Superstar Ragheb Alama first rose to fame in 1986 with his single Ya Rait (I Wish) and his songs have been topping the music charts ever since. In this eniGma exclusive, Alama opens up to eniGma’s Deputy Editor Omnia Zaied about his rise to the top, his future plans, and about joining the Arabic version of The X Factor.
Alama’s history speaks for itself. He wasn’t born into a musical family. His dad actually named him after the first Lebanese judge Ragheb Beik Alama, hoping his middle son would one day become a judge too. But destiny had other plans for Alama. His talent at playing the oud, evident since he was just eight years old, was what ultimately defined him. It was obvious that he was meant to be an artist. He loved to play at home and in family gatherings, and soon enough he was even playing on the radio. Eventually, the talented 20-year-old Alama won a Platinum Award on the biggest talent show at the time, Studio El Fan. This paved the way for the young singer from Beirut to become one of the region’s biggest stars.
With the success of one album after another Alama rose to fame and was recognised as one of the best singers of his generation. He was young, ambitious, suave, and he clearly knew how to choose his hits. From Alby Eshi’ha (I Fell in Love), 1991 to Taw’am Rohy (My Soulmate), 1995, and Alamteeny (You Taught Me), 1996, his songs topped the charts all over the Middle East. And now, after 30 years, 17 albums, countless awards, and numerous hits later, Alama is still at the top of his game. In this exclusive interview with the superstar, we try to glean the secret behind his staying power at the top of the music charts and in the hearts of millions of loving fans all over the Arab world.
You have been in the music industry for over 30 years, do you think the industry has changed?
It most definitely has. Back in the old days we used to have more discipline and we knew our limits. Now there are neither limits nor discipline. Don’t get me wrong, I am all for freedom but only when it is used wisely and considerately.
You are a pan Arab super star. How have you managed to stay on top for so long and to appeal to all generations?
You have to have a vision, to love what you do, and to be content with what you have. In my opinion, that’s the formula for success. I never get involved in a project unless I am 100 percent convinced with it. I am always open to change and willing to reach out to all generations.
Did people’s taste in music change over the past three decades? Would a song like Alby Eshi’ha become a hit if it were released today? And would a song like Mabahazarsh (I’m Not Joking) for example have become a hit in 1991?
A good song will always be a hit no matter when it comes out. What has changed is the way people are introduced to new songs now. Back in those days you only had to follow one TV channel to know what’s new, and to find out if you liked it or not. Now there are so many TV and radio channels, and songs can get lost in the middle of all that. But a good song will always become a hit eventually.
You just announced that you’re joining The X Factor. Did you ever regret leaving Arab Idol and do you think The X Factor will be as successful?
I never regretted leaving Arab Idol. I left at the right time and I believe I really would have regretted it if I participated in the third season. Leaving Arab Idol was the reason I got to join The X Factor and I am much more comfortable working in it. There’s a great harmony and understanding between the other members of the jury (Elissa, Donia Samir Ghanem) and me. We all see things the same way and even on a personal level we are pretty similar, which leads to much more cooperation. The audience will be able to tell and they will really enjoy it.
On a personal level, how did fame change you?
I can’t really answer that because I grew up famous. I don’t remember how I was before that. It’s an integral part of who I am right now.
If you could go back in time, would you have preferred not to be famous and to have a regular life?
Never. I love fame. It’s great to be loved. Sometimes people will invade your privacy, but it’s a small price to pay for the love you receive.
You are known for being a heartthrob, do female fans annoy you sometimes?
Not really, it’s not about male or female fans. What really upsets me are phone cameras. Everyone now has a mobile phone and they can approach you at anytime and anywhere to have their picture taken with you even if you are eating, having a conversation with someone, or driving, etc. That is why I took the decision not to have my picture taken with anyone unless they had a real camera, not just a phone. As a matter of fact I want to use this interview to make this announcement, if anyone approaches me to take a picture with a phone camera, I will not be able to oblige. At the end of the day, the resolution of phone shots is never that good anyway!
You are planning to release the video of Habib Dehkati (The Reason I Smile) very soon, do you have any other plans for the near future?
I will be shooting a few more songs from the album because I love each and every song on it.
Would you ever consider retiring?
When the time is right. An artist should quit the moment he can’t be himself or can’t perform the same way on stage. As long as my voice is still the same, as long as I can perform and look the way I do, I will be performing. Personally I think I am in the best stage of my life and I still have a lot to give.
The Enigma Questionnaire
How would you describe yourself?
I am very kind on the inside, I feel for others. Sometimes I wish I was harsher.
What would you most like to change about yourself?
What quality do you dislike in people?
Which high profile Arab do you most admire and why?
The late Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan. He was a true leader and visionary. He made the Emirates what it is today. He had a rich soul.
What’s the most important lesson life has taught you?
“Live this life as if you were going to live forever, and work for the afterlife as if you were going to die tomorrow.” It’s a quote by Imam Ali Ibn Abi Talib that I live by.
What is your biggest regret?
Nothing really. Every mistake I made taught me something. I only regret the time I wasted without achieving anything.
If you could change one thing about the Middle East what would that be?
The concept of justice. I would also like to change sectarianism. I would like us to deal with people as fellow human beings no matter what their religion or sect is.
What do you most love about the Middle East?
It is quite funny actually, everything I love about this region is the reason why it’s in so much trouble. For example, I love our natural resources, our wealth, and the fact that all religions came out of this region. But all these things made us a target for other countries around the world. And instead of using religion to keep us strong, we managed to make it a source of hatred and internal conflict.
What is your proudest moment?
I am proud when I am with my wife and kids. I am proud when I am on stage, when I see the love of the people. I am proud of everything I have done, of all my history and achievements.