2003’s Harem is probably Sarah Brightman’s most consistent concept album to date. It features a wealth of Middle Eastern and Indian musical themes, taking a unique approach to some standards and classics.
This is also probably Brightman’s most ambitious work, a presentation of style and substance that finds her singing about Arabian Nights with desert-kissed cool and venturing into Middle Eastern fables and myths with sexually-charged spirituality.
Frank Peterson’s influence is apparent on Harem, but Brightman’s desires are front and centre. She sings with softness and tenderness, but she also manages to up the force factor more than a few times throughout these songs. She bends notes, flies up scales with mysterious abandon and sinks her teeth into renditions of Louis Armstrong and A.R. Rahman tunes with ease. There’s even an appearance of sorts by the late Israeli singer Ofra Haza.
The title track starts things off with ethereal vocals and some pretty atmosphere. This is the first single from the album and it actually landed in the top spot on Billboard’s dance/club charts for a bit. Based on “Canção do Ma,” an Amália Rodrigues tune from 1955, “Harem” serves as the perfect introduction as Brightman “welcomes” the listener to the record.
A version of “What a Wonderful World” follows with Middle Eastern flavour, presenting the album’s course of shifting dynamics. This continues again in with the upbeat “It’s a Beautiful Day” and the soothing “What You Never Know.”
Harem really picks up with “The Journey Home,” an epic piece of work and a song from Rahman’s Bombay Dreams musical. The musical was produced by Andrew Lloyd Webber and opened in the West End in 2002, a year before the release of Brightman’s record. It pulses with energy and features the aforementioned shifting dynamics, playing with quick disco beats and waiflike motion.
“The War is Over” is a personal favourite. It features Kadim Al Sahir, an Iraqi singer and composer, delivering an absolutely stellar vocal performance that elegantly highlights the delicacy in Brightman’s tones. Also featured is the violin of Nigel Kennedy, adding graceful accents to the already beautiful song.
Harem also features an ambitious nearly nine-minute suite called “Arabian Nights” that includes Belgian-born vocalist Natacha Atlas. A former member of fusion group Transglobal Underground and a star in Arabic pop circles, Atlas is the perfect addition to the record.
In terms of purity of form and concept, Harem is one of Brightman’s best. It is a truly exquisite album, both musically and ideologically, and it represents what the singer has to offer in tremendous shades of culture and tradition.