It has been nearly 40 years since the legendary Arab diva, Umm Kulthum, passed away. Now, the most unlikely candidate may follow in her footsteps: A 23-year-old American girl, who as it turns out, hardly speaks a word of Arabic.
Born and raised in Massachusetts, Jennifer Grout was a student at Canada's McGill University when she fell in love with classical Arab music.
"She sings from the heart. She loves the Arab music. She loves the rhythm, she loves the scales, the intonation. It's just incredible to hear it," her mother, Susan Montgomery-Grout, told ABC.
For her graduation present, Grout's mother said, the singer asked for a one-way ticket to Morocco to pursue a career in classical Arab music. Fast forward a year or so and Grout landed herself a spot as a contestant on 'Arabs Got Talent.' On Saturday December 7, she will compete in the finals and could make big waves if she wins.
The musical prowess of stars like Umm Kulthum or Fairouz is hard to reach even for a native Arabic speaker. But for Grout, who is a classically trained singer and, as she says, has "natural ear for picking up accents," the music seems almost effortless.
According to GlobalPost, Najwa Karam, one of the panelists judging Grout's performance went so far as to say, "You don’t speak a word of Arabic, yet you sing better than some Arab singers.”
Despite the praise, Grout's participation in the contest has received a mixed reception.
Reported in the Guardian, Nahla Mattar, the director of Cairo's Umm Kulthum museum, said Grout needs "a lot of deep training in Quranic recitation. So far...she is still just an American girl singing that melody."
In addition, the ease with which she sings in Arabic, as well as her curiously untraceable accent, have led some to wonder: Is this girl really American?
“I always loved the fact that I had my own accent, and nobody ever could pinpoint where I was from,” Grout said in an interview with the New York Times. “But now it’s frustrating because people are using it to try to take away my credibility as an artist."
An American woman singing classic Arab tunes might be unique, but an Arab-born woman posing as a westerner singing Arab songs seems altogether fantastical. However, the thought of an Arab woman posing as an American may be easier to swallow for some than seeing a westerner successfully borrowing from a beloved tradition that is not her own.
“So many times I’ve heard the comment ‘It’s 'Arabs Got Talent' — go back to America,’” Grout told the New York Times. “It’s like I’m starting an invasion, when really I just love singing Arabic music and desperately wanted a chance to perform it for an audience that would appreciate it.”