American singer who can't speak Arabic runner-up in Middle East talent show

American runner-up in talent show after wooing audiences across Middle East

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 December, 2013, 5:06am
UPDATED : Monday, 09 December, 2013, 9:42am


An American singer who cannot even speak Arabic has come runner-up in television reality show Arabs Got Talent after wooing audiences across the Middle East.

The renditions of classical Arab songs by Jennifer Grout, a petite blonde from Boston, Massachusetts, dressed in a flowing white gown, ensured she was among the three finalists in the popular show.

First prize in the pan-Arab contest went to Syrian dance troupe Sima for a performance portraying the autocratic rule of veteran leaders in the Middle East.

But Grout - the only non-Arab to compete - came close behind along with Palestinian artist Mohammad al-Diri, who captured audiences by drawing portraits of prominent Arab and international figures using original and diverse techniques.

The 23-year-old, who taught herself to sing difficult and popular Arab songs without speaking a word of the language, stunned audiences with her voice.

She grew up in a musical home, and came upon Arab music after reading an online article about Arab diva Fairouz from Lebanon.

Grout was enthralled by her voice and soon discovered other singers, including Umm Kalthoum, the Egyptian still considered to be the Arab world's finest singer three decades after her death.

Grout mesmerised audiences with her rendition of an Umm Kalthoum song as she appeared on the Beirut stage of Arabs Got Talent, strumming the oud as she sang.

Grout said that despite not speaking Arabic, she learned the lyrics to the songs after finding translations for them on the internet.

Grout lives in Morocco and organisers said it was not necessary to be an Arab to compete.

"I believe Jennifer is a phenomenon we should celebrate," Saudi Arabian comedian Nasser al-Qasaibi said.

Egyptian actor Ahmed Helmy played on the idiosyncrasies of his country's dialect - the Arabic alphabet's "J" is pronounced as a "G" in Egyptian - to commend Grout's talents. "From today, you're no longer 'Jennifer', you're 'Gennifer'," he said.

The judges praised her voice and her enthusiasm for classic Arabic music - much of it relatively unknown outside the Middle East - at a time when many commentators lament that Western cultural hegemony has eroded the region's distinct identity.

The talent programme is based on the UK show Britain's Got Talent.

Agence France-Presse, Reuters