Typography

Life sometimes seems like it moves in a straight line, until one day it doesn’t. Just ask Ali Elkharam, 20, a consumer electronics salesman from Mikkeli, whose life turned upside down when he appeared as a contestant this spring on the popular television programme Idols, Finland’s version of the Pop Idol format pioneered in Britain. He ended up finishing in second place on the show, which wrapped in May, but turned heads across the country with his deep, expressive voice and – in the midst of an unprecedented electoral season where xenophobic rhetoric ran high – multiracial background. He spoke with SixDegrees about growing up in Mikkeli, his Libyan father, and leaving the sales floor behind to pursue a singing career full-time.

How did the Idols experience affect your life?

Before Idols, I was working everyday from 10 o’clock until 7. Now my days are not so regular – sometimes I have free time, other times I have hectic, stressful bursts of activity. My life isn’t normal anymore. My profession has changed. I have some gigs planned for the summer and I’m in talks with labels that are interested in making records.

How did you start singing?

I have two older brothers – my oldest brother is 8 years older than me – and we all went to the music institute in Mikkeli. We held some small concerts together and I got into music that way, listening to them playing cello and trumpet, watching and learning. Somewhere along the way, I got really excited about singing. That was about ten years ago.

Do you have a favourite kind of music in particular?

I listen to a lot classical music. I listen to jazz, I also like death metal. I don’t have a single type of music that I like.

Will the records that you intend to make be similarly eclectic?

What I would like to do is acoustic-based pop and rock with Finnish lyrics – with grand piano, guitars and lots of different percussion instruments. I think that’s a sound that suits my voice. While I enjoy singing in English, Finnish is really what I prefer to sing in. It’s my mother tongue. Other than that, I don’t have a precise vision exactly, but when I hear a good song, I know it’s a good song.

“Karjalan Kunnailla” is an old and nostalgic song about a region closely identified with Finland’s national origins. What kind of reaction did you get when you sang it on Idols?

Before my performance, I thought maybe it was a little bit risky, because it’s such a traditional Finnish song and I don’t think anybody has made a pop or rock version of it. I felt like it could go either way, that it was a bit 50/50 – either the audience would like it a lot or they would boo me off the stage. But I ended up getting really positive feedback. I think it was my best performance on Idols.

With a Libyan father and a Finnish mother, what languages did you grow up speaking around the house?

My older brothers speak Arabic well, but my Arabic isn’t very good. We mostly spoke Finnish at home. Nowadays I speak English with my father, who lives back in Libya.

Is he OK?

Yes. We just spoke on the phone. He’s safe and fine. He lives on the coast in the eastern (rebel-held) part of the country. He’s the boss of a small manufacturing company. My mother is a saleswoman and still lives in Mikkeli. They divorced a few years ago.

Growing up your whole life in Finland, with Finnish as your native tongue, but with a foreigner as a father, have you ever nonetheless felt like an immigrant?

Well, of course my name is not the most normal Finnish name. When people look at me and they first hear me say my name, I can see in their eyes that they are wondering where exactly I’m from. Sometimes people ask me about it, sometimes they don’t, but everybody always knows that I have a foreign background. But I’ve always seen myself as Finnish. I’m proud of my name and proud of my roots, but I don’t feel like an immigrant – I know Mikkeli better than any other place on earth.

There’s a YouTube clip going around of you in the Finnish army a couple years ago, singing in uniform.

Yeah. I was doing my service in North Karelia, and I got to be the lead singer of the military band there. I was really happy to get to do that, I enjoyed that a lot.

What’s it like getting onstage in front of the whole country now?

Some people get really nervous when they have to perform in front of lots of people, but I don’t know, I’ve never had a problem with it. Perhaps it’s in my genes. I like to entertain and be onstage. I just enjoy the situation. One of the best feelings I know is when you have just finished a performance and you go off stage and everyone’s reacting in the moment. It’s hard to describe. It’s fantastic.

Date & Place of Birth: 20 January 1991, Mikkeli

Place of Residence: Mikkeli

Education: Media assistant

Family: Three brothers, mom, dad, partner Laura, dog & cat

As a child I wanted to be…a musician.

I it annoys when…people don’t know how to drive.

In the future I hope…for lots of gigs and records.

Text: Joseph Knowles, Photo: Laura Martinez