The Arab world has an unlikely new star: an American who sings,but barely speaks,Arabic. Not only that,her genre is traditional Arab music.
Plucking her oud,an Arabic version of the lute,and singing with the undulating emotion of Umm Kulthum,the Arab worlds legendary diva,23-year-old Jennifer Grout has become a sensation across the Middle East as a contestant on the reality show Arabs Got Talent.
She finished runners-up,competing for viewer votes against an array of Arab performers,many of whom would be at home on a Western stage: comedians,hip-hop dancers. The only performer of classical Arab music will be an American of European stock.
Grouts success has inspired intense discussion in the Arab world. Since her first appearance on the show,in June,she has earned fans,sceptics and critics.
Her abilities are undeniable. You dont speak a word of Arabic,yet you sing better than some Arab singers, said Najwa Karam,a popular Lebanese singer who was part of the panel that judged Grout’s performance. We have for so long imitated the West,and this is the first time that a person who has no link whatsoever to the Arab world,an American girl who does not speak Arabic,sings Arabic songs. Karam later faced a barrage of criticism for supporting an American as a finalist for the show,which ordinarily includes only Arabs.
So many times Ive heard the comment Its Arabs Got Talent go back to America, Grout said in an interview from Marrakesh,Morocco,where she lives. Its like Im starting an invasion,when really I just love singing Arabic music and desperately wanted a chance to perform it for an audience that would appreciate it.
Her flair has also incited a wave of incredulity about her ethnicity: Grout,who is from Cambridge,Massachusetts,describes her background as English,Scottish and Native American.
The daughter of a pianist and a violinist,Grout began studying music at five. She picked up classical Arab music in 2010 as an undergraduate music major at McGill University in Montreal,when she discovered an article on the web about the Lebanese singer Fairouz. I listened to her voice online and fell in love with it, she said. I started to listen to other Arab musicians,and then I had an oud made for me in Syria. Soon she was performing at a Syrian restaurant in Montreal.
Classical Arab music competes with the ascendance of Western-style pop among younger generations of Arabs. She is focusing on a repertoire that is becoming lost among the youth of the Arab world, said Amir ElSaffar,an Iraqi-American musician and a curator at Alwan for the Arts,a Middle Eastern cultural center in New York. Umm Kulthum,Fairouz,Asmahan and others,while they are familiar since they are still ubiquitous in taxicabs,local shops and television programs,generally do not resonate with the young generation in the same way some rappers or modern pop singers do,who are talking about issues like love and politics in a way that is more pertinent to our times.
The nuances of Arab music can be difficult for foreign ears to perceive. Western classical music is based on harmony,and the melody is restricted, said Simon Shaheen,a Palestinian oud virtuoso and professor at Berklee School of Music in Boston. Whereas,in Arabic music,the system is based on rich melody that depends on microtonality,or the sounds that fall between the white and black on the piano.
Shaheen worked with Grout at an Arabic music retreat in 2011. She can reproduce the microtones that are so important to Arab music, he said. She reproduces the Arabic words,including the vowels,very nicely.
Grout is measured about her success on the television show. Arabic music is a love that will stay with me for the rest of my life, she said. It doesn’t end with a talent show. Its a challenge that takes a whole life to master.