Sunday, December 10, 2006

Love Will Show the Way

I hadn’t listened to Demis Roussos for more than two decades when suddenly he appeared on my musical radar, with his warm warbling voice and endless sappy crooning about summer sea breezes, lovely maidens, and his friend the wind. Roussos’ whole aesthetic is unbelievably, unapologetically kitschy, his love songs being the equivalent of those posters of cute kittens and dewy roses that also hail from the atrocious 1970s. This photo is to me especially emblematic of the excruciating awkwardness of that time, and I cannot for the life of me understand how this was ever considered hip and happenin’ (are those tights he’s wearing? And is that a flowered sweater set?!) His music videos are equally awkward and therefore delightful to watch; sometimes the originally slim Demis is sporting what look to be space boots, later he dons those 70s caftans that only accentuate his girth and status as the father of love. At all times he has disheveled hair and that pained furrow of the brow as he belts out his feelings over lost and regained love.

Artemios Roussos was born in Alexandria on 15 June, 1946 and lived there until his family left for Greece during the Suez crisis. He and two other musicians—Loukas and Vangelis—formed the band Aphrodite’s Child, which was a success in Europe for three years before it disbanded. Roussos then struck out on his own and became a star during the 1970s, the decade during which he composed his signature and best-loved songs. Roussos, his unruly hair now much thinner, grizzled, and slicked back in a neat ponytail, continues to spin these 1970s classics, as in this concert appearance in Brazil last year.

My very favourite of his repertoire is the infectious, catchy “Far Away”, which as fans will remember begins, “There's a lucky man who’ll take you far away/far away, so very very far away/….love will show the way.” The ditty sadly doesn’t have an online presence (except as a motif in
this Hisham Abbas knock-off by some Moroccan pop star, but it still captures Demis’ velvet voice and the dreamy tune).

Kitsch and all, the songs of this loveable, rotund Greek crooner are hard-wired into my musical memory; they used to waft airily through our house for what seemed like hours and hours. Listening to them now feels as though the intervening 25 years have vanished, and I’m back to imbibing his invocations of a soft-focus, make-believe, languorous world of gentle Mediterranean sea breezes undulating through perennial summers.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Farid Most Sublime

As with Asmahan, it’s nearly impossible to select just one out of Farid’s plentiful repertoire, but in the end I settled on “Ya Albi Ya Magrouh” (O my wounded heart). This song is so old and obscure that I have not found it anywhere on the web. It’s a perfect little gem, a tightly composed classic that shows off both Farid’s musical composition and vocal talents. I much prefer the early studio recording to the more common live performance, where the constant audience noise and interruptions, coupled with Farid’s own haggard voice late in life mask the beauty of this lullaby-like tune. After ferreting around at various cassette shops, I was thrilled to finally find the taped studio recording buried in a drawer of a tiny place on Shawarbi. The atrocious and unbearably kitschy pink cover concocted by the execrable Randaphon is small price to pay for this find. Eventually and inexplicably, however, the cover has grown on me.

“Ya Albi Ya Magrouh” is Farid at his most dolorous and expressive, his voice perfectly evincing that rich, velvety, ever-so-slightly nasal quality for which he’s so rightly appreciated. There’s just the right amount of plaintive melancholy here, thanks in part to Ma’moun al-Shinnawy’s calibrated lyrics, and Farid’s incomparable gift of striking just the right chords. As he sings the line about the doors of heaven opening to receive the supplicant’s lament, you feel his voice soaring upward even as it retains its calm timbre. But it’s the extraordinary melisma toward the end of the song that always takes my breath away. I love this song so much I listen to it at all times of the day and night, but for some reason its magic is most potent at the juncture when late afternoon yields to the incipient threads of sunset.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


There's nothing quite like the sound of Fairouz's warm and playful ode to the Alexandria beachfront. "Shatt Iskindiriyya" beckons the listless and uninspired, sparking ingenuity, buoyed spirits, renewed focus. There's nothing like the expansiveness that comes with strolling the Corniche, staring at the medley of colours at Anfoushy, the stillness of the water at Midan al-Manshiyya, the crazy waves at Stanley and San Stefano, the remoteness of Mandara, the antique streets of l'Ibrahimiyya, the stench of Bakus, the propriety of Mostafa Kamel.

Alexandria is mint tea in an ahwa on a windswept winter's evening, the magic colours of Abu Qir, the crowds in Zanqet el-Settat, the oasis that is the Mahmoud Said museum in Gianaclis. Alexandria is the incomparable shorbet 'ads at Mohammad Ahmed, fresh-squeezed orange juice from the antique juicer at Tony, and over-sweet cappuccino at the run-down but still charming Elite. Alexandria is watching the sunset from the balcony of Dar al-Ma'aref on Saad Zaghloul street. Alexandria is beauty, Alexandria is life.

For the patient keeper of the Arboreal Annals.

*Painting is Mahmoud Said’s “Storm on the Corniche” (1941).

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Avian Sorrows

It’s difficult to isolate just one Asmahan (Amal l'Atrache) tune, but one of my eternal favourites is this sombre tale with the haunting, ominous drums foreshadowing the sad end. “Dakhalt Marra fi Geneina” (I once entered a garden) is Asmahan at her most understated and powerful, sorrowful and resigned. Every time I listen to it I remember Sharia ‘Adli during that cold and invigorating morning, when the sun peeked from behind the grey clouds to illuminate the intricate details of Wust al-Balad’s tired fa├žades.

The singer walks into a garden to soothe her sad soul by inhaling the smell of flowers and listening to birdsong. There she spots a nightingale and his newborn, resting on the branches in silence. The father tenderly spreads his wing to protect his offspring, singing to her the tune of sanctuary: “O my angel, ask for all that you wish.” The triste singer feels momentarily happy at this scene of filial love.

But it is not to be. The beloved newborn flies off, leaving the father with a burden of suffering, waiting and counting the stars as the moon is his witness. The narrator leaves the garden in pity; the sad state of the father bird is enough to move the immoveable. For his beautiful beloved has betrayed the covenant of love.