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The Boston Phoenix Two Tenors

Wadi' Al-Safi and Sabah Fakhri

By Banning Eyre

APRIL 3, 2000:  When Sting performed with Algerian rai singer Cheb Mami at this year's Grammy Awards, he didn't know that the album they had collaborated on, Brand New Day (A&M/Interscope), was about to win Best Pop Album of the year. But the award played right into the dreams of Sting's manager, Miles Copeland, who foresees a coming boomlet of interest in Arab music among Americans. On March 11, Copeland's record label, Mondo Melodia, co-sponsored and recorded a historic concert, "The Two Tenors of Arabic Music."

Most Americans have never heard of 79-year-old Wadi' Al-Safi, who's known as "the pure voice of Lebanon," or 67-year-old Sabah Fakhri, who's been described to me as "the Frank Sinatra of Syria." Just the same, the concert went on at a Sinatra-scale venue, the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas, and thousands, mostly Arab-Americans, showed up for the six-hour extravaganza in the hotel's Grand Arena. The event was conceived as a fundraiser for the American University of Beirut scholarship fund, but it may turn out to be a watershed moment for Arab music in America.

Diminutive, balding, and jowly, Wadi' Al-Safi generated an impish warmth from the moment he ambled on stage in his charcoal-gray suit. For more than two hours -- the better part of the show's first set -- this unlikely superstar played the audience as masterfully as he played his oud. His Arabic patter evoked belly laughs; his unaccompanied vocal improvisations inspired breathless silence; and when he led his 17-piece ensemble into a familiar refrain, every voice joined him in a harmonious roar. Since the 1940s, Al-Safi has been cherished as a national treasure in Lebanon, the man who immortalized the country's village folklore by bringing it to the city, Beirut, and urbanizing it with lush orchestration -- violins, vocalists, qanun (zither), oud (lute), accordion, ney (flute), cello, bass, and hand-held frame-drum percussion. Al-Safi's deep, strong voice revealed many colors throughout his long set. He traded lead vocals with his daughter-in-law, Siham Al-Safi, who stood at his side and sang with a lustrous, sultry voice reminiscent of Lebanon's greatest living singer, Fairuz. The nostalgic passion this music awakened among the well-heeled fans who had made the pilgrimage to Las Vegas easily rivaled the passions of crowds who come there to see kickboxing, Streisand, or Tina Turner.

The second set was mostly filled with the music of Sabah Fakhri of Aleppo, the northern, second city of Syria. Fakhri also performed for more than two hours. His 19-piece ensemble had essentially the same instrumentation as Al-Safi's, but now the music surged and swelled with what seemed religious fervor. Fakhri demonstrated astounding vocal range as he led his four-man chorus through powerful, chantlike unison passages reminiscent of the late Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan's qawwali high masses. Sometimes, like Khan, Fakhri would peel off into soaring, high harmonies, ratcheting up the spiritual wattage in the arena. The qawwali connection reflects the influence of Sufiism -- mystical Islam -- in both music styles. But whereas qawwali is Sufi music, Fakhri's sound is really a modern expression of old Andalusian forms, music that developed during the centuries when Islamic Moors moved into Spain and Portugal. When the Moors were driven out, Andalusian orchestras took root in North African and Middle Eastern cities, including Aleppo. Fakhri's music is essentially secular, but it plays around religious themes, as in the song that laments the fate of a man distracted from the life of prayer by the beauty of a young woman. The confusion of spiritual and profane love is a pillar of Sufi poetry. That and those ecstatic vocal interactions and Fakhri's raised arms and slow turning dance (reminiscent of the Mevlevi whirling dervishes) are all Sufi holdovers transmuted through the cultural conduit of Andalusian tradition.

Sabah Fakhri holds a Guinness-confirmed world record for the longest nonstop vocal performance -- 10 hours. So when he reluctantly quit the stage, sometime after 2 a.m., he had barely warmed up. But the audience had experienced a marathon. The first set featured colorful folk dances from the Adam Basma Middle Eastern Dance Company, and both sets included spectacular music from Simon Shaheen and his group Qantara. Shaheen, a US-based Lebanese virtuoso of the violin and the oud, was the musical director both for the Sting and Cheb Mami performances at the Grammys and for the Two Tenors concert. His electrifying oud solo at the beginning of the second set was the instrumental high point of the Las Vegas show.

The American University of Beirut certainly fared better in Vegas than the average gambling tourist. But the more telling measure of this event's significance will be told in the fate of Mondo Melodia's CD release of the Two Tenors concert. Today, the music of Wadi' Al-Safi and Sabah Fakhri is found only in specialty stores. Can these two warhorses do for Arab music what the Buena Vista Social Club did for Cuban pop? Even Miles Copeland probably doesn't dare dream that big, but there's no doubt that music of this depth and beauty will surprise uninitiated listeners.

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