With his left hand gripping the microphone and his right hand placed respectfully over his heart, Ghaleb Emachah belts out The Star-Spangled Banner so impressively that it’s hard to believe he didn’t know the words to the song just a few weeks ago.
Born and raised in Venezuela, Emachah is a classically trained tenor. But when the opportunity to sing at Florida Panthers hockey games presented itself, he quickly downloaded the lyrics to the national anthem on Google.
Once he memorized the words, he started working on the melody, figuring out where he could make his voice soar.
“Like most immigrants, I’m very grateful for the welcoming this country has given me,” said Emachah, 37, who has been in the U.S. for 11 years. “When I sing, I want to tell the story [of the anthem and how it was inspired]. The story is amazing — ‘the rockets bursting in air.’ ”
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Emachah, a Miami Beach resident who became a U.S. citizen in 2007, said this is a “beautiful country” and that he hopes his feeling comes through in his singing.
“I found the happiness here that I didn’t find in my own [native] country,” he said. “I don’t want to be dramatic, but I almost have tears coming out of my face [when singing the anthem].
“This is my way of paying back [the U.S.] — singing with pride, passion and sentimentality. Some people serve their country in the military, fighting for our freedom. But we can’t all be warriors. I honor this country by doing what I know, which is singing.”
Richard Adler, the Panthers’ executive vice president of marketing, first saw Emachah perform at Sunset Catch restaurant in Pompano Beach.
Captivated by his voice, Adler invited Emachah to audition, which he did, beating out close to 30 other singers. The Panthers selected him as their main singer and Anna Hinsley, 14, and Caroline Canning, 12, as the alternates. Hinsley and Canning, who are both Broward County residents, will be used in a rotation whenever Emachah is unavailable.
“Ghaleb’s voice is really strong; very operatic — it’s mesmerizing,” said Pamela Zager-Maya, the Panthers’ vice president of marketing. “He can carry a note for a long time. [On Opening night], when he sang, ‘home of the brave,’ the fans thought he was done. But wait a minute, he’s still singing!”
Last season, the Panthers used a rotation of about 10 singers. And they sometimes went without a singer, using just an organist.
But, unlike in other sports, the anthem singer in hockey has traditionally been a singular voice, one that comes to define the team. A case in point is the reigning NHL champion Chicago Blackhawks, who have Jim Cornelison singing for the eighth straight year. And when he sings, the entire crowd joins in.
Zager-Maya said that this was part of the Panthers’ thinking, aiming for “consistency” in the fan experience and having a main singer and two alternates who can connect with the fans.
The new Panthers singers, who perform in exchange for experience and exposure, all had to learn the Canadian anthem after being selected.
O Canada is sung — in addition to the American anthem — anytime the Panthers play host to a team from north of the border. The first such game this season is Nov. 10 against Calgary.
Learning the Canadian anthem should not be an insurmountable challenge for Emachah, whose name means “victorious” or “conqueror” in Arabic.
His father, who was born in Syria before moving to Venezuela, where he met Emachah’s mother, was a musician. He started singing in public at age 3 and became a professional at 16.
He was also one of the 50 finalists on season seven of American Idol, which aired in 2008.
The American Idol judges — Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul — told him “to sing for his life,” but Emachah said the singers are not allowed much latitude in picking their songs due to issues with paying royalties.
“They give you a narrow list of songs, and if it doesn’t fit your voice, too bad,” he said. “I wanted to sing an Italian aria. But they said, ‘This is American Idol, not Italian Idol.’ ”
Emachah, who has an infectious, high-pitched laugh, said he loved the experience overall, even rejoicing in one of Cowell’s classic insults.
“Simon told me that l sound like a waiter from South Beach who grabbed a guitar and started singing,” he said with another cackle, “but Randy told him, ‘Come on, man, he sounds like Marc Anthony.’
“Paula jumped up and gave me a kiss and a hug and said: ‘Welcome to Hollywood.’ ”
Nearly a decade later, Emachah, who has a 14-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter, is much closer to Hollywood, Florida, than he is to Hollywood, California.
But he said he is enjoying himself. His son has done some acting and is interested in ecology. As for his daughter, Emachah said that, every now and again, “I hear this little [singing] voice in the back of the car.”
Until further notice, though, Ghaleb is the singer in the family and, according to Zager-Maya, the Panthers are lucky to have him.
“He does [The Star-Spangled Banner] justice,” she said. “It’s heartwarming because he gives it such a patriotic feeling — and he’s not even American[-born]. But he fits perfectly into the demographic of South Florida.”