Modern Arab music was shaped by a few highly creative individuals throughout the 20th century. Three of them were members of one family: the Rahbanis of Lebanon, comprised of the two brothers Assi and Mansour, and a singer named Nuhad Haddad who married Assi and took the name Fairuz. Their documented journey has become legendary; for nearly three decades, the Rahbani Brothers wrote and composed songs that Fairuz sang and musicals in which she starred. Their prolific works are considered a treasure by generations of Arabs worldwide. In January, Mansour Rahbani died at age 83, ending the second chapter of a great legacy.
Assi had died in 1986, after a separation from Fairuz, and until his death, all their work was signed as the Rahbani Brothers. Critics and the curious fans often wondered how they divided their duties between writing the lyrics and composing the music; was Mansour the poet and Assi the composer? The brothers insisted that all work was their joint creative products in all aspects; they were not one poet and one composer but two poets and two composers. They revealed that when writing a musical play they would assign scenes for each to write separately, then exchange them for feedback and revisions.
After the death of the more temperamental older brother, Mansour spent years fighting hurtful critics who declared Assi as the musical genius and Mansour the poetic genius, taking away from his musical contribution. It has become generally accepted through close collaborators and former assistants that Assi preferred to write poetry in the Lebanese dialect while Mansour wrote in classical Arabic, and that Assi preferred folk tunes and instruments while Mansour preferred large orchestral compositions.
This is consistent with Mansour’s background. Born in the town of Antelias, he studied in mostly Christian schools run by Jesuit priests who likely taught hymns with Western style harmony and orchestration. He then studied for years under Bertrand Robillard as well as Father Paul al-Ashkar. Mansour also took tremendous interest in classical Arabic literature and history and was fascinated by the works of al-Kindi and al-Farabi, among others. As a young adult, Mansour supported his music studies by working with the local police force prior to becoming a professional musician with his brother on the staff of the national radio station. Mansour and Assi’s career took off as they teamed up with Fairuz and started the musical plays of the Baalbek festival through which they quickly achieved national, then pan-Arab and international, recognition.
Assi and Mansour’s younger brother, Elias Rahbani, who was very young when their father died and was essentially raised by his brothers, followed in their footsteps as a composer. The three brothers also have musician sons. Assi and Fairuz’s son, Ziad, is a highly talented composer. After her husband’s death, Fairuz worked exclusively with her son, whose style was very different from that of his father and uncle. Ziad intentionally challenged the traditional “Rahbani School,” and in his own musical plays ridiculed the over-used imagery of the simple and pleasant village life, the peacemaker mayor (mukhtar) and the water jug (jarra) carried by the young and beautiful that had been interesting images developed by Mansour for the early Baalbek festivals of the late 1950’s. Ziad had modern political and socialist messages with a sharp edge and cynical humor. Mansour Rahbani’s children, on the other hand, collaborated with him and followed a style he seemed to favor – grandiose musical productions of universal themes, with large Western-style orchestras, expansive stage sets and, in one play, numerous horses on stage. The mukhtar was replaced by al-Mutanabbi, and the jarra replaced by fancy choreographed sword fights.
In his later years, Mansour’s relationship with his sister-in-law was mixed. He publicly expressed displeasure at Fairuz’s solo concert tours in which she performed her classics – his creative work – without sufficient coordination with him. But he also went out of his way to defend her when she performed in Damascus at a time of a strong anti-Syrian sentiment in Lebanon, asserting that nobody was more patriotic than Fairuz, who should be a national treasure to be protected from political squabble.
The man whose work was taught in conservatories worldwide, his writings analyzed by graduate students, was a genius visionary who, with his brother and a select few intellectuals, started the Baalbek Festivals in the 1950’s to put Lebanon on the world map. In the process, he created a musical genre recognized around the world as the music of Lebanon and indeed the folklore of Lebanon. Mansour Rahbani who, obsessed with historical figures, wrote plays about Socrates, Jesus, Gibran and Zenobia, passed away with his last play, “The Return of the Phoenix.” still being performed. He was the Phoenix who was to rise after the loss of his brother and the predicted demise of his career. He rose to be the wise older statesman of Arab music, expressing his feelings with poetry to the end, and leaving a legacy to his children and an inspiration to all artists.
This review appears in Al Jadid, Vol. 15, no. 61 (2009)
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