Monday, November 23, 2009

Sahra at Showtime

November 23, 2009

In the end, the flags flew, the stage with its palm trees and sashes glowed in showers of orange, blue, purple and white light, and stars of the Arab world made beautiful music for a crowd of an estimated 5000 people at the MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas. The vision and production were complex, and behind the scenes, tensions ran high at times. But the result was truly worth it, surely one of the most spectacular presentations of Arab world performance arts ever to grace an American stage. You can read my full review of the Sahra concert on the homepage of very soon. For now, a few images and notes from the field...

Showtime was billed as 8PM, but even at 8:15, most of the seats in the arena were unfilled. Maybe the audience--which for all the hopes about presenting this music to Americans, was almost entirely Arab and Arab American--expected things to run late. So for another 30 minutes, DJ M.C. Rai played pop music from rai to Arab techno as the seats gradually filled in. The show began with a tribute to the concert's charitable beneficiaries--NAMA and ACCESS, and also TYO a youth organization presented in a short film called "Children of Nablus." Simon Shaheen and his ensemble performed his soaring composition "The Wall," The Adam Basma Dance Company presented a Bedouin sword dance, and around 9:30, it was time the headliners.

Each one had his or her contingent in the crowd. Iraq's Rida Al Abdulla's arrival on the stage triggered near pandemonium before he even sang a note. Passions about Iraq run deep in this crowd, music aside. Rida's performance was great, and well received even by those who did not know his work. It was followed by a segment of film glory with the Egyptian actress Nabila Ebeed taking a star turn, and then a tribute to Syrian-born director Mustafa Akkad who made his career with the Halloween movie franchise and then used that platform to create legendary epic films about Islam and Arab history. Akaad and his daughter died tragically in the Amman, Jordan terrorist hotel bombings of 2005. (I later learned that at the time of his death, Akaad was working on an 80-million dollar film about Saladin and the Crusades, which would surely have been a landmark.)

By intermission, the show was over 40 minutes behind schedule. The press supervisor keeping a close eye on we photographers and videographers noted that she had seen things run 10 minutes late, but never 40. Little did she know that the stretching of time in this massive spectacle was just beginning! The MGM Grand Garden Arena is a hall more used to presenting precisely scripted shows by the likes of Stevie Wonder, Elton John, and Bon Jovi. Sahra, by contrast, was a work of ambition and imagination whose precise shape could not be determined until it actually played before the crowd, which by this time was large and completely stoked.

Assala too had her partisans, and she played to them doggedly, mixing gorgeous, melismatic vocal passages with pop renditions that delved repeatedly into a kind of quasi-flamenco vein. As her planned 55-minute set made its way towards an eventual 90 minutes, she answered calls for "Khaled" with an impromptu acapella rendition of "Didi." Playful, but also a little edgy, as she continued to announce her "last song," and then play another.

Khaled had not been onstage more than a few minutes when a couple of guys managed to get close enough to drape him in Algerian flags. It was past midnight, and the king of rai was ready to rock. By the time he finished his hit-laden, rowdy set, Assala and Rida had left the hall with their musicians. A planned duet with Assala (Fairuz's "Nassam Alaina," which had sounded fantastic in rehearsal) had to be replaced, and then it was on to the finale, John Lennon's "Imagine." Though Khaled's fellow headliners were absent, he welcomed a multinational array of singers to the stage, and deftly led them through an arrangement of the song that mixed vocals in Arabic, French and English, and both extended and departed from the plan the musicians had practiced. It was fitting, a work in progress as Arabic music slowly makes its way into the American mainstream. Though the live audience included mostly Arabs, this one-of-a-kind spectacle will be seen by a far wider audience on an eventual DVD and heard on a special edition of Afropop Worldwide in early 2010.

The audience streamed into the MGM complex at around 1:45, exhausted and exhilarated. The Lebanese vocal choir dropped in at a Las Vegas restaurant called Ali Baba, where they were entertained by a belly dancer, and some of them did an impromptu rendition of the rehearsed-but-not-performed "Nassam Alaina" for a select crowd. At around 4:30 AM, the Afropop crew finally stopped by a slot machine, and Sean won $17 on Megabucks.

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