Songs of The Valley

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“People think of my music and songs as a bridge between the then and the now,” says Lebanese singer Oumeima El Khalil, who passionately interprets culture and time through her music. The Lebanese chanteuse is best known for her Arab folk favourites – Ouhibouka Akthar and Asfour, talks to Yasmeen Maqbool during the Sharjah World Music Festival.

Nurturing Talent
Surrounded by an artistic and supportive family, Oumeima began her tryst with music at the young age of seven. Her father had heard of a recently graduated musician called Marcel Khalife and Oumeima was introduced to him as a potential student. When she sang for him in his home, he was so impressed by her talent that he would later return to the Beqaa Valley in search of this young prodigy.

Shortly after their meeting, civil war broke out in Lebanon and the landscape of the music industry altered. Marcel Khalife left for France to pursue his career and Oumeima continued her secondary studies in Beqaa, never giving up her dream of being a singer.

In 1979, Marcel returned to Beirut as a famed musician and quickly hired 12-year-old Oumeima to perform a solo with his band Al Mayadin. Singing for the first time in front of a sold-out crowd at the renowned NESCO Palace Theater in Beirut, this 12-year-old girl astounded the music industry with her talent.

Oumeima recalls, “My teenage years with Marcel remain the most influential and impressionable period of my artistic life.” She fondly talks of him: “Marcel is a very level-headed person who never dictates his fellow artistes in the studio or on stage. He was very patient with me and allowed me to express myself the way I wanted to. He always told me to ensure that each project took me forward.”

In 1981, as a teenager, she was signed on to Marcel’s US tour where she performed solos in 16 different states. She has been a staple in the fabric of the Arab Culture and a worldwide performer ever since.

Bridging a Bond
Oumeima began her solo career in 1994 with the breakthrough record, Khallini Ghannilak and continues to collaborate with Marcel on several of his albums. Her songs are written by renowned Arab poets such as: Mahmoud Darwish, Badr Shakir El Sayyab and Mohammed El Abdallah.

“When I am singing their poetry I try to do complete justice to the words as I know it is going to reach a diverse fan base and interpreted. This is what gives me the inspiration to perform the best way possible,” says Oumeima.

Mutual respect
Marcel’s knack for spotting great collaborations landed her the most important of partnerships: The Lebanese composer Hani Siblini, whom she then married.

Oumeima has collaborated with her husband-musician Hani, recording and touring the world. She released her fourth solo album Zaman, in spring 2013 followed by Matar. It is a classical endeavour composed by Abdallah El Masri, recorded with The State Symphony Cappella of Russia (conducted by Valery Polyansky).

She and Hani work well together because both appreciate each other’s boundaries. “People say that when you are married then two people become one,” she says. “I find that hilarious because that’s just not the case. I am not him and he is definitely not me.” “Both myself and Hani work well together because we both have independent thoughts and we respect each other,” she says. Oumeima knows that there are times where the personal creeps into the professional aspect of their lives, and they see differently. But by learning to respect each other’s space they have been able to define their relationship.

Then and now 
With a few shows in the Gulf and Lebanon already under her belt, 2015 will be a busy year for the popular singer. “Parts of my concerts do rely heavily on nostalgia and we all love to hold on to that,” she says. But there are some of her newer works with Hani that she thinks provide a balance. “If people think of my concerts as a bridge between then and now, then that is most satisfying for me as an artiste,” she concludes.