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Entertainment – Erotic Tinge, Heavy Beats Help Lebanese Female Singers Rule

Daniel Williams

Sept. 28 (Bloomberg) — Ghassan Chartouni, who manages Lebanese pop singers, looked at a new, unreleased video of one of his stars, Myriam Faris. She sang while draping herself over a motor scooter in acrobatic poses.

Chartouni mused that maybe the shots of cleavage detract from the vocal artistry, and said he will electronically fiddle with the image to obscure the view.

“I think singers will have to go more for voice,” Chartouni said. “We’ve gone about as far as you can go with sex appeal. We have to focus more on the ear than the eye.”

For now, the eyes have it, Chartouni said. Lebanese women dominate the pop-music scene in the Middle East and over the years their style has become emphatically erotic.

A typical video consists of a buxom performer gyrating in a tight outfit while being pursued by an unshaven hunk. The lyric “habibi” (“my love” in Arabic) is sung endlessly against a backdrop of electronic music and heavy beats, sometimes Arab syncopation, sometimes the monotonous rhythm of Western pop.

It’s a formula that has worked well commercially, said Chartouni, sitting in the offices of his Beirut-based Music Is My Life management company. He estimates that Lebanese account for about 80 percent of the female singers across the region where records, performing and commercial endorsements generate about $100 million a year. It’s hard to find a cafe from Morocco to the Persian Gulf that doesn’t have some Lebanese sexpot warbling on an overhead video screen.

Lebanese dominate because their home country is freewheeling. And because it has a small population of about 4 million, music makers aggressively market their products abroad.

‘Open Society’

“We’re the most open society in the Arab world. We set the style,” Chartouni said. “Our singers also take care to sing in local dialects.”

Egypt was once the capital of Arab pop music, and still produces top male singers, Chartouni said. These days, what with Egypt’s increasing priggishness, hair coverings and long-sleeve outfits, that country is less the model for sexiness. For Egyptian fans, this is a topic of sad concern in cyberspace.

“As an Egyptian, I have to say that more and more stars in Egypt are singing with their bodies and bringing our standards down,” wrote a blogger leading off a long discussion on Waleg, a pan-Arab pop-culture blog. He was commenting on whether his country had been totally eclipsed by foreign performers.

The focus on a shapely body and provocative moves has stirred hullabaloo in self-styled pious Arab countries. In Yemen last February, Islamic scholars issued decrees prohibiting concerts. In May 2008, Bahrain’s parliament debated whether to ban Lebanese singer Haifa Wehbe from performing live in the tiny Persian Gulf country. She sang anyway.

Banned Nancy

Wehbe is known for titillating outfits, sometimes chiefly composed of beads; one of her best-known tunes invites listeners to “kiss the wawa,” (the last word is Arabic slang for “boo- boo”). In 2005, Kuwait refused a permit for Nancy Ajram to hold a concert at the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan; Nancy already had been banned from Bahrain from 2003 to 2006 after scandalized protesters demonstrated at one of her concerts.

In Lebanon, all that sounds like distant prudery. The only taste question that might arise is whether performers are too sexy for their own good. Namia Saliba, a singer who has toured Europe as well as Arab capitals, said that performers are under pressure to bare the body for commercial success and that is cheapening the product.

“It’s hard to be a real singer in Lebanon,” said Saliba, 35, who just returned from a gig in Romania. “Producers don’t want a classy style. They want sleaze.”

Her brother and musical technician, Jean Claude Saliba, said that electronic meddling of recorded voices coupled with an emphasis on sex appeal has taken the elegance out of Arabic popular music, which once featured florid compositions for violin and romantic lyrics. “We’ll never go back to the old ways,” he said. “That generation is almost at an end.”

‘Less Provocative”

Chartouni said that women’s careers are smoothed by sex appeal as much as vocals. You can see some fat guy singing among lovely women on a video, but never the other way around. Still, that marketing approach may be changing. Last year, Chartouni made an award-winning video by Yara, a singer he manages, who was featured in a white dress daintily wooing a handsome guy. The scene was set in a tomato-sauce factory; it was amazing she could keep her dress spotless.

“We don’t want to hide good looks, but less provocative might be the way to go,” he said.

For the past few years, it had become rare to see Lebanon’s own stars in Beirut. Last year, Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim party and militia, and its allies shot their way into western neighborhoods during a political dispute with the government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora. Hotels and their ballrooms emptied for the summer.

In 2006, Hezbollah fought a 33-day war with Israel and hotels became ghost castles set amid falling rockets. In 2007, political turmoil in Beirut erased tourism and performances.

This summer, the highway from the airport downtown is bedecked with billboards showing off the uniformly red lips and cascading hairdos of some of Lebanon’s stars: Elissa, Haifa, Nancy, Najwa … all promoting concerts. The ads replaced gruesome commemorations of car bombs and the war that once made the airport ride a visual trail of tears.

Having been around for the recent turmoil, I can only say it’s better to kiss the wawa.

To contact the reporter on the story: Daniel Williams in Beirut at


September 28, 2009 - Posted by | Uncategorized |

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