American Woman Wows 'Arabs Got Talent,' Moves into Finals

PHOTO: Jennifer Grout, a 23-year-old American from Massachusetts, has rocketed to the finals of "Arabs Got Talent," a TV talent competition modeled off of the United States "Americas Got Talent" and popular in the Arab world.
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An American woman from Massachusetts is wowing the judges and audiences of "Arabs Got Talent" with her singing, despite the fact that she understands very little Arabic.

Jennifer Grout, 23, has moved into the finals of the competition which is shown throughout the Arab world and has been competing with performers from across the Middle East and North Africa. This season has featured a Saudi stand-up comic, a karate-performing trio from Kuwait and a hijab-wearing rapper from Egypt, among many others.

Grout, who is from Cambridge, Mass., is getting ready to return to the Lebanese capital, Beirut, where she will be one of 12 contenders in the finals of "Arabs Got Talent."

"The first performance, nobody really took me seriously before I went on stage, just an American girl singing Arabic," she said of her Susan Boyle moment. "About 30 seconds into it, I think everybody was very surprised. I felt really proud, because the audience went from not taking me seriously to like, wow she's good.

PHOTO: Jennifer Grout, a 23-year-old American from Massachusetts, has rocketed to the finals of Arabs Got Talent, a TV talent competition modeled off of the United States Americas Got Talent and popular in the Arab world.
Courtesy MBC Group
PHOTO: Jennifer Grout, a 23-year-old American from Massachusetts, has rocketed to the finals of "Arabs Got Talent," a TV talent competition modeled off of the United States' "America's Got Talent" and popular in the Arab world.

"My second performance, I got really positive feedback from the judges as well as some of my fans online," she said.

Her participation marks the first time a singer doesn't speak Arabic has performed in Arabic on the show, which is in its third season, according to MBC Group, which airs the show on two of its channels across the Arab world.

Grout's performances have brought her some degree of fame in the region. She said people in Morocco have come up to her saying they know her from the show.

"It was so impressive for everybody that there was an American who's not an Arabic speaker who's interested in Arabic music," Motasem Isied, 26, a graphic designer in Hebron, in the West Bank, told ABC News. "She was really impressive. She got all of the letters, the song, the tune."

Grout, a classically trained singer more attuned to the likes of Bach and Mozart, came across a video online of the famous Lebanese singer Fairouz, and in early 2010 decided to explore Arabic music, she told ABC News.

"That initial feeling, like I was transported. It took me away," Grout said. "It was magical."

That encounter piqued Grout's interest, and from there it was a slow progression, she said. Growing up, her life centered around classical music. She sang in choirs and played the violin and piano.

So halfway through her undergraduate college career, she picked up the oud, a lute-like instrument common in the Middle East, and searched the internet for music. She started singing in Arabic, a challenge for someone who did not speak or understand the language.

"Sometimes, I would just be sitting in my room for three hours singing one note, just trying to get the right note, to get the right vocal technique," Grout said, speaking in a telephone interview from Marrakesh, Morocco.

As a gift for her college graduation in 2012, she asked for a one-way ticket to Morocco, where she wanted to attend a music festival, her mother, Susan Montgomery-Grout, told ABC News.

She's lived in Marrakesh for the past year. There, she fell more in love with Arabic music, and this summer flew to Lebanon to audition for "Arabs Got Talent."

The show's celebrity panel loved her. Despite a language barrier — they spoke little English and one judge mimicked strumming an oud's strings to get her to start — she astonished an audience that laughed when she started singing a famous, technically challenging song by the late Egyptian singer Umm Kulthoum.

Learning to belt out tunes in a new language was not difficult for Grout, since classically trained vocalists learn to sing in Italian, French, German and other languages by studying their sounds and diction. But Arabic still proved tough, she said.

"The language was really hard in the beginning," Grout said, adding that she gets translations of the songs online or asks friends for help. "There's all these sounds that don't exist in English."

Thérèse Sevadjian, Grout's voice teacher at McGill University's Schulich School of Music, told ABC News Grout's "sensuous" voice was flexible enough to allow her to master an entirely different genre. "Voice is voice," Sevadjian told ABC News. "She's using her voice the same."

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