Singing 'oud' for the common man

Amal Murkus doesn't mince her words, and the Kfar Yassif-born singer is crystal clear on her musical choices and her cultural identity.

amal murkus 88 (photo credit: )
amal murkus 88
(photo credit: )
Amal Murkus doesn't mince her words, and the Kfar Yassif-born singer is crystal clear on her musical choices and her cultural identity. On November 24 Murkus will present a program of songs most readily identified with legendary Lebanese singer Fairuz at Jerusalem's Beit Shemuel. The show is part of this year's International Oud Festival in Jerusalem. Murkus says it is her way of saying "thank you" and "happy birthday" to her mentor. "Fairuz will be 70 on November 21," she explains. "We didn't plan the show near the date, it just worked out that way, but I'm delighted to be able to perform her work. She has been an inspiration for me since I was a small child." Considering the genre-crossing breadth of Murkus' and Fairuz oeuvre the artistic synergy seems only natural. "Fairuz and I share a similar vocal range," Murkus continues, "and she, like me, doesn't just stick to classical Arabic music. We both sing jazz material, and children's songs and she does Brazilian and Andalusian pieces too, and even songs from musicals. I feel she is, as we say in Arabic, 'shakikat ruhana' - a sister soul." Murkus met her "sister soul" several years ago when she traveled to Egypt to catch an outdoor Fairuz concert near the pyramids. It was by all accounts a thrilling experience for the then very young Murkus, although there were no trade secrets exchanged. "I spoke to Fairuz after the show," Murkus recalls. "It was wonderful to meet her but I completely forgot I was a singer when I met her. For me she is the greatest of them all. I wouldn't presume to talk to her about what I do." Murkus has been performing almost all her life. Now in her thirties, she made her first public appearance at the tender age of five. In the past few years she has boosted her income as a presenter of a children's television show on Channel One and has collaborated with many of the leading ethnic acts in this country, including Yair Dalal, Habreira Hativit and Sheva. Still, she feels somewhat ostracized by the media, public and artistic community here. "I think most people are scared of my Palestinian identity," she proffers. "Media people have suggested I do a record in Hebrew, and adopt a sort of trendy Skeinkinesque posture, and that that will help me reach a wider audience. But I feel cultural identity is the very basic minimum a person can strive for. I don't sing about politics. I sing about the woes of the common man, and about mundane things like harvesting and picking olives. It's a bit like the Afro-Americans singing the blues." While proud of her ethnic origins, Murkus says she is open to a wide range of cultural influences and has no problem with mixing and matching genres and styles. "Arabic music has been incorporating elements from other parts of the world for a long time. Look at people like [Egyptian composer] Muhammad Abdul-Wahab. There are many different strains in his work." Murkus says there are historical reasons for the genre shift. "The French colonized Lebanon for a long time - people danced the twist and tango there too - and the British were in the Middle East. So their cultural presence has been around for a long time." Technology also comes into it. "Traditionally we always used instruments like the violin, oud, double bass and kanoun. But, today, Arab musicians use electric keyboards and synthesizers too. That offers more possibilities. The west has surpassed us in that respect. We have to keep up." At her forthcoming Jerusalem date Murkus will perform a commensurately eclectic repertoire, mixing classical Arabic material with jazz-oriented numbers. The arrangements were put together by former Bustan Abraham violinist Nassim Dakwar who will be among the seven instrumentalists backing Murkus on the night. Following her highly successful appearance at last year's Oud Festival, it's on the cards for the Beit Shemuel audience to be equally enthused this time round too. Amal Murkus will perform at Jerusalem's Beit Shemuel on November 24 at 9 p.m. For more information call 02-6245206 or go to: