Thursday,15 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1399, (28 June - 4 July 2018)
Thursday,15 November, 2018
Issue 1399, (28 June - 4 July 2018)

Ahram Weekly

The Tunisian connection

Rania Khallaf found Ghalia Benali’s performance at the Cairo Opera House open-air theatre during the last week of Ramadan extraordinary

The Tunisian connection
The Tunisian connection

Unlike most Arab woman singers, the Tunisian performer Ghalia Benali blends singing, recitation and dancing in a unique format on stage. With her trademark curly hair, in a traditional blue dress adorned with gold, Benali opened with a selection of lines from Umm Kolthoum’s songs in Niazi Mustafa’s Rabia Al-Adawiya (1963), written by Taher Abu Fasha. Infusing the performance with an improvisational verve and varying her delivery from hoarse to feminine and from a bang to a whimper, Benali – accompanied by violin and tabla – appeared like a gypsy with magic powers. 

Born in Brussels in 1968, Benali moved with her Tunisian family to Zarzis in southern Tunisia when she was five years old. At the age of 21 she returned to Belgium, where she completed her studies in graphic design at the Institute Saint-Luc and launched her career as a singer, attracting a unique audience spanning Europe and the Arab world. A painter and writer as well as singer-songwriter-composer, Benali can be seen as part of the Nineties Generation, that unprecedented wave of free expression, new cultural philosophies and concepts in Egypt and the Arab world. 

Among her early influences was the Quranic reciter Abdel-Basit Abdel-Samad, and she was nicknamed Umm Kolthoum’s Granddaughter due to her strong polymorphic voice, enunciation ability and affinity with classical Arabic. Despite the language barrier, her 2008 album Ghalia Benali sings Umm Kolthoum was a great success in Europe. Her discography also includes Romeo and Leila (2003), Al Palna and Indian Hadra (2008) and, most recently, MwSoul (2017), which is also the name of the art foundation she has recently established. Benali connects her roots in Arabic music with contemporary techniques and world fusions, making everything her own. 

To a full house at the Opera, she performed not only Umm Kolthoum and her own compositions (including Al-Hubb Abqa, a love poem by a Syrian refugee) but also Sufi poetry, notably Ibn Al-Farid’s Qalbi yuhadithuni, and such Egyptian classics as the Egyptian Mohamed Abdel-Wahab’s Ya mssafer wahdak (You who are travelling alone) and the Tunisian Hédi Jouini’s Lamouni elli gharou menni. One surprising variation was a song by Gamalat Shiha, the recently deceased Egyptian folk singer, of whom she spoke lovingly.

The longest song in the two-hour concert was dedicated to Salah Jahin, the legendary vernacular poet. Benali brilliantly performed over ten of Jahin’s famous Quartets in a heartfelt tone, singing to the accompaniment of qanun and drums. The concert ended with a du’aa (or prayer) to mark the end of Ramadan and the beginning of Eid. Her voice recalled the all but taboo tradition of female Quranic recitation, practised not only by Umm Kolthoum but by such legendary figures as Karima Al-Adiliya. This in itself was a great achievement.

add comment

  
 
 
  • follow us on