Rachel McArthur

Ragheb Alama: Learning from Arab Idol

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We have certainly seen a different side to Ragheb Alama this year. The Lebanese superstar – one of the most successful Arab artists of the past decade – made his first foray into reality television, appearing on MBC’s Arab Idol alongside Emirati singer Ahlam and Egyptian music producer Hassan El Shafei. And feedback from fans and Arab media has been extremely positive. Dubbed the “gentle judge”, Ragheb has been praised by critics for being fair on the show without putting any of the contestants down.

But it has never been clear if he was going to return for Arab Idol’s next season – until now.

Another first for the star is that Ragheb is now on Twitter.

You can follow the singer @raghebalama, and when I met Ragheb at the Fairmont Dubai this week ahead of a special appearance at Cavalli Club, he was showing off his followers on his iPhone. “Look, I have only been on Twitter for three weeks and I have 20,000 followers – this is so exciting! So before you start asking me questions I want to tell you something about Twitter”.

So Ragheb, you mentioned you wanted to say something before we started…

Before you arrived, I was Tweeting my fans – actually I call them my friends – about the next episode of Arab Idol. There’s something that’s slightly bothering me at the moment; a percentage of viewers want to vote for contestants based on where they are from. It shouldn’t be like that – viewers should vote for the voice they prefer, and not for their country. Arab Idol is not a football match.

While we are on the topic of Arab Idol, let’s talk about your experience as a judge so far. This was the first time for you to get involved with this type of talent television contest. How have you found it so far?

I am going to honest with you. I was scared at first – maybe scared is not the right way to describe it, but you know what I mean. However, I’ve always considered myself brave in my career, so I accepted and took on the challenge. At the end of the day, if it didn’t work out I wouldn’t sign up for another season. But I am so glad I took that step, because it is definitely a new experience that taught me a lot about myself. And it was the first time the public really got to see my character, and I can see love and respect from the public for the way I judge. At the beginning of my career I always used to say in interviews that I want to help others be able to sing – so I put myself in the contestants’ shoes, and treated them the way I’d want to be treated.

Has it affected your work at all? Are you finding it hard to do shows right now, for instance?

It has affected me in the same way it would when I have a concert in Lebanon, I cannot have a show in the UAE at the same time. Every weekend I need to be free for the show; but I am managing my time well. I am concentrating on Arab Idol. It is my duty to do so, and something I want to do.

Season One comes to an end at the end of this month. Do you have a favourite contestant that you want to win?

Yes, but there is more than one person. To give you a clue, my favourites have never been in bottom two in any of the results on the show.

Feedback on Twitter is usually a great indicator of who will win these types of shows. Have you noticed any favourites on the site?

Yes, there are two people who are definitely favourites.

All three judges seem to get on really well, but you made the headlines recently when you told Hassan he was wrong to compare Sherine to Fairouz. Do you think the whole thing was exaggerated?

I feel bad for him, because he knows very well that Sherine is not Fairouz, and even Sherine would say that no one should be compared to Fairouz. I think Hassan was trying to make a point, but it just came out the wrong way. Remember, this is Hassan’s first time in public – and we’re live. But sometimes he is quick when he talks. So I was quick to tell him that. I like this guy so much, and I consider him a little brother.

What is it like working with Ahlam?

Ahlam has such a good heart. She makes me laugh. Even when she’s being feisty, I still laugh. It’s part of her character. A lovely person.

You were in Dubai this week for a special appearance at Cavalli Club – your first appearance in the emirate in a long time. How does it feel to be back?

I enjoy Dubai very much. It feels so warm here. I bought two apartments in the UAE, and will keep one for myself.

Do you see yourself living here?

Yes, I see myself living here part-time. I love everything in this country. I always used to go to America and Far East, because I was a fan of how things are structured in these countries. But now, I can find this three hours away from Lebanon. I love the shopping, beaches, nice restaurants, outside areas, and the law and security. The UAE is a good place to live and work in. Here, you can see the law and feel it. I like the fact it states that you should respect the law, and if you don’t respect it, the law won’t respect you.

Turning to your music, your last album was out in 2010, a collaboration with Starbucks that saw you exclusively sold in its outlets. How did you find the experience?

We created a type of partnership where people could grab an original CD at a place everybody loves to have a coffee at. I am the only Arab artist doing this, and it feels distinctive to be part of something this exclusive. And I produce the albums through my own company Backstage Productions. Part of my deal means I would also be part of the Starbucks compilations.

One of the tracks you did was with Shakira. Although you never met her, many fans were wondering why you never made a music video with her?

It’s a shame because I really wanted to do a video with her, but unfortunately, my company and Sony couldn’t do a video at the time, which is a shame.

When you started your career, people would buy music on cassette. Now, everyone downloads music for free, meaning the Arab music industry is losing a lot of money every year. What are your thoughts on this?

There will be a solution for this, and I certainly hope so because it is a big problem. A production company is a commercial house, so it needs to make money to keep on going. And one of the main problems is that the Arab League never ever discussed this. They have always been focused on issues between countries. They never focused on the arts. In the US, for instance, you could find a minister going from country to country to protect the copyright of Microsoft. So I hope we find a solution in the end – I don’t know how and when – especially with the current Arab Spring. But hopefully, one day we’ll find a solution.

Do you still enjoy making music videos?

Not really! The problem is there’s no new ideas anymore, it is costing more money than ever and there’s zero money coming out of it.

A lot of artists are now steering away from classical Arabic music to create tracks influenced by house music. What do you think of that?

If that’s their vision, then so be it. But I don’t do that, because I love the music I make.

What about Arab artists that start singing in English when they team up with an international star?

Honestly, I haven’t heard anyone do this, but I don’t agree with this. Just because I sing a song with an international singer doesn’t mean I have gone international. For me, going international means achieving success throughout the Arab world. I think you need to focus on your own niche and strength, and I respect those that do that. That’s why in international duets, I have always sung in Arabic.

What’s coming up for you?

I have a duet coming up with a very famous Turkish singer called Askin Nuryenji. The music video – which was shot in Turkey – has been completed, and is currently being edited and will be out next month. The song will be released with Starbucks. Also, the song I performed with Majed Al Mohandes on Arab Idol has received great feedback – viewers loved it. So I plan on releasing that soon.

Will you release an album this year?

The new album will be out either end of 2012 or next year. At the moment, I am happier releasing singles. So maybe I will release three singles then do an album.

When you’re not working, what do you like to do?

I am a big fan of cuisine, and I love going out for Lebanese, Italian or Japanese. I love spending time with my children as well – but they would rather hang out with their friends! Or they’re always on their phone or laptop, chatting with their friends or busy on Twitter.

Finally, the thing all Arab Idol fans want to know: are you returning for the next season?

(Smiles) Yes. I can confirm I have signed on with MBC. We’re both happy. I am happy and MBC is happy. Arab Idol has achieved ratings that channels only achieve during Ramadan. So right now, we feel like the sky is the limit, because the situation is very good for Arab Idol. We’ve exceeded average ratings by about 35% which you don’t really hear about these days.

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