The Grand Dame of Arabic Opera Singing and Composing

Kawas. The name and face reach out from every third billboard in Beirut. In the flesh, she is surprisingly small ¬ but none of the billboards is big enough to capture her energy.
Hiba Al-Kawas paces the room at the Conservatoire, discussing by cellular phone the complex preparations for her big show at the Forum.
“I like everything to be right,” she explains. “I go into every detail, and not just of the music.” But that said, she sits down and relaxes instantly: her warm eyes and attention focus immediately.
When she describes her latest work, she might be describing herself. “The music is romantic, but revolutionary. You are calm, but suddenly you feel alert. This is the drama.”
At just 25, Al-Kawas is a young woman on the move. She has recently finished recording her second CD. Like the first, Oughannika Habibi , which was recorded in 1996, it consists solely of her own compositions and orchestrations.
Saturday’s concert will be a mixture of music from both CDs. Al-Kawas’ distinctive soprano remains at the centre, but she wants to broaden attention out from her voice.
Her aim as a composer is to develop a style that fuses the Arabic and western classical traditions. Ultimately she wants to create Arabic opera.
Creativity, she insists, has to move. “My music is a contemporary conception, but with an oriental spirit and complicated rhythms. Arabic music expresses a special kind of philosophy, a soufi kind, where each note has meaning and value. But we have to get the benefit of this, and not leave it as it is.”
For Al-Kawas, developing the music means paying attention to detail, meticulously composing every part within the orchestra and for soloists. “All our life is improvisation in the Arab world,” says Al-Kawas. “If we improvise, we’re not doing something new.”
But if Al-Kawas respects the discipline of western classical music, she is not precious about it. “What we call ‘classical’ is simply the music of a particular era.” For Al-Kawas, it is something to be learned from, neither placed on a pedestal nor copied.
Ultimately, the creation of Arabic opera will mean training singers, she says. “We have to develop vocal positions to hold the vowels and letters.” But the greater challenge is to find in practice a way of blending style and form.
Al-Kawas has begun the journey in her relationship with the Dnepropetrovsk Symphony Orchestra and Choir ¬ conducted by Vyacheslav Blinov ¬ who played on Oughannika Habibi and have come to Beirut for Saturday’s concert.
The meeting of east and west was the result of cultural exchange initiated by the Ukrainian ambassador and Al-Kawas’ friend, Bahia Hariri.
Recording Al-Kawas’ compositions must have been an interesting experience, and the relationship between orchestra and composer has not always been smooth. “The music was different to what they were used to,” she recalls. “But they came to understand the personality of the music, its oriental sound.”
.Al-Kawas’ determination is very evident, and her self-confidence is infectious. “Ego is very important,” she says, “but it is a positive kind of ego.”
From childhood in Sidon, Hiba never lacked faith in herself.
At 18 months, she was writing words. She started to play the piano aged two and a half. At eight, she ‘mended’ electrical things around the house. A tom-boy who broke every finger on both hands at one time or another, she never played with dolls.
Growing up an only child was, she feels, an advantage. “My parents gave me their full concentration which helped me mature quickly.”
It was a stimulating, varied musical environment: both her mother and grandmother were musical. “At home my mother played Brahms, Mahler, Beethoven. We also listened to Asmahan, who had a way of singing that was very different then in the Arab world.”
With Mahler and Asmahan inspiring the young Al-Kawas, she knew from an early age that she wanted to compose as well as sing. At four she was telling her mother that she was ‘inventing’ music. “My mother always took me seriously, she never laughed.”
“For composition, I was interested in contemporary music, but I don’t claim to write experimental music. I did compose music in Italy, but it was contemporary, atonal.”
“In every country there is folkloric music, but this is not enough. Usually in the Arab world, when you take out the voice and lyrics there can be little left. I want people to listen to instrumental pieces.”
The paradox may be that the beauty of her own voice is what attracts most popular interest in her music.
Will this be a problem? Could she, in a sense, become a prisoner of her own success? She thinks not.
“I can help in forming a new culture, but people need time. My new music is similar to my first CD. It is more dramatic, perhaps crazier in its orchestration. But some of the songs are lighter.”
“You have to develop the spirit of the composer at the beginning,” she says. “You cannot stop a composer.”
She smiles, catching my thought. Yes, she might be talking about herself.


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