Q&A: Ragheb Alama
The Lebanese superstar on freedom, saving the planet and Shakira
As he approaches his fourth decade in the industry, Lebanese singer Ragheb Alama – already one of the region's biggest stars – is about to step up to a new level of fame. We spoke to the man known as 'The Boss' ("That's out of respect, not fear," he explains) in Beirut a few weeks before the launch of his latest album, Starz 1, which includes a collaboration with Shakira. The album, released November 1, is available exclusively through Starbucks – the first time the ubiquitous coffee chain has struck a distribution deal with an Arabic artist.
It's Alama's second album on his brother Khodr's label, Backstage Productions. His last release, Ba'sha'ak, went platinum in the Middle East, and Alama is confident that Starz can better that performance. "I'm very excited," he says. "I'm so happy because I feel it sounds exactly how I wanted it to. I've achieved what I set out to do. I can't wait to release it."
How did your collaboration with Shakira on “Good Stuff” come about?
Sony and my label, Backstage Productions, were really excited about the idea of creating a duet between a famous Middle Eastern artist and a major international artist. It’s the first collaboration between our two companies. I added my vocals over the original master. My brother Khodr is also my producer and a musician himself, so he worked with Shakira’s producer to adapt the music, which Shakira and I then approved. I promise our fans a great surprise.
So you didn’t actually perform together?
No, But Shakira’s feedback was very positive.
Which artists inspired you when you were younger?
Julio Iglesias, definitely, and a few of the Arabic oldies, such as Abdel Halim Hafez, Dalida, Sabah and Fayrouz, who – for me – is the greatest Arabic singer of all time. When I hear Fayrouz, I feel like an angel came down to sing for the planet. It is so pure, so deep and so simple.
Were you an attention seeker as a kid?
No, definitely not. Or, if I was, I was too young to realize it. During lunch breaks, my friends would ask me to sing, and I was happy to do it. I’ve always loved to sing. But I had no idea that I’d become famous.
Do you still play the oud?
I do, from time to time. It gives me great pleasure.
Lebanon – along with Egypt – is the breeding ground for most major Arab stars. Do you think if other Middle Eastern countries were less conservative it would encourage greater creativity?
For sure. Freedom encourages creativity and passion. It encourages big dreams and helps make them come true.
In 2009, you were made an honorary UN ambassador for environmental issues.
Yes, the environmental culture in the region is very bad. The only country, I feel, that really cares about the environment is the U.A.E. Politicians in the Arab world are destroying the environment by not caring about it. What I’m trying to do is to show people the dangers and raise awareness. In Lebanon, at least, schools don’t teach what’s really happening environmentally. It’s all wrong. The environmental laws in the Middle East are terrible. But these are problems the whole world is facing, not just us.
What can your fans expect from the new album? Is it classic Ragheb Alama, or a new direction?
I don’t think there’s any such thing as ‘classic Ragheb Alama.’ For every album, I try to create something different from what I’ve done before. I think that’s why I’m still successful. I don’t alienate my old fans, but I still add new ones. What I can promise my fans is that they can expect a fantastic album that they’ll love. I can’t say any more than that right now, they’ll have to wait and see.
It’s your second album with Backstage Productions. Does it allow you more creative control than you would have on another label?
Yeah. [Laughs.] Another label? We had big problems with another label, because the people who run it are not professional at all. Over the last 10 years, from what I’ve seen, it’s only destroying other labels through money, not creativity. We always focus on the music. We don’t just spend our time talking about money, money, money.
Is the hold that a few labels have over the majority of Arab artists a problem for the music industry here?
Yes. It is. Because it kills competition – not because of the quality of the artistic ideas, but purely because of money. Most people who work in the music industry don’t have a tycoon’s wealth. And the problem affects everybody working in the industry. All the labels.
Do you see any solution?
People have to do what we did with Backstage: sacrifice their money for their music. If I have to choose between financial success and musical success, I choose music. Music is everything to me. If you count only on money, you can’t do anything worthwhile.
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