A nightingale of the East: Ghalia Benali sings Um Khultum

Ghalia Benali - © Esma Alouet
Ghalia Benali - © Esma Alouet

Ghalia Benali – © Esma Alouet

Many prominent female artists where presented as part of the festival Voix de Femmes including the Tunisian artist, Ghalia Benali. On the 18th October she presented her latest album, Ghalia Benali sings Um Khultum, in Gent. A tribute to Um Khultum, an Egyptian mythical figure brought back to life trough Ghalia’s exceptional voice. This album has been celebrated in many countries in Europe as well in the Middle East. The collections of covers are definitely a proof that Ghalia Benali has a creative ambition upholding Um’s Khultum vocal standards while still being her inventive, unique self.

In the making of a song you discover a space that captures you and holds you still until you listen. Until that what you have mistaken as silence becomes a voice, and that what you thought was a voice becomes a story. What difference would it make, you might think? Could a song underline times of change? Is a song actually meant to be an instrument that can urge for a solution?

Ghalia’s answer would go along the lines of the poet Seamus Heany. Humbly suggesting that every form of art holds attention for a space, which does not function as distraction but as pure concentration on ‘the self’.


In Ghalia’s own words, ‘I like to emphasize what a person feels rather then what he might think. And I hope that during my performances I can bring out the same emphases. ‘

And she sure did during her performance in Gent. She welcomed the listeners with a steady look and a long, deep breath. In preparation, the oud player Moufadhel Adhoum accompanied her after a patient readiness. And the Arabic poetic lyrics filled the concert hall with mystery and a hidden nostalgic urge to understand the spoken words. You see, as a non Arabic-speaker like me, we need help to understand this unique language experiment that seems to uplift hearts and minds.

Being Um Khultum’s grandchild

Ghalia Benali - © Esma Alouet

Ghalia Benali – © Esma Alouet

‘I am not trying to imitate Um Khultum’s grandiosity, but I am trying to share with people how much of a teacher she has been to me. I grew up with her, thinking that she was my grandmother. I saw her picture every day in my parent’s bedroom. And until this day I still feel like one of her grandchildren. That’s how much she means to me. And I am very sure that many people will recognize this grandmother- like connection’, says Ghalia Benali while smiling.

Umm Kulthum was a brilliant symbol of Egyptian Arab nationalism with a longstanding, dazzling career lasting from the 1930s to the 1970s. Her appearances on live radio broadcasts brought her absolute fame. People would leave their work, daily duties and street life behind in order to listen to Umm Kulthum’s famous broadcasts. In those times her emphasis on and love for the Arabic language, at the time of the British occupation, was profoundly appreciated by many. This preference continued when she learned to master many difficult Arab musical systems while excelling in improvisation. This fusion of tradition and inventiveness brought her music to a level of acceptance that could have hardly been predicted.

Um’s Khultum’s songs are quite a challenge to perform since she was one of the best practitioners of tarab. One can find tarab when you loose track of time and find yourself drifting away into another world. Not many have made it to recreate this ecstatic feeling while still maintaining the authenticity of such a longstanding vocal tradition. Singers such as Billie Holiday and Edith Piaf for example were considered to have that special component that could silence a whole audience. It is usually after singing ‘’Inta Umri’’ (you are my life) that the real hafla or musical gathering starts.

This type of music is unfortunately not made as background dinner music, especially after highlighting the interaction between the artist and the audience. It demands an active participation, well known by the Arab audience including the poetry lovers, which goes along with enthusiastic utterings such as Ah! and, Ya ruhi! (oh my soul). Sometimes the audience would go so far as to demand a repetition of particular lines before the singer could continue to the official text. This close contact is only possible if this specific, spontaneous atmosphere, tarab, has been reached. Any artist’s voice trying to recreate tarab, has to have a fine balance between a strong control of the voice and the emotional impact over her voice. And as a self-taught, multi facetted artist, Ghalia Benali proves to be mastering this special vocal style and presence.

Ghalia Benali - © Esma Alouet

Ghalia Benali – © Esma Alouet

A Bridge between the West and the East

Besides the journey trough time, this type of performance is an attempt to include a sincere dialogue. In this case a dialogue of several hours, but nevertheless persistent enough to scare away boredom. But how do you bring such an understanding to a Western stage where more then half of the audience are non-Arabic speakers?

‘Well, I have learned a lot from living in two different countries, Tunisia and Belgium. I noticed for instance that my ‘known cultural world’ was so unknown here. And vice versa. There seemed to be something missing, a bridge on which we could share these common stories but in a complete different shape. And as much as my Belgian audience needed the explanation of my songs, it was also I that needed this description for my own personal growth. You see, discovering the possibility of being an artistic mediator between two worlds that are as beautiful and diverse as the ones I know, is just phenomenal. And what isn’t better then art catching those different, unique persona’s in my life. So art becomes that story and at the same time it makes me function as a storyteller’, explains Ghalia.


More then a singer

The very first thing Ghalia tells me when I sat across her is that she doesn’t see herself as a singer. She repeatedly tells me that life is full of stories in need to be grasped and explored until you find its essence. The process of creating art is important and even more if you can find yourself amidst it.

At the moment she’s on the verge to start a painting career, with her first large exposition at the end of the month November, in Amsterdam. ‘ Life gives me many inspirations and ways to express all these fundamental elements. It includes people, pain, joy and death. Did I already mention ‘people’? The best thing in life are people and for that reason my art will always be for the people’ says Ghalia with her vivid eyes supporting the given explanation.

My last question evoked a very spirited answer. Where will your next concert be? Which she answers with much proud, ‘I will perform in Egypt during the whole month of December. It’s the only country for me, besides India, which fulfils me in many ways and but definitely the only country where the people constantly speak about the Soul’.

And I couldn’t agree more.

Ya Ruhi!


This post is also available in: Dutch