Fairouz: a Voice, a Star, a Mystery

Sami Asmar
Fairouz by Zareh for Al Jadid.

In the 1920s, a small group of Lebanese and French romantics picked the ruins of Baalbek as a place to meet and recite their poetry. They started a trend that made the ancient city the hub of art festivals. In the early 1950s, young Lebanese artists rushed to perform at the Baalbek Festivals and, over the years, many of them succeeded and grew to become household names – Fairouz, Sabah, Wadih Safi, Nasri Shamseddin, the writers/composers Assi and Mansour Rahbani, and the dance group of Abdulhalim Caracalla. The nucleus of a generation of legendary artists was formed at the historical site.

The most famous living Arab singer and the crown jewel of Lebanese music, Fairouz, earned her fame on the steps of those temples in feature presentations that the Rahbani brothers – their creators – called “Lebanese Nights.” Every season, a musical play was typically introduced with a dozen songs that would resonate for the rest of the year and, as time has proven, for many years to come. The artistic material that was a product of the festivals is now generally treated as part of the Lebanese folklore.

Fairouz was born in 1935 and named Nuhad, the eldest child of Wadih Haddad and Liza Bustani. Her father was a print shop technician who moved his family to Beirut from the village of Dbayeh in the Chouf region with the goal of making a better living. His other children were Huda (who also became a singer in the Rahbani productions), Amal, and Joseph. Nuhad showed singing talent as a child and often sang for her family and neighbors, showing preference for the Egyptian songs of Layla Murad and Asmahan.

At age 14, Nuhad was discovered in high school by a musician named Mohammed Fleifel, who scouted schools for singers to join in a performance planned to air on the new national radio station. He was struck by the shy girl's talent and quickly became an agent of sorts, advising her on the smallest of actions, down to how spicy her food could be in order to maintain a good voice, and recruiting her into the National Conservatory, where he worked.

It was not long before officials in the radio station offered her a job as a chorus singer, posing the first dilemma of her career. Her conservative father initially objected but the devout Christian girl felt the salary from the job could help her achieve her real goal of becoming a teacher. Her father reluctantly approved under the condition that her brother escort her to the studio every day. Fairouz's shy, private and conservative personality has been discussed often by commentators. Despite her celebrity status, Fairouz never acted like a celebrity and maintained an almost ascetic decorum. She was probably more comfortable recording her famous Christian liturgy albums than some of the dance songs. This reserve may be in part due to her upbringing and in part to the image she wishes to project. Some fans would prefer a warmer style and more natural body language on stage, in lieu of her decorous and somewhat rigid stage presence. Fairouz defends herself by saying that she prefers to concentrate on singing rather than on moving her body. Fleifel believed in a method of training singers that was prevalent in Egypt — the method credited with making Umm Kulthum and Mohammed Abdul-Wahab great singers — the chanting of Koranic verses. Nuhad learned the art from him and tremendously strengthened her intonation of the classical language. This skill became clear in her singing of muwashahat, for example. It probably helped her sharpen the Eastern style in her singing in the proper Arabic modes known as maqamat. She distinguished herself from typical Arab singers, however, by not using the common nasal tones in favor of clearer resonances, drawing some comments that she sounded Western.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Nuhad absorbed on-the-job training at the radio station at an incredible rate, memorizing long poems and noting every subtlety in each tune. Her supervisor, Halim Al-Rumi, composed a few songs for Fairouz. It was not uncommon in those days for singers to take a stage name, especially one suggested by the person who discovered or helped them. Rumi suggested that Nuhad Haddad sing under the name Fairouz, meaning turquoise, and after she got over the shock of the suggestion, she accepted. Rumi also introduced her to a young aspiring composer named Assi Rahbani, a policeman by profession, who, along with his brother Mansour, frequented the radio station looking for their own break in the business as writers and composers.

For their first collaboration with Fairouz, the Rahbani brothers wrote her a song called “Itab,” a romantic poem about blame and the agony of love. This song launched Fairouz overnight into a huge star in Lebanon. They traveled to Damascus in 1952 to record the song at a Syrian radio station and with a record on the market, she quickly became known throughout the Arab world.

In 1953, between work breaks at the radio station, Assi proposed to Nuhad and, in 1954, they married and moved into a house in the Rahbani village of Antiliyas near Beirut. The environment, countryside in close proximity to the Mediterranean, inspired many songs. Popular legend holds that to this day, Fairouz returns every Sunday to attend services in the village church.

The success streak continued after the hit song and marriage, and the young couple was invited to travel to Egypt the following year. Cairo was the cultural center of the Arab world and every artist felt the challenge to be accepted there. Assi and Fairouz, however, turned down offers for collaboration from the excited Egyptian art community and simply enjoyed their tour. Pregnant, Fairouz did not seek new work in Egypt, but rather the chance to make introductions and form new friendships. She returned home and gave birth to son Ziad in early 1956. Ziad Rahbani grew up to become a great composer on his own merit and played a critical role in shaping his mother's music in the later stages of her career.

The next step in the rocketing progression of her career was live performances, not an easy feat for the fiercely reserved person. Nonetheless, she amazed large audiences in her first performance at the Baalbek Festival in 1957, and then every summer for years after. The Rahbani family chose a song on the beauty of Lebanon for her debut, a winning strategy that quickly earned her a medal from the president. This honor was the first of many, including the issuing of a memorial stamp. Throughout her career, leaders of many Arab nations rushed to host her and honor her with medals. For example, the late King Hussein of Jordan welcomed her twice. The king of Morocco reportedly received her in person at the airport, a protocol reserved for heads of state. She has collected enough keys to cities around the world never to be locked out! One of those keys came from the Arab mayor of Jerusalem when, in 1961, she accompanied her father on a pilgrimage to the city. Years later, she sang a landmark song to Jerusalem that has earned her incredible love from Arab audiences.

Arab intellectuals worried that attention from savvy politicians might influence the Rahbani family to return the favors by singing for the glory of the leaders. However, their own political savvy led them to sing for the glory of the land. They composed a series of songs for all the major Arab capitals, each of which is a piece of art. Those nations have taken the songs as secondary national anthems and play them during official broadcasts. By singing for the Palestinian cause without politicizing it and by paying respect to Arab capitals without personalizing them to leaders, Fairouz may have earned more political respect for the small nation of Lebanon than all the professional diplomats combined. She has been the most effective ambassador of her country. Furthermore, during the long civil war in Lebanon, she refused to seek shelter outside the country and chose never to perform for the interest of factional warlords.

This became the “Rahbani school,” imitated by another generation of artists. The rebel in this whole story was their son Ziad. He entered the family business and composed some of his mother's best songs. He then quickly broke off and produced plays that satirized his father's and uncle's formula. Turmoil engulfed the family; Fairouz and her husband separated and he died soon after, in 1986. The Arab world lost a brilliant composer in Assi Rahbani. Fairouz and Ziad, in commemoration, re-issued Assi's compositions in a new instrumental style. Ziad then took on the responsibility of composing for his mother, often incorporating jazz themes in some songs and Eastern themes (manipulating maqamat masterfully) in others, proving his skill in both. Ziad's work may actually be his commentary on the debate about the ability of Arabs to compose in Western styles, and if there is a need to make the distinction in the first place. One beautiful song at a time, Fairouz rose to top of the pyramid of Arab singers. The inevitable tendency to compare her to other Arab singers, like Umm Kulthum, only leads to meaningless debates since the two women had completely different styles. In a 40-year career, Fairouz's repertoire spanned a spectrum of material unmatched by anybody else. She sang art songs, classical language, Lebanese dialect, pop, dance, Eastern “tarab,” Western classical (even a Mozart tune with Arabic lyrics), children's and patriotic songs. She excelled in all. The Rahbani brothers were brilliant at bringing new material to the scene. In the 1950s, audiences in Lebanon and elsewhere were used to solely Egyptian vocabulary devoted to the agony of love. Suddenly, the Rahbanis were singing about the young girl carrying a water jug or the Dabke dancers celebrating in the Jabal (mountain area). The imagery changed and elevated life's simple moments to beauty. Subject matter in their plays followed a formula that became their trademark. There was still the love story and enough agony to go around, but they mixed this formula with humor and some cultural realism, all on a foundation of beautiful poetry and music. Lively dances and colorful costumes added visual energy.

The Rahbani brothers planted that seed in Ziad. They had been interested in experimenting with mixing Western and Eastern music, as did Mohammed Abdul Wahab and Farid Al-Atrash before them. They wanted to leave their mark and they did so uniquely, tackling new melodic forms and adapting dance tunes including Western ballroom styles. Their biggest contribution was in arranging folk music in a new way. They drew from the well of their culture and original material magically appeared. Some called it Arab light opera. They did not stop at that: through the voice of Fairouz, the prolific Rahbani Brothers re-orchestrated the ancient muwashshahat and composed their own pseudo-muwashshahat, singing classical poetry in the style of the Arabs in Andalusia.

Interestingly, throughout their careers together, the Rahbani Brothers and Fairouz did not work exclusively together. The Rahbanis welcomed other composers and some of Fairouz's best songs are attributed to Filimone Wahbi, a brilliant folk musician who had never studied music and tended to provide the comic relief in their plays. Fairouz also sang for Najib Hankash, who composed the poem by Kahlil Gibran called “A'tini Nay” (Give the Flute). Even the great Egyptian singer/composer Mohammed Abdul Wahab did not miss out on the opportunity to work with Fairouz and composed several songs for her, the most famous of which is called “Sakan al-Layl” (The Night is Calm). In turn, Assi and Mansour composed for Sabah, Wadih Safi, and many others. In 1997, Lebanon wanted to formally mark the end of the civil war with the return of the Baalbek Festival. People demanded Fairouz's return, but the organizers did not reach an acceptable agreement with Mansour. In 1998, under popular pressure, they did finally reach an agreement. The return of Fairouz to Baalbek was extremely well received by the nostalgic public and officials at all levels, including presidential attendees. However, critics did notice that, when accompanied by a dabke dance, Fairouz would lip sync and the orchestra's microphones would be turned off. Although this was done to prevent the 63-year-old star's voice from becoming exhausted during the long show, the press was offended.

They were not the only ones. Fairouz's son did not bother to show up in order to protest the lip syncing. He was supposed have performed a piano solo that he refused to pretend to play with the microphone turned off.

According to one newspaper report, his piano was rolled away because of his absence, but a piano sound could still be heard–from the recording.

This spring, Fairouz staged another historical event by performing in Las Vegas and attracting more than 10,000 people from throughout the Western Hemisphere. Her fans had worried that they may not get a chance to see her perform live outside of Lebanon again. Fears that her voice was not strong were dispelled as she dazzled them with their classic favorites. Very few people had dry eyes when she finally sang “Take me and plant me in the land of Lebanon.” The crowd gave repeated standing ovations compelling her return to the stage to perform five encore selections. She could not help but feel their love, and the woman who rarely shows happiness on stage finally smiled ear-to-ear as she waved her audience goodbye.

This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 5, No. 27, Spring 1999.

Copyright © 1999 AL JADID MAGAZINE