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Reem Talhami in Cairo: On love, politics, and other addictions

Reem Talhami, the Palestinian singer best known for her independent album "Ashiqa" (A lover), released in the early 2000s, owned the stage at Genaina Theater last Saturday. Talhami is one of six prominent Arab women artists invited by al-Mawred al-Thaqafy to perform as part of their Hay program for Ramadan.

As the lights dimmed and the oud player started to tickle his strings, Talhami stood in the spotlight, singing about love, motherhood, and politics, in an honest way, not fearful of addressing taboos.

With her sweet smile and Shami (Levantine) accent, Talhami managed to capture the crowd’s attention, asking them to join her in singing her rendition of the famous Fairouz song “Be’olo Saghier Baladi” (They Say My Country is Too Small). With her powerful voice, she mesmerized the audience.

Although the song is one of Lebanon’s most famous and intimate tracks, Talhami, who has been performing for twenty years, brought her own style to the melody, letting the audience see it in a different light.

“When I was young, I was majorly influenced by Fairouz and the Lebanese musical culture,” said the Palestinian singer. “However, I had to hide my knowledge of Arabic music in a small safety box during my years in the Music Academia in Jerusalem, in order to concentrate on the classical and Western style of music.”

But Talhami never forgot about that safety box. After five years at the Academia, the singer decided that she needed to integrate her classical studies with the traditional Eastern style of music she had always loved. This remarkable musical marriage was witnessed by her audience on Saturday.

Her second song “Wahed Faqeer al-Hall” (Some Poor Soul) is an example of Talhami’s ability to find a medium between musical genres, switching from the tarab voice to a Western operatic tone. Habeeb Shehatta, her composer and oud player, helped with this mixture by playing snappy jazz tunes on an Arabian buzuq.

“I believe that my voice has multiple sides to it,” said the singer, who refuses to label her voice as “operatic,” adding, “I can mix hip modern Arabic music with classical opera influences and come up with something entirely different and unique. I don’t want to use my voice to sing the same old tunes.”

“Saker A’Halak Bab” (Lock Yourself Behind a Door), Talhami’s third song of the night, was written by her husband, Kamal al-Basha. She explained that “Although the song might sound like a sad ballad, it is more of a cry for you to take a deeper look into your own self and your own life.” During the song, Talhami managed to deeply impact the audience with her stage presence and beautiful lyrics.

Soon, Talhami returned to the Fairouz blues. She start singing “Eshar” (Stay Up All Night), but instead of the original slow song, her band added a beautiful cha-cha-cha beat to it, balancing the song and adding a cheerful feel. “You need, as a player, to know how to join a singer and help them deliver the song rightfully without affecting your own place as an instrumental player in the song,” said Shehatta. The song, indeed, managed to blend together the efforts of the singer and the musicians.

“I prepared something Egyptian for you tonight,” said Talhami, as she adjusted her mic. Her band started to play what at first seemed to be an unrecognizable song, but which suddenly revealed itself to be Sayyed Darwish’s “Shed al-Hezzam” (Tighten Your Belt). This realization prompted some audience members to stand up and sing along with Talhami, whose rendition of the beloved tune was beautiful.

Then came the highlight of the night. Talhami stood in the shadows with the light focused on her and started singing a traditional Palestinian song called “Haneeni Yama” (Apply Henna On My Hands, Mother). The song tells the story of a loved one going to war days before he and the song’s protagonist were to be married. It is a moving song of love, loss, and nostalgia. Talhami shed a tear, but went on without hesitation to the next song, “Ya’lo”  (Flying High).

“What is the message I aim to deliver,” she asked. “Is it just entertainment, or is there something I would like to say to the people listening to me?” Talhami indeed delivered a sad message, but the audience couldn’t help but accept her meaning, however painful.

“All singers talk about love,” says Shehetta. “But can we try to understand love from other aspects? Understand it in a different, nontraditional way?”

After the unpredicted dose of sorrow, Talhami decided to bring Palestinian traditions to the heart of Cairo with a number of wedding songs which left a smile on the faces of the Palestinian-Egyptians in attendance.

“The right to go back to your own house on your own street in Palestine is a right that will never be neglected,” said Talhami to cheers from the audience, before singing “Rajeoun” (We Are Heading Back), finishing her set. The audience, however, would not let her go, calling for one more performance of “Ya’lo.”

As they left, people discussed the genre of the songs they just heard, trying to define them. But that might be a meaningless endeavor. “When you hear me sing, you are hearing the truth behind each song,” said Reem. “And if you decide to label it jazz, opera, or Eastern, it is up to you.”

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