Lebanese singer Elie Rizkallah shares his thoughts on the importance of preserving Lebanon’s musical heritage, before releasing his new CD ‘Shi Mesh Shakhsi’.
In a world of commercial Arabic pop music, Rizkallah is one of the few singers working to preserve the heritage of classical oriental music. While artists from Sayyed Darwish, Oum Kalthoum and Mohammad Abdel Wahab are a familiar part of the Middle East’s collective memory, Rizkallah is attempting to prevent them from being resigned to outdated names in history. Sitting in a café on a sunny morning in October, Elie Rizkallah’s appearance is somewhat more laid back than the clean-shaven face, swarve suit and crisp white shirt he’s known for in his concerts. We meet a few weeks before the release of his new album ‘Shi Mesh Shakhsi’, composed and arranged by Lebanese musician Ziad Sahab. The album is classically modern, bringing to mind the legendary singers of the past but with a distinctly modern edge.
Rizkallah’s beautifully deep voice bares similarities to Abdel Wahab, but he has a style that’s every bit his own. Joining the traditional oud and strings is a tango style piano and bass. The songs flit between classical Arabic to Rahbani-style oriental jazz, with funky guitar riffs. Rizkallah’s first public performance was back in ’95 on Future TV when he was awarded in a competition for classical Arabic music. He started his career in classical music at the National Conservatoire, but then returned to classic Arabic. Since then he’s built up a big following performing to audiences from Lebanon to Tunisia, France and Jordan.
Rizkallah has a passion for musicians from the golden era of music in Lebanon. He tells us, ‘I love the oldies, Arabic singers from the ‘40s and ‘50s like Mohammad Abdel Wahab, my favourite singer and composer.’ I ask him why he continues performing these Arabic standards. ‘It’s very important. I like to conserve this music because it’s beautiful. It’s our culture.’
These classical Arabic singers might hold worth to an older generation, but now radio, TV and the taste of Lebanon’s younger generation are beginning to lean heavily towards the commercial, where traditional instruments and melodies are lost, appearance is relied on and songs rarely pass beyond the topic of cliché romance. I pose the question to Rizkallah that maybe Lebanon’s musical heritage is at risk of being lost. He laughs. ‘Maybe that’s the mentality now, after the war. It’s very commercial. Maybe this applies to the whole world, but here it’s horrible. We have a good audience and we have to preserve this audience and this music.’
‘There is no channel with this music,’ Rizkallah continues. ‘That’s a big problem for TV here. The nation and the media have to work to push singers or performers that sing classical. We don’t have a push from anybody.’ This lack of coverage and support for classical Arabic music is something Rizkallah suffers from himself and the reason he has a day job as an interior architect. ‘I can’t find a sponsor for my CD. I work solo you know,’ he laughs.‘It’s ok, I’m trying to do the best.’