جينيفر والنجوم
November 29, 2013 1:28 PM   Subscribe

Jennifer Grout, an American singer and oud player, has made it into the finals of Arabs Got Talent. She has no Arab ancestry and a background in European classical music.
بعيد عنك "Away From You" – Umm Kalthoum
يا طيور "Oh, Birds" – Asmahan
(The comment section of the Guardian article – second link – has translations of both of these songs.)

A little more:
أنا والنجوم "Me and the Stars" (pt. 2)
A song in Tamazight (Berber)

Article in France 24.
Interview in Laha (a partly intelligible Google translation).
posted by nangar (58 comments total) 23 users marked this as a favorite
 
NPR story
posted by humanfont at 1:36 PM on November 29, 2013


Arabs Got Talent

She has no Arab ancestry

Um...
posted by gyc at 1:42 PM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is there nothing white people won't appropriate?
posted by sfts2 at 1:43 PM on November 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


I love this. Love it. I love seeing clips of ____s Got Talent. And Jennifer is really amazing and talented.
posted by discopolo at 1:43 PM on November 29, 2013


I don't understand why she was allowed to compete on the show.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 1:46 PM on November 29, 2013


Despite what racists on Twitter think, you don't have to have American ancestry (whatever that means) to do America's Got Talent, so I don't see the problem here.
posted by kmz at 1:46 PM on November 29, 2013 [23 favorites]


The winner of this year's America's Got Talent season was a guy from Japan.
posted by briank at 1:47 PM on November 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


Is there nothing white people can't manage to feel bad about?
posted by Dark Messiah at 1:49 PM on November 29, 2013 [17 favorites]


Is there nothing white people won't appropriate?

I can't tell if you're joking, but as a non-white (but non-Arab), there's something so heartwarming about someone who is foreign knowing the thing you love/know/care about. It's really building a bridge, when the assumption is generally that white Americans are so self-centered and think they're so great that they are too intellectually lazy to appreciate or try to learn from other cultures.

But Jennifer is hardly representative of white America. She went to college at McGill and obviously truly endeavored to learn music.
posted by discopolo at 1:50 PM on November 29, 2013 [20 favorites]


The funniest part was seeing that apparently every incarnation of the show is required to have a backstage duo of some level of annoying.
posted by kmz at 1:51 PM on November 29, 2013 [8 favorites]


Arabs Got Talent

but grammar is clearly optional
posted by St. Peepsburg at 1:55 PM on November 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


That's because English got grammar.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:56 PM on November 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Neat!
posted by Sticherbeast at 2:00 PM on November 29, 2013


Snark aside though - she is really good. I can see why she'd want to master such a challenging singing style.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 2:00 PM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was always under the impression the [insert word here] Got Talent / Idol / etc shows were named for the broadcast markets they're aimed at, and that the titles had nothing to do with the ancestry of the participants? It's entirely possible I have that wrong though, my knowledge of reality TV amounts to having seen Survivor at a friend's house once about ten years ago.
posted by trackofalljades at 2:01 PM on November 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


And honestly, I doubt anyone in the world aside from a few Western nations would really have a problem with someone who showed a genuine deep appreciation and love of their culture.

If she actually won, though, that might be another can of worms. But being able to compete---the shows just need good ratings and a draw.

It's cool that some of the YouTube commenters can't believe she doesn't have Arab ancestry. And it's cool that we're seeing a talented young woman fearlessly pursue mastering her art and developing her talent in a foreign country where she doesn't speak that language.

She is brave. Her parents managed to raise a truly interesting and talented human being.

Also, I live her attitude. She's polite and well-manner, and presents herself very well.
posted by discopolo at 2:16 PM on November 29, 2013 [5 favorites]


Everybody's got talent.
posted by grounded at 2:57 PM on November 29, 2013 [4 favorites]


Here's a video of Umm Kalthoum singing "Away from You" to a very moved live audience.

There are subtitles in English on there for you to understand the lyrics.
posted by discopolo at 3:04 PM on November 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


I don't understand why she was allowed to compete on the show.

When I was in college we had an Asian Talent Show, where there was considerable controversy over whether a white student would be allowed to compete playing a traditional Chinese instrument. In the end the university had a non-discrimination policy that applied to this event as much as to any other, and if the point isn't to celebrate culture then it's just to celebrate ethnicity. Which, really, who cares about celebrating ethnicity in a vacuum?
posted by 1adam12 at 3:10 PM on November 29, 2013 [13 favorites]


Thanks for that, discopolo.
posted by nangar at 3:21 PM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


The talent competition variety shows seem to be turning into an international tour circuit for ambitious performers. There have been a few Americans traveling between America's Got Talent, American Idol and Korean pop star contests, too.

If you're sufficiently talented and appealing and can get by while hosts and judges engage with you onstage in the local language, you'll probably be accepted.
posted by ardgedee at 4:21 PM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I was always under the impression the [insert word here] Got Talent / Idol / etc shows were named for the broadcast markets they're aimed at, and that the titles had nothing to do with the ancestry of the participants?

Bingo.
posted by Sys Rq at 4:31 PM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


She also has a background in playing the oud, does she not?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 4:37 PM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can someone translate what Nawja Karam is saying after the first audition?
posted by discopolo at 5:44 PM on November 29, 2013


I really think liberal white Americans worry way, way too much about appropriation. Not that people shouldn't be concerned to some degree, but members of other cultures have been soaking up as much Western media as they possibly can for years now. Nobody calls it appropriation when Qatar starts buying up a bunch of very important Western art, but it's appropriation when one chick happens to get very good at playing a non-Western instrument. What? No. Feeling an affinity for other cultures and going out and learning a lot about them is not wrong.

As far as I can tell, it's not like she just showed up to be on the show. The reason she doesn't speak Arabic is that she lives in Morocco, where French isn't an official language but might as well be. She lives in Morocco. Why wouldn't she be allowed to compete?
posted by Sequence at 6:00 PM on November 29, 2013 [16 favorites]


Does she stand on her own merits, or does she trade on whiteness for extra attention? It doesn't appear that there are other, equally talented singers on the program who are being overshadowed.

Does she only adopt a few "cool" parts here and there, removed from context and repackaged for a white, Western audience or does she demonstrate advanced awareness and appreciation of the cultural artifact in question, with proper respect for context? The former is cultural appropriation, which has an exploitative element and a distancing from the minority culture. Singing these songs with a fitting manner, before an Arab audience, accompanying herself with traditional instrumentation on at least one of them, I don't see this as appropriation. I like yeloson's distinction:

Participation involves giving back and acknowledging. Appropriation involves self- profit & no where to be seen for source community.

But I am not Arab and this isn't my culture. I know very little about any of this other than this style of singing in that language is fascinating. It just didn't feel to me like her singing these songs put Arab culture in the forgotten background (which tends to happen in appropriative acts) but rather made me very interested in hearing much more of this.

The video of Umm Kalthoum singing is very moving and I felt more emotionally resonant.
posted by Danila at 6:10 PM on November 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


Umm Kalthoum is one of the most legendary Arabic-language singers ever, so I'm not sure "less emotionally resonant than Umm Kalthoum" is really a *diss*...
posted by tavella at 6:32 PM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


The reason she doesn't speak Arabic is that she lives in Morocco

And no one speaks fusha in Morocco. Except the army.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 6:32 PM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't understand why she was allowed to compete on the show.

Because producers of a reality tv show recognized that she had a combination of talent and backstory that would bring viewers to their television show.
posted by humanfont at 7:26 PM on November 29, 2013 [7 favorites]


I found this genuinely moving. That was singing of the highest quality. Don't care about the cynics.
posted by vac2003 at 8:28 PM on November 29, 2013 [1 favorite]


The laughter from the audience at the beginning of her performance in the first linked video is interesting.

Also, re appropriation, it's appropriation when dumbass Americans on So You Think You Can Dance do Bollywood dances.

This is... just actually enjoying and learning and devoting yourself to a particular artistic thing.

I'm not really sure how art could continue if we all had to crystallize into specific national groups and no one group could ever do the other group's thing.
posted by Sara C. at 9:56 PM on November 29, 2013 [3 favorites]


Also I feel I must inform all of you that my dog HATES this. He also seems vaguely distressed by real Oum Kalthoum recordings, so I don't think he has any particular problem with an American playing them.
posted by Sara C. at 10:30 PM on November 29, 2013 [2 favorites]


Is there nothing white people won't appropriate?

First of all, the Arabs studied and mastered musical theory by translating Greek texts. Secondly, a number of modern Western instruments share a history with the Arab world, not the least of which is the guitar (also known as the kithara in Greek, qitara in Arabic). Also, anyone with a passing knowledge of modern Greek folk music (going back at least a generation or two) would recognize the tremendous Arabic influence on such music, obviously due to a massive cultural exchange (to put it gently) during 400 years of Ottoman rule. I mean, for God's sake, the word for the iconic Greek guitar, the "bouzouki," doesn't even remotely sound Greek. You also see a similar influence in Israeli music.

The lack of knowledge, self-loathing and self-assuredness of some knee-jerk American commentators is really unbelievable. It would be amazing if half the time Americans knew what the fuck they were talking about. It is practically an honor to sing this music.
posted by phaedon at 12:48 AM on November 30, 2013 [8 favorites]


Is there nothing white people won't appropriate?

who's white? - i looked at the first clip and the hosts are no darker than some italians, croatians, or others

was danny or marlo thomas considered not white? - casey kasem? steve jobs?

this seems like a very peculiar classification scheme going on here and we'd all be better off without it
posted by pyramid termite at 5:51 AM on November 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


The racism in this thread is pretty appalling. The Arabic speaking world encompasses one third of the planet, and includes vast numbers of ethnicities and cultures.
posted by empath at 6:59 AM on November 30, 2013


Who's being racist?
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:40 AM on November 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


An excerpt about Umm Kalthoum's singing style from her wiki linked above:
The duration of Umm Kulthum's songs in performance was not fixed, but varied based on the level of emotive interaction between the singer and her audience and Umm Kulthum's own mood for creativity. An improvisatory technique, which was typical of old classical Arabic singing, and which she executed for as long as she could have (both her regressing vocal abilities with age and the increased Westernization of Arabic music became an impediment to this art), was to repeat a single line or stance over and over, subtly altering the emotive emphasis and intensity and exploring one or various musical modal scales (maqām) each time to bring her audiences into a euphoric and ecstatic state
I think it's fair to say that these are really some of the defining characteristics that have made the music hugely influential, especially in terms of "folk" music. I grew up listening to my parents enjoying similar music, and for them it stirred up very strong feelings from childhood. (I actually hated the music at the time, and I don't think this is an uncommon reaction, especially for children.) Some more information on maqam: musical theory, examples, and really detailed breakdown of all the different modes.

There are people that know way more than me about this, but in Greece there was (and is) a form of folk music (among many others) known as rebetiko, that started out as a nomadic lifestyle, underworld type of music, that could not be heard publicly in many places, that later became widely accepted and popularized by composers like Vassilis Tsitsanis.

Here is Sotiria Bellou singing Tsitsanis. One more Sotiria Bellou song. Another defining characteristic of this music is the lyrics are very simple, melancholic and metaphorical.

Lest you forget about the Moorish occupation of Iberia, in Portugal there is fado. Here is Amalia Rodrigues performing Solidao in 1969.
posted by phaedon at 8:12 AM on November 30, 2013 [7 favorites]


Nthing what others have said about Arabic influences and Turkish influences on various European musical idioms.

Bosnia Hercegovina has Sevdah, an Ottoman influenced style. It's pretty popular across the Balkans region.

Here is an example:

'Snijeg Pade'
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 9:41 AM on November 30, 2013


I remember watching Georgia's Got Talent (nitchieri) when a young woman of russian descent who didnt speak georgian asked the judge to speak in russian. The crowd errupted in boos and the judges immediately x'ed her. This was maybe 2.5 years after the October War with Russia.
posted by nestor_makhno at 12:12 PM on November 30, 2013


empath, I think you're confusing 'Arabic speaking' and 'Muslim'. It's not the same thing.
posted by nangar at 1:43 PM on November 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Is there nothing white people won't appropriate?

Also, if you look at the YouTube comments, non-Americans and non-whites who are watching the show regularly are very, very supportive of Jennifer Grout's talent and don't consider it appropriation. They are very generous in their praise and encouragement. They seem to really love and appreciate her.

And Jennifer is also amazingly mature, gracious, and even-tempered in her own responses to even critical comments on her own YouTube channel.

Everybody in the US could really learn a lot from this young woman about how to behave and respond (even, dare I say it, Mefites---ohhh I went there) to criticism.
posted by discopolo at 1:57 PM on November 30, 2013 [2 favorites]


Also I feel I must inform all of you that my dog HATES this. He also seems vaguely distressed by real Oum Kalthoum recordings, so I don't think he has any particular problem with an American playing them.

Awww, I don't blame him. It's very heartwrenching to hear. Your dog must have had a recent romantic breakup he doesn't want to be reminded of. He clearly needs those frozen ice cream treats they have for dogs, and a good howl.
posted by discopolo at 2:00 PM on November 30, 2013 [3 favorites]


I'd love to read a translation of what the judges were saying after her performance.
posted by Lexica at 9:33 PM on November 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Doesn't every __________'s Got Talent also require an unlikely prodigy? Call it the Susan Boyle Effect. Is she simply this season's?
posted by maryr at 10:47 PM on November 30, 2013 [1 favorite]


Doesn't every __________'s Got Talent also require an unlikely prodigy? Call it the Susan Boyle Effect. Is she simply this season's?

I prefer to think that the world is full of amazingly talented people and I'm glad these clips get put on YouTube for people all over the world to see. It's inspiring and really brings out a lot of positive goodwill and supportiveness and care in people.
posted by discopolo at 12:03 AM on December 1, 2013 [3 favorites]


I emailed this to an Arab friend, who praised it lavishly.
posted by Wolof at 1:36 AM on December 1, 2013


> Can someone translate what Nawja Karam is saying after the first audition?

> I'd love to read a translation of what the judges were saying after her performance.

Najwa Karam's evaluation – the first one, that starts off "Jennifer, Jennifer, Jennifer" – has been quoted in the press a lot.
The Guardian has (in bits) –
You don't speak a word of Arabic, and yet you sing better than other singers ... We have always been following and imitating the west ... This is the first time someone who's not related in any way to the Arab world – an American who doesn't speak the language – performs in Arabic.
France 24 has (translating from their French translation) –
Jennifer, you don't speak a word of Arabic, but you sing better than many other singers ... It's the first time someone who has no ties to the Arab world and who's American ... has done such a good rendition of a song in Arabic.
I think you can get the gist of what she's saying by splicing the two together.

(I've inserted ellipses in France 24's quote when they seem to be skipping somethng. I think they both might be leaving something out at the very end of her comment, but I'm not sure.)
posted by nangar at 8:30 AM on December 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


More literally (from French): "... interpreted a title in Arabic so well."
posted by nangar at 8:41 AM on December 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


As long as I'd taken the time to sort out what the first two judges said, I thought I might as well post it. It's likely you should take both of my weak translations with a lot of salt:

Najwa Karam: I know you don't speak a single word of Arabic and you sung Arabic better than other singers. In every age, we follow the West. [This is the] first time, the first person who doesn't speak the Arabic language, without any ties/relations to the Arabic world sings in Arabic, and they're American. (applause, Grout gets the thumbs up and tries to leave the stage, maybe thinking she has lost)
Ali Jaber: You, I mean, besides you bringing your beautiful voice and your brave voice, your playing on the oud connected with me and had great feeling. I wish you the best in the future and welcome to you.

The other two judges are a bit too far from the dialect I'm learning, but Ahmed Helmy seems to be marveling that she captured the feelings behind the language, despite not knowing it, really.

I was surprised to find myself basically sobbing the first time I watched this, because the feelings I was feeling toward the beginning were so very familiar to me. I encounter over and over a general sort of amusement and expectations of poor performance when I try to participate in Arabic-speaking society. Usually, then, I do perform about to the low expectations and am met with bemused cordiality (of the sort you see from the whole panel at the beginning), if not a rapid switch to English on the part of my better linguistically educated friends. I think at the beginning, they're even teasing her about the way she's pronounced her name in "Arabic" and "French."

Then Grout blows it out of the water and to see her get accepted so thoroughly (especially by the audience!) was - I don't know, something I hope for on my more optimistic days. The relief just washed over me, seeing that it was at least in some way possible. Anyway, I've certainly got a great deal more respect for immigrants nowadays.

I guess I'd better go study my flashcards.
posted by lauranesson at 10:18 AM on December 1, 2013 [9 favorites]


I also liked that in that Laha interview, she said the first Arabic-language song she learned was Fairuz's "Bhibbak Ya Libnan," because that's one of the only songs I do all right understanding.
posted by lauranesson at 10:22 AM on December 1, 2013


Here's a link to "Bhibbak Ya Libnan," while I'm at it, with an English translation.
posted by lauranesson at 11:11 AM on December 1, 2013


lauranesson, thank you very much!
posted by nangar at 11:14 AM on December 1, 2013


Just watched her sing in the finals, and she was great again. The judges made a big point of how meaningful it was that she was a foreigner singing the classical Arabic style so well. The last judge (who is Egyptian, I think) renamed her "Gennifer," welcoming her into the Arabic world.
posted by lauranesson at 12:52 PM on December 7, 2013


She won!!!
posted by lauranesson at 1:09 PM on December 7, 2013


Wait, my Arabic sucks. She's top three for sure.
posted by lauranesson at 1:10 PM on December 7, 2013


The winner is a dance troupe from Syria that really was awesome.
posted by lauranesson at 1:11 PM on December 7, 2013


I totally forgot that the finals were today. I have to go watch it now.
posted by nangar at 6:11 PM on December 7, 2013


Her husband is a Moroccan and she lives in Morocco with him. That's why she was allowed to participate. (Not sure if it was mentioned here, if it was, sorry).
posted by Attozes at 12:37 PM on December 22, 2013


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