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Hala AlChergui: Embracing Heritage Through Harmony

Merhaba Hala!
Can you start by giving our readers a bit of context relating to your background?

Hi Merhaba! Thank you for giving me the platform to introduce myself and speak about my musical project. To give your reader a bit of background and context, I’m Hala AlChergui, a 27-year-old opera singer of Arabic descent (Syrian-Algerian). I was born and raised in Montreal and grew up primarily francophone and unfortunately quite disconnected from my culture due to several reasons, such as my parents’ immigration and assimilation to the culture here in Quebec. I used to speak Arabic when I was very young but forgot once I started school as I was encouraged to learn French. Nonetheless, I was still exposed to Middle Eastern culture and knew about it for the most part; however, it was not integrated into my day-to-day life. It wasn’t until recently, about 3 years ago, in 2019, that I wanted to learn and immerse myself in my heritage.

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What was your first experience with music growing up? 

Growing up, my parents believed in embracing arts and culture and basically exposed my sisters and me to as many things as possible. Whether that be theater, ballet, museums, or even something as extensive as making us try sports like skiing and tennis. Likewise, there was also a time when my sisters lived at home and each had their own interests, so I could hear my dad listening to jazz, my mom listening to classical music, and my sister listening to The Beatles on the same day. And that led me to try various instruments, such as the piano and guitar. When I got a bit older, around 13–14 years old, I wanted to sing and I started singing by myself. There was something different about the voice that it’s inside of you, every one of us as that instrument. And so they signed me up for lessons at a classical music school.

Tell us a bit about your musical education, and what shift in your development led you to want to integrate and learn about Arabic music. 

I have pursued classical musical studies since I was 15 in Cégep (pre-university) and went to Toronto to do my undergraduate degree in classical voice. When I got to the end of my degree, I felt like there was a dimension missing for me. Opera, being a primarily Western art form, felt like I had to fit in a box and did not correspond to all that I wanted to express as a singer. I decided to not continue singing in an institution and moved back to Montreal to pursue a Master’s degree in business. That same summer, in 2019, my maternal grandmother passed away. She was the last grandparent left in the Middle East, in Syria, and that’s when things started to shift.

I felt a calling, a need to go back to my roots and learn everything I could, from understanding my family’s story to relearning Arabic to incorporating traditional clothing into my wardrobe and going to local events to connect with the community. One of the ways I wanted to get exposed to the Middle East was through music. Automatically, I reverted to Rahbani’s music and Fairouz, an icon, because that’s what I found in my parent’s house. While listening to them, I noticed a lot of classical music influences from Bach, Mozart, and Mendelssohn. That sense of familiarity sparked a curiosity in me, and I started listening to a lot of the Golden Age of Arabic Music artists. Eventually, I thought most of it could sound like classical music because it had all the elements: an orchestra, a conductor, and a vocalist. 

I got the idea to then take this very rich repertoire and try to sing it with my voice, and it became a metaphor for my Western and Eastern background, being born Arab in Canada. I figured that I could not be the only 2nd-generation immigrant looking for some way to reconnect with a culture that has been lost, whether that be through art, literature, or music.

What has come of this initiative so far? 

Since then, I have had a few pieces arranged for voice and piano and am still in the process of trying things to find the perfect balance between Eastern and Western styles. I’m lucky that I’ve had two performances in Arabic since creating my arrangement this year. Because of them, I have had the opportunity to meet more and more Arab musicians. I would love their input to try different things and see what resonates with different audiences. What do people want to hear? Are they open to hearing something different? Are there songs that could work better for classical music than others? 

Ultimately, this has become my musical science lab, which has led me to wonderful meetings and, most importantly, to understanding my heritage to hopefully heal our family’s story.

How do you relate to your identity today? 

I understand that I am not Arab like someone who was born and raised there, but to say one is not Arab because of their birthplace would be too easy to erase our cultural baggage. If I have the privilege to have been born in Canada, it is to use it to actually initiate change and create a community with other diasporas that share similar feelings of disconnection and identity crisis of not feeling like they belong in either or. So it’s difficult to give a label or a name to my identity because, unfortunately and fortunately, it’s a mixture of things. I came to the conclusion that identities are as complex and multilayered as we are because they are a part of what makes us unique. This project is just one way for me to express that. 

Are you still singing opera today?  

Today, I am still pursuing classical music as well as this musical project as parallel artistic goals that feed off each other. I also believe classical music is in need of more representation of its singers as well as new repertoire. We already sing in Italian, French, and German; why not introduce a new language like Arabic with its own poetry and harmonies? 

I don’t see it as changing or picking one genre over the other; I see it as a coexistence of both in a way that expands the beauty of both. And that’s me. Whether I like it or not, I am both Arab and Canadian, and I love both classical and Arabic music. There is a richness to having a multilayered identity when you find peace within yourself to embody all of them. No human is one thing; we are all so complex that our identities cannot be contained in a label like “Arab” or “Canadian”. I use these terms for simplification when I speak, but this music is actually to show the uniqueness of embracing my story.

What is your goal in making this musical fusion happen?

My goal is to heal people through music just like me. I am using this project to heal myself and tell a story. I believe others will relate because unfortunately we are too many to have been displaced, even if people don’t want to listen to the songs, they will at least relate to the intention of my project and that to me is a win. It’s a connection and one more thing in common with other people towards acceptance of ourselves and others.

When I started classical singing, I used to dream of the Metropolitan Opera and amazing opera houses in Europe which are still desirable. However, now I see so much potential elsewhere. I hope to sing at the Cairo Opera, Dubai Opera, and Damascus Opera. We have the theaters, even old Roman amphitheaters, we have poetry and artistry, and we can make the most beautiful art. I want that path to be the way I go back to the Middle East, to sing, to connect with others through art, and to celebrate my heritage in the most beautiful way that I know I can, which is with my voice. 

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