly be aired on the Syrian Al-Ghad radio. "I think many young people need to understand more about music and especially new trends in world music, and this is the programme's objective," she says.
Chamamyan's schedule is crowded. It includes a concert in September in Amsterdam, where she will perform with a German guitarist.
Chamamyan concluded her concert with a popular song by Sayed Darwish and a few words: "Unlike most singers who start their careers in their home country and come to Egypt to prove their success, my start was here in Egypt, the first country that really encouraged me to hold concerts, so thank you all, and I love you," she said with a sweet smile to her adoring fans.