Chirstmas Carols from East and West

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If you've ever wanted to hear "Jingle Bells" sung in Arabic, here is your chance. Fairuz is perhaps the most popular singer in the history of modern Lebanon. Of Maronite Christian background, she likewise has large followings in Islamic countries, reportedly drawing crowds of tens of thousands in Syria. During Lebanon's civil war, however, she was forced to flee her homeland. This disc, recorded in London and, according to the tracklist, "organized by the British Lebanese Society," dates from 1989, during that period of exile. It is a cultural fusion that ought to be required listening for anybody who tends to put people in little boxes. The CD's cover (there is no booklet) promises "Christmas Carols from East and West," and that's what you get. The program opens with three Middle Eastern pieces; two of them, named Syriac 1 and Syriac 2, appear to have roots in classical Arabic music. The third, Talj, Talj, is by the Rahbani Brothers, the Lebanese theatrical composers who were the main early backers of Fairuz's career. After that, at least from the perspective of the non-Arab listener, is where things get really unusual. All the music, except for a concluding "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" (which, although a small chorus is involved, becomes "I wish you a merry Christmas"), is in the Arabic language. This is delightful enough with "Jingle Bells," and even more piquant with the African American spiritual "Go Tell it on the Mountain." The relationship between Fairuz and her chorus is unique: in the spiritual and other pieces, she sort of trails off (the line "that Jesus Christ was born" is elided) and melts into the group. The rest of the program consists of familiar European carols, as well as a Bizet carol derived from music from Carmen. The arrangements, by and for British musicians, are as conventional as any British light music lover could ask, but Fairuz's voice retains unmistakable Middle Eastern inflections even in the midst of the purest functional tonality. If you are looking for a unique item to bring to your next holiday gathering, this will undoubtedly fill the bill.

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