Fairuz & Wadih Safi in National Geographic


Traditional Lebanese “Oud” maker.

For a small, mainly mountainous country located at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean and home to fewer than four million people, Lebanon packs in a lot of music. Along with Cairo, Beirut is one of the powerhouses of Arabic music production. Famously liberal and cosmopolitan before the 15-year civil war that all but obliterated its infrastructure, the Beirut music scene has proved characteristically resilient, and once again music pours out of this collage of shattered colonial architecture and bombed-out tower blocks nestling against brand new malls and coffee shops. So chic it hurts, Lebanese style is envied and resented by much of the rest of the Arab world.

Beyond Beirut, however, folk styles are still very much alive in Lebanon. The typical Lebanese folk dance, dabke—literally “stomping of the feet”—is a dance of community, and the national dance. As a folk style it was brought to contemporary relevance by such singers as Zaki Nassif, Nasri Shamseddine and Fairouz, a national icon. Fairouz is second only to the great Oum Kalthoum in her emotional power, and like that of the Egyptian diva, the dramas of her career, life and music have become entwined with that of her homeland. Fairouz’s refusal to leave Lebanon during the civil war won her the undying admiration of the Lebanese people and confirmed her place in the national mythology.
Born Nuhad Haddad in Beirut in 1935, Fairouz began her singing career at 17. She rode the wave of a national folklore movement in the 1960s and ’70s, alongside singers such as Sabah and Wadi’ al-Safi, performing as part of the state-sponsored Lebanese Folk Troupe. She performed in masrahiyyah musical plays, which, for the most part, were written by the Rahbani Brothers. Mansour took care of the lyrics, while Fairouz’s sometime husband Assi wrote the music. The Rahbanis’ compositions for Fairouz were innovative in their synthesis of styles—bringing Western keys to Arabic music—and in their down-to-earth language. With a voice that has been described as muk hmali, or “like velvet,” Fairouz has recorded more than 800 songs, expressing romantic love, nostalgia for village life and her homeland. Since the death of Assi Rahbani, for some years now Fairouz has sung and recorded compositions by her son, Ziad Rahbani, who brings to her performances caustic humor and a quirky jazz piano.
The general arts scene is very vibrant in Lebanon, with two international cultural festivals in the summer months: the Baalbeck festival which takes place in the Roman temples of Jupiter and Bacchus 50 miles outside Beirut; and the Beittedine Festival, which is held in the glorious 19th-century Beiteddine Palace. In addition to the international performers, the 2005 Beittedine Festival featured one of the luminaries of the Lebanese intellectual and artistic scene, Marcel Khalife. Bringing an intellectual rigor to the music as well as a distinct political engagement, the oud player, singer and composer Khalife has been dubbed the Lebanese Bob Dylan. He tours extensively and was closely associated with the late Palestinian-American writer Edward Said.
In the pop field the Lebanese believe in mass-production, and there is a new artist literally every couple of weeks. With the proliferation of pop channels, and also talent shows such as Star Academy and Superstar, young singers seem to mushroom overnight. One of the more durable artists is the sophisticated crooner Ragheb Alama, who has 13 albums to his name. Carole Samaha carries something of the Fairouz torch in that her background is in musical theater, while Nawal al Zoghbi was one of the first female singers to ride the music-video revolution—and managed to do so with her dignity intact—with her often Spanish-tinged, light Lebanese pop songs. One of the more highly regarded pop performers is Najwa Karam who combines modern pop with the jebeli mountain style, and who gained kudos recently by recording a duet with the veteran Wadih el Safi.
At the more disposable end of the scale: the 4 Cats are a girl group with shifting members and dubious vocals, while ex-model and sex symbol Haife Wehbe finds herself the frequent butt of unsavory jokes. Another pop singer, Maria, gained the nickname “cornflakes” after appearing in a video clip in a bath of breakfast cereal. All these singers churn out shiny, radio-friendly pop. One singer has transcended the school of throwaway music to become a superstar in recent years: Nancy Ajram. With her third album, Ya Salam, the college student from the Achrafieh district of Beirut broke through, and her combination of cheeky vocals and little-girl-lost looks propelled her to pan-Arab stardom, with particular success in Egypt, where the record-buying public is traditionally fascinated by, but dismissive of, Lebanese talent.
Beirut is a city that likes to party with an enthusiasm bordering on desperation. Consequently dance music is big, either at the underground superclub B018 (named for a former music studio in Christian East Beirut that played music loud enough to drown out the shooting during the war), or in the many bars along Monot Street. Star DJs have started to make their own music, and Said Mrad can justly claim to have invented what is now called “Oriental beats”: classic Arabic songs remixed for the dance-floor. He is probably the Middle East’s biggest homegrown DJ/producer, while REG Project and composer/keyboardist Guy Manoukian plough a furrow of accessible oriental house. Dance outfit Beirut Biloma’s dance tracks feature rap vocals, and hip-hop is a fast-expanding phenomenon in Beirut. Political, cheeky and dazzlingly multilingual (sentences in Beirut can travel through four languages), rap crews such as rivals Aksser and Kitaayoun are noisily articulating the aspirations and frustrations of a new Lebanese generation. —Tom Jackson (this article from National Geographic)


Artist Name: Wadi Al-Safi
Genre: Arab Classical, World Fusion
Country: Lebanon
Artist Bio:
Great Lebanese singer and composer Wadi Al Safi vocalizes gentle, warm and measured phrases. Safi learned songs originally from his grandfather, beginning at age four in his home village of Niha at the Chouf in Lebanon. “These were folkloric songs,” he says. “When I came to Beirut, I had singing lessons and was taught by great musicians like Michel Khayyat and Salim Helou. All my family were good singers, but I was the only one who became a professional.”
In his long career, Al-Safi has not lacked faith in his own ability. “I have an outstanding voice equal to 20 good voices. And, of course, I choose words that penetrate the hearts of the people.” Now over 80, Safi has learned how to adapt his singing as he’s aged. “My voice used to be better, but now it has more wisdom, “like old wine,” he says, smiling.
Safi and young gypsy artist José Hernandez blend Lebanese songs and Spanish flamenco music, trading couplets in both languages and across the 500 years separating the two styles. Eight of Safi’s most popular songs have been translated into Spanish, and the great singer has no doubt that music needs only very little translation to attract ears in other cultures. “Flamenco is very close to Arab music,” he says. “The Arabs were in Andalusia for a long time and the forms were hybridized”.
Al-Safi is perhaps best known for his collaboration with Sabah Fakhri on a recording called The Two Tenors, which traversed a mixture of Arabic styles from the classical and folk ends of the spectrum. These two artists were joined by Qantara, an instrumental ensemble led by oud player Simon Shaheen. —Courtesy Calabash Music (this article from National Geographic).


Artist Name: Fairuz
Genre: Arab Classical
Country: Lebanon
Artist Bio:
The Lebanese vocalist Fairuz (or Fairouz), known as “Lebanon’s ambassador to the stars,” is one of the all-time great Arab vocalists. Born to a working-class Maronite Christian family in 1934 or 1935 and a resident of Beirut, her real name was Nouhad Haddad; her stage name means “turquoise” in Arabic.
Fairuz’s first break came while she was still a teenager and was tapped to sing for Lebanese radio, but her ascent to real superstardom was the result of teaming up with the composer-lyricist team of brothers Asi and Mansour Rahbani, with whom she worked for 30 years. (Fairuz married Asi in 1954.) With Fairuz as their muse, the Rahbanis wrote a staggering amount of material, encompassing Arab classical music and East/West pop hybrids as well as inventive works that wove in material from tango to Mozart. Fairuz also recorded Lebanese nationalist songs as well as patriotic material for Palestinian and Syrian audiences, and she frequently toured the major capitals of the Middle East.
Fairuz’s political involvement ran deep. Her music was banned in Lebanon in1969 because she refused to sing for Houari Boumedienne, who had recently seized power to become president of Algeria. During the 1960s, she also starred in three movies. One, Safar Barlek (Exile), explored the Ottoman-era occupation of Lebanon, and the film incurred the wrath of the contemporary Turkish government. During the Lebanese civil war (1975–1990), she refused to leave Beirut even while the city endured its most dangerous days. Her neutrality during that intensely sectarian conflict made her even more of an icon for all Lebanese, and her first performance after the war was greeted by fans as the start of a new chapter in her country’s history.
In 1971, Fairuz and the Rahbanis toured the United States and Europe; her appearance at Carnegie Hall became the stuff of legend, and a television documentary about her trip, Fairuz in America, was the highest rated show in the Arab world when it was broadcast.
Fairuz and Asi split up in the early 1980s, but in recent years their accomplished composer son, Ziad, has become her musical director. She continues to have an active international touring schedule.
Though hard to find, her album Good Friday: Eastern Sacred Songs is a classic; artists like Argentine Jewish composer Osvaldo Golijov and Greek singer Savina Yannatou have in recent years incorporated arrangements of the Christian Holy Week hymn “Wa Habibi (Oh, Beloved)” from this album into their own work. Another good choice is The Legendary Fairuz (EMI Hemisphere), which is a compilation of live recordings from the 1990s. —Anastasia (This article from National Geographic).

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