BEIRUT (CNN) – When all-American Jennifer Grout first stepped on stage to audition, nobody could have anticipated how this 23-year-old from Massachusetts would take the Middle East by storm.
Now, she may very well win “Arabs Got Talent,” one of the biggest televised talent contests in the region.
During her debut appearance, she looked so out of place that many thought she’d flop altogether.
“It was nerve-wracking,” Grout said, “because I came on stage and I didn’t understand.”
The show’s judges were questioning her in Arabic, and Grout had great difficulty following, making for some very awkward moments.
But then she started strumming her oud, a traditional Arabic musical instrument, and the mood began to shift. She belted out a classic Arabic song. That’s when her life changed.
The American novice had chosen to cover an Egyptian diva, legendary songstress Umm Kulthoum, so revered throughout the region that many Arabic singers would be too intimidated to make such an attempt.
“When I’m performing, I’m in a different element,” Grout said. “So at that point, I wasn’t scared.”
To everyone’s surprise, her rendition of the classic “Baeed Annak (Far From You)” was a huge hit.
“When I finished, everyone was just shocked,” explained Grout. “Actually, when the judges were giving their comments after my performance, I didn’t understand them, either.”
She wasn’t the only one confused. Fans of the show wondered how a young foreigner who barely spoke Arabic could sing it so well.
‘Her voice just spoke to me’
It was just three years ago when Grout, who’d spent most of her life studying classical music and opera, first encountered another grand dame of Arabic music. She was studying at McGill University in Montreal at the time.
“I came across an article online about the famous Lebanese singer Fairouz, and I was just really mesmerized by her singing,” she remembers. “It was like nothing I had heard before.”
Once she discovered Umm Kulthoum, her attention turned eastward.
“Well, her music is the best, and her voice just spoke to me,” Grout said admiringly. “Her music is just so deep, and it touches my soul.”
She began studying Arabic and learning how to play the oud. After college, she moved to Morocco, where she learned local Berber music and began performing in Marrakesh’s Jemaa el Fnaa Square.
Now, life is completely different. With her appearances on “Arabs Got Talent,” Grout’s become very popular — but she hasn’t only made fans. Critics have slammed her, asking why an American should be allowed to compete on a reality show for Arabs.
Her performance of Syrian singer Asmahan’s “Ya Toyour (Oh Birds)” got her through to the finals. Famous Lebanese singer Najwa Karam, one of the show’s judges and a supporter of Grout’s, faced criticism when she voted for the American over an Arab group of contestants.
Break with tradition
Some have even suggested Grout, the first non-Arab contestant to compete on the show, isn’t even really American, latching on to her very distinct accent in an attempt to prove it.
She laughs off such claims.
“Ever since I was younger, I’ve had a different way of speaking,” she said. “I remember when I was a kid growing up in Boston, my parents had a Vermont accent. I actually tried to pick up a Boston accent at one point because I thought it was cool. And then I came home, and my parents were like, ‘why are you speaking like that?’ ”
Grout says she’s taking it all in her stride.
“I like my accent. I like the fact that it’s unique, and I think it’s narrow-minded to believe that just because you’re from a certain place, you have to speak a certain way. Because people learn and people change and people travel, and things about them change all the time. Why does that not include accents?”
Grout has become a sensation by singing the most unexpected of songs.
It’s not just that she chose traditional songs, it’s also that she broke with tradition when doing so. At a time when more and more Middle Eastern musicians are borrowing Western sounds and styles, this American decided to cross musical cultures and defy cultural expectations.
“I’m really happy because this music is so special for me, but it doesn’t really get much acknowledgment in the West,” she said. “And I feel like I’m bringing a new audience and almost giving the music the justice it deserves.”
The finals take place Saturday night in Beirut, broadcast live by the MBC network. The winner will be announced on the same night — could it be the singer from Massachusetts?