She’s blond, claims English, Scottish, and Native American descent, and doesn’t speak Arabic, but twenty-three-year-old Jennifer Grout, who grew up in Cambridge, MA, has emerged as an unlikely favorite in the finals of this year’s Arabs Got Talent contest in Beirut. Her rise is fueled not by heritage but by her gift – an astonishing voice that has wowed millions of viewers in the Middle East and northern Africa with her soulful renditions of classical Arab songs.
Not all in the region are thrilled, to say the least. It rankles some that an American woman with no connection to the culture – except a love of its music – might take home the top prize in the Arab world’s version of America’s Got Talent. Mazen Hayek, spokesman for MBC Group, the Dubai-based media conglomerate that produces and airs the show, dismisses the criticism. “Jennifer’s popularity is expected, well-earned, and deserved,” he said. “She’s a young American woman with a remarkable singing talent and a great voice in any language.”
Grout will face eleven Arab finalists, many of whom will be performing more Western-style acts, including comedians and hip-hop dancers, and one acrobatic dancer with a routine inspired by Spider-Man. She will be the only contestant performing classical Arab music. Since June, Grout has waded through a series of auditions and elimination rounds in the contest, which requires participants to either be citizens of an Arab nation or have an act with Arabic cultural roots.
Throughout, the judges have been largely effusive about her singing and her skill with the oud, an Arab lute that she sometimes plays. In her September debut round after performing Baeed Anak (Away from You), a love ballad by Egyptian singing legend Umm Kulthum, Najwa Karam, a popular singer and one of the judges, exclaimed, “You don’t speak a word of Arabic, yet you sing better than some Arab singers.”
How does she do it? “I learned the song and many others by listening to them and embracing them,” Grout said in a phone interview from Beirut.
Long before Umm Kulthum, there was Bach, and Mozart, and Brahms for Grout, who was born in Boston and attended Cambridge Rindge and Latin School and Natick’s Walnut Hill School for the Arts. Her parents, Daryl Grout and Susan Montgomery-Grout, who both work in technology but have music degrees, say she began singing at age four and performed with them in church choral groups. But up until a few years ago her focus had been Western classical music.
“There was a period when I was a little girl where I wanted to be a pop star. I wanted to be Christina Aguilera,’’ Grout said. “But my first love and only love until a few years ago was classical. It was while I was studying at McGill University in Montreal that I developed my love for Arabic music.”
Grout recalls that she read an article in 2010 about Lebanese singer Fairouz, which prompted her to explore other Arab stars and eventually led her to have an oud made in Syria. Within months of discovering Fairouz, Grout was playing her oud in a Syrian restaurant in Montreal, and then she began learning to sing the songs. “After about three months of learning to play, I sang my first note,’’ she said. “It was beautiful. I tell people often that it was magical. Until I found Arabic music, I had not thought of music as a performance career.”
But as her passion for Arabic music developed, friends and colleagues began advising Grout that she would need to learn to speak Arabic to advance her career. “Other people saw it as a problem, but I never did,” says Grout, who asked her parents for a one-way ticket to Marrakesh, Morocco, after graduating from college so she could start absorbing a culture that birthed some of the music she had embraced. After living in Morocco for a year, Grout heard about Arabs Got Talent and flew to Beirut to audition.
“The reality is that in the classical genre it’s common to sing songs in languages you can’t speak,’’ Grout explained. “Opera singers do it all the time, singing in Italian and German.”
Therese Sevadjian, Grout’s voice coach at McGill, said that Grout’s voice and her control and range allow her to capture the nuances and rapidly changing landscape of classical Arabic music. “Our music students are required for finals to perform in four different languages – in her case, English, German, Italian, and French,’’ Sevadjian said. “And she always excelled in those exams. So she may not speak Arabic, but her ability to feel and interpret languages paired with her natural vocal talent are why she has done so well in this competition.”
While Grout has received much encouragement, her appearance in the contest has triggered some controversy. One commenter on an 18 September 2013 YouTube video about Grout and her appearance on the show wrote, “Beautiful voice but she speaks Arabic and the jury is pretty aware of that fact. It’s a trick in order to gain publicity.’’ Another opined, “She’s great, but this is Arabs Got Talent, not America’s.’’
One persistent theory on the Internet is that Grout really knows Arabic and that the judges are covering for her. “It is unfortunate that some critics – largely on the Internet – have made ridiculous accusations against Jenni and have complained about her,” said Daryl Grout in a telephone interview from Raleigh, NC, where he and his wife now live.
Part of what fuels speculation about her true roots is Grout’s hard-to-place accent when she speaks English. “I have been asked about my accent a lot,’’ she said with a chuckle. “I’m not sure what to say. It’s mine. It’s unique. I’ve always spoken differently, since childhood.”
Beyond the controversy and rumors, a number of commentators have noted that Grout’s performance may mark a watershed in East-West cultural exchange. “Especially in an age of increasingly globalized popular culture, where so-called Western cultural forms have crossed all kinds of geographic boundaries, it was striking to see the directional arrow point the other way. Instead of Middle Eastern artists seeking to emulate American music, this time it was the other way around,’’ said Matthew Ellis, a Middle Eastern studies professor at Sarah Lawrence College.
Whether she wins or loses Saturday, Grout says she plans to continue her Arabic music career. “My biggest hope is to go on performing it for an audience on a bigger scale and eventually form an ensemble to perform with and travel with,’’ she said. “I think that’s the only way – live, intimate performance – to demonstrate that music really is a universal language.”
James H. Burnett III – The Boston Globe
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Jennifer Grout was eliminated minutes before the contest ended on 7 December 2013, ultimately placing third. The Syrian dance troupe Sima won the top award.