Ahead of her singing the night away in Egypt this week, Ahram Online talked to Ghalia Benali about her tribute to Umm Kalthoum, her joint album 'in the footsteps of Rumi' and her latest 'Film of My Egypt'.
Born in Belgium, raised in Tunisia and studied graphic designing back in Belgium, Ghalia Benali has always carried her intangible heritage on her wherever she set foot: a singer, music composer, performer, graphic designer and editor.
‘Connected’ is the right word to describe such multi talented woman, who would religiously wear the folk earring of her grandmother on her forehead and sing in perfect classic Arabic on the biggest stages of Europe. She would sing sufi chants and mix it with electronic music, or fuse it with 17th century European music. By doing so, she magically transcends her audience and awakens their ability to listen.
Unlike many Arab artists who live in Europe, this woman stands her ground, knows her boundaries and the rules of acceptance. In her first book titled Romeo and Laila, a book that she wrote in several languages and illustrated herself:
"There are several themes in this story, the love between people coming from two different worlds, like myself, a girl from Tunisian origins who was born in Brussels, [and] of how we view the other and how differences are a good thing," explained Benali.
Winner of the 2008 Music Award for the best world music song, presented by the independent British Organization titled ‘We Are Listening’, with over 100 songs she composed and sings, Benali was named the ambassador of the Arab Culture in 2009 Europe after her release of first Album titled Ghalia Benali Sings Om Kalthoum.
Ghalia Benali and her spiritual Grandmother
“When I was little, I thought Umm Kalthoum was my grandma, for her photograph was hanging in the bedroom of my parents, how can she not be part of the family?” she laughs remembering with Ahram Online how at the age of four she would dress up in her moms dress, one that resembles Umm Kalthoum’s and hold a handkerchief and sing Al-Atlal from beginning to end.
“I used to love her and hate her at the same time because her broadcast time on Tunisian Television was sacred and they used to cut off from the cartoon time for kids in-order to air her songs which were pretty long," she adds.
With this spirit she created my Umm Kalthoum project in 2009, which explained to the audience that in reality a song would take some 3 hours with the encores. She would translate some lyrics and tell about the whole era she represents. “That’s why I named the project Ghalia Benali sings Umm Kalthoum, I am singing the woman, I am telling the story of the woman I thought to be my grandmother. But it is true, she is the grandmother of the whole Arab world,” Benali told Ahram Online.
“She is a school that touched me, and granted me the title the ambassador of the Arab culture … this is how I started this project in 2009 and this is where I want to end it here in Egypt 2021. It will be her last tribute, but that does not mean I will not sing her songs again, but it means that I will no longer dedicate full concerts for her songs.
Benali’s tribute concert to Um Kalthoum will be held on Zamalek Theatre, where Umm Kalthoum used to sing on the same stage.
How come everything I do is affiliated with Egypt? A question that evoked so many elements of Egypt’s intangible heritage that was transformed and quite dominant in the Arab world. Songs, Series and particularly films helped establish a deep connection between Benali and Egyptian culture. Feeling she wants to give back to the country where she feels most complete and in her element, Benali starts off her latest project titled Film Masry, and translated: Film of My Egypt.
“When I first came to Egypt, I felt I have arrived to my destination, and felt as if I am a star walking in an old Egyptian movie,” she notes. Aiming to give back to the country she loves dearly, Benali wants to document the spirituality and identity of “her Egypt” from the key figures of Egyptian culture and what’s left from the golden era of Egypt’s classic movies.
Benali walks 'In the footsteps of Rumi' this month
On 14 May 2021 a mélange of musical troupes featuring Arab, Turkish and Iranian artists are releasing the music Album titled 'In the footsteps of Rumi', chanting the poetry of the Sufi Pillar Jalal Al-Din Al-Rumi (1207-1273 AD) who founded the Mawlawia Sufi Sect.
“And Rumi wrote Arabic poems, not translation, he actually wrote them in Arabic and I will sing Arabic verses and the other artists in Persian and Turkish,” she added.
#Of souls that are eternally connected
Since 2013, Ghalia Benali started to sign her social media status and posts with the phrase #of souls_that_are_eternally_connected. “Because I felt that I am not alone, as if other souls are living with me at the same house, we are connected though we have never met. Such souls kept me company as usual. I didn’t feel lonely at all during confinement, I felt that I was a slave to time and suddenly I became the master of time. And I managed to create so many things during that time," she said.
Adopting the same line of thought Benali believes that she is truly connected to the soul of things. When asked how she picks the lyrics to sing and compose music to, she answers:
“My lyrics pick me,” as she laughs and recites one of her favourite lyrics she plans to sing in her upcoming concerts:
'Some people believe that love is a sin, how outrageous, for if a soul lacked the love rise in it, it will never understand it’s meaning in life, I have known myself through love and from this love I have connected to God.'
قال قوم إن المحبة إثم ويح بعض النفوس ما أغباها , إن نفس لم يشرق الحب فيها هى نفس لن تدرى ما معناها أنا بالحب قد وصلت إلى نفسى و بالحب قد عرفت الإله
In 2020 Benali released her single “Let Go” lyrics by Mowafaq El Haggar, a young Syrian poet whose words inspired Ghalia to compose the music the minute she listened to them and produced this video clip single handed.
Let go of those who left, of those who bid you farewell. Keep those who stayed with you, Stay if they appreciated your love and do not befriend those who would hurt you!
دع عنك من راحوا و دع من ودعك ضع فيك من جائوا و من ضلوا معك
خليك إن صانوا الوداد و لا تكن خلا لمن دون المحبة أوجعك
In Ramadan 2021, she released her single video titled 'Howa' (HE) where she recites the 99 names of Allah in the most deepest and enchanting voice tones.
When asked about the key learning in her multiple artistic journeys in life so far, she simply highlighted the importance of the art of listening. “Listen to your heart, and your dream always. You have to know the limits of things so you know how to overcome them. Accept the differences of other people for they make you learn something more about yourself,” she concludes.
Benali's upcoming concerts
Sunday 2 May at Said Darwish Theatre Alexandria
Tuesday 4 May at Cairo Opera House
Friday 7 May at Zamalek Theatre