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Fairouz: A Living Musical Icon In The Arab World

posted on: Feb 3, 2016

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer

Some two decades ago at Toronto’s O’Keefe Centre’s concert hall as the captivating voice of Fairouz, Lebanon’s unchallenged diva, revered across the Arab world and beyond, echoed in waves of beauty, it held me as well as most of the audience mesmerized as she sang in her concert of Arab-Andalusian poetry:

“Generous are the clouds if they could shed tears,

Oh past ages of linkage with Andalusia!

This dream can now be only in a dream that cheers,

In sleep, or in the embezzlement of an embezzler.”

It was to be an evening not easily forgotten by those who appreciate Arabic classical singing,

For almost half a century, Fairouz’s fame as a singer has travelled the globe. From Morocco to Iraq and from the borders of Turkey to the Sudan and among the Arab communities spread throughout the world she is today the Arab singer par excellence – unmatched by any other Arab vocalist in our times. It was no wonder then that here in Toronto, Canada’s largest city the fans were enthralled with her concert that glorified the history of Arab Spain.

The most famous living and listened to Arab singer Fairouz, (also spelled Fairooz, Fairuz, Fayrouz, Feirouz, Feyrouz and half a dozen other ways) is a living icon in the Arab world of entertainment. I remember a few years back discussing her singing with colleagues and friends in Damascus, Syria. From my conversations with a whole series of people it seemed to me that everyone in the city was captivated with her voice. A long time Damascene described this love for the singer well when he said: “I cannot start work in the morning without listening to at least one song by Fairouz.”

It is no wonder then that in January 2008, when some Lebanese politicians strongly criticized her for singing in what they considered to be an enemy country, she paid no heed. She no doubt knew that the Syrians as a whole were some of her most devoted fans.

Named Nouhad at birth in 1935, Fairouz, the eldest child of Wadih Haddad and Liza Bustani, was born in the village of Dbayeh in the Chouf region of Lebanon. The family later moved to Beirut where her father worked as a typesetter in a printing shop attempting to make a good living for the family, which was made up of four children – besides Nouhad, Huda, Joseph and Amal.

She showed singing talent early in life. By the age of ten, she became well known at school for her beautiful voice and was in demand at the school’s entertainment events. At one of these, she drew the attention of Mohammed Fleifel, a well-known Lebanese musician and teacher at the Lebanese Conservatory. Fleifel, struck by the shy girl’s talent had her enrolled in the conservatory and taught her the method of singing verses from the Qur’an. This tremendously strengthened her intonation of the classical language, setting her on the way to a brilliant singing career.

Halim El Roumi, a prominent musician and head of the music department at the Lebanese Radio Station happened to one day hear Nouhad sing. Deeply impressed by her voice he appointed her as a chorus singer at the radio station in Beirut. He changed her name to Fairouz (in Arabic turquoise), which from then on became her artistic name. Later he introduced her to the Rahbani brothers, Assi and Mansour – at that time working at the radio station as musicians. In the ensuing days, impressed with her voice, Assi composed songs for Fairouz – one of which, ‘Itab’ became a smash hit throughout the Arab world, making Fairouz one of the most prominent singers in that part of the world.

The people of the neighbouring Arab countries, especially Syria became enamoured with her songs. Every year, beginning in 1952, Fairouz along with ‘Assi and Mansour and accompanied by her sister would travel to Damascus almost every week to record her songs at a Syrian radio station. During this time love blossomed between Assi and Fairouz and they were married in 1955.

What brought Fairouz much fame and tremendously pushed forward her career was starring in the feature presentations by the Rahbani brothers called ‘Lebanese Nights.’ Every season, a musical play was introduced with a series of songs sung by Fairouz that through the years and have become an important part of Lebanese folklore.

Fairouz’s first concert on a grand scale took place in 1957 at the Baalbeck Festival where she amazed large audiences. In the ensuing years musical operettas such as those performed during her concerts in Baalbeck established Fairouz as one of the Arab world’s most cherished singers. During the 1960’s and 1970s her fame spread world-wide after she performed in innumerable countries all around the globe.

Fleifel’s coaching during her early years sharpened the Eastern style in her singing in the proper Arabic modes known as maqamat and in the singing of muwashahat – a type of poetry and singing developed in Arab Spain. She became renowned in this classical form, distinguishing herself clearly from other typical Arab entertainers.

Through the years, the Rahbani brothers and later her son Ziad composed a series of songs for almost all the major Arab capitals, which Fairouz sang, and these often became secondary national anthems. It is no wonder then that she became the most effective ambassador of Lebanon – more effective than all that country’s diplomats combined.

Through all her career, from peasants to emirs and kings, her fans were without numbers. Throughout her long and distinguished career, leaders of numerous Arab countries have honoured her with praise and prestigious awards. As well, throughout the Arab world she has been labelled with many loving names such as ‘The Crown Jewel of Lebanese Music’, ‘Lebanon’s Ambassador to the Stars’, ‘The Arabs’ Ambassador’, and ‘Neighbour to the Moon’.

Today, Fairouz, whose nationalist Lebanese and Arab songs are regularly played on Arab radios, possesses a huge collection of some 1500 songs and 100 million of her records have been sold around the world. Still strong with her singing appeal, the 73 year-old singer remains in demand all over the Arab world. However, besides her native Lebanon, Syria is the country where she is most admired.

In January 2008 Fairouz traveled to Damascus to perform, for a six night run, one of her classical musicals, Sah Al Nom. UNESCO selected Damascus as the 2008 Capital of Arab Culture and she travelled there as a part of a year-long educational and cultural events Damascus is hosting. Her visit electrictrified the Syrians and even though the tickets’ price to attend her concerts ranged between 2,000 and 10,000 Syrian pounds ($40-US$200), a price out of reach for many Syrians, it was a sell-out every evening. Because the demand for her singing was so great among the young, who on the whole could not afford the tickets, Fairouz consented to perform at a special evening for her young fans, after her concerts were over, for a minimal fee.

One of the Arab world’s most beloved singers, Fairouz, like Umm Kalthum the renowned Egyptian singer, has attained near-mythic status in all the Arab countries. One of my colleagues described her standing in the world of entertainment among the Arabs well when he said: “For more than half a century Fairouz’s voice has thrilled Arabs from the Atlantic to the borders of Iran and beyond. She is truly a giant among the Arab singers of our time”