I was fascinated by this article a few months ago in the New York Times by Lindsay Crouse.
With Jennifer Grout, you get a 23 year old singer and oud player that is competing in the finals of the Arab version of Simon Cowell’s Britain’s Got Talent, called Arabs Got Talent. Grout sings classic Arabic songs by Oum Kalsoum, even though she doesn’t speak a word of Arabic. I should say she dares to sing these timeless and sacred songs, which are wildly popular for all generations of Arabs both young and old.
It is confounding. The daughter of a pianist and violinist, began studying at 5, but didn’t pick up Arabic music until 2010. It is amazing that she has come so far. Busking on Paris’ metro in the Arab sections of Barbès-Rochechouart, the whole crowded car would remain silent and amazed as she played. She has a praeternatural understanding of modes and microtones, hallmarks of Arabic music but which are never heard in Western music. She speaks no Arabic at all, yet can reproduce the precise diction of the legendary Egyptian Oum Kalsoum.
Contemporary Arabic music often follows contemporary Western pop styles of hip hop, pitch correction, and Britney Spears. Here you have the opposite: an American musician who performing classic Arabic music.
Jessica Grout performed in the final 3 of Arabs Got Talent back in December, 2013 in Beirut. Arabic music fans watched with interest to see if this singer from Massachusetts who barely speaks Arabic will win. Unfortunately, she fell short of taking the top prize, but it was amazing to see her make it that far. Instead, a Syrian dance troupe performing a history of the Syrian conflict won 1st place.
Here she performs in a round of Arabs Got Talent. Watch the judges go from amusement to incredulity as they watch her perform Oum Kalsoum.