The Musical Journey of Fairuz
Singing is common in all cultures. However, it plays different roles across cultures. In some, it is considered as natural as speech, and in such communities, everyone is expected to sing. That is old people, young people, individuals in prison, people in difficulties. Music is a highly pervasive and compelling aspect of most people lives. It represents a well-ingrained portion of individuals’ semantic memories. Music is a powerful tool to connect issues and times in history, to enhance learning, to prompt unity, or to illustrate a cultural identity. The quantity of the music available everywhere today is growing rapidly. This paper looks at the life of Fairuz, who is the most famous Lebanese and Arabic female singer of all time. Despite being a woman in a male-dominated culture, Fairuz was able to break all gender limitations and rise to an accolade that very few Lebanese people have attained. She has dined with royalties and visited almost all prestigious cities, and still maintains a humble, devout religious stance. The paper looks at her early childhood, introduction into the musical scene and explains how she rose to global fame. Fairuz’s story is testimony that discovery of one’s talent and hard work consequently result to unimaginable success.
Renowned musical singer Fairuz was the eldest child in the Haddad’s family. Her name at birth was Nochad, meaning ‘splendor’ or ‘sigh’ and she later grew up to be known as Fairuz, who is to date one of the greatest singers in the middle east. Fairuz had always had an affinity for singing and started to show a natural flair for singing from a very young age. Many a time, she would randomly surprise everyone by bursting into song. Since her family was poor, she could not enjoy the luxury of listening to radio, despite her love for music. Fairuz choose to sit on her window and eavesdrop on her neighbor’s radio, which fascinated her a lot. Among her favorite singers at that time were two famous Egyptian singers Asmahan and Laila Murad, who inspired her to a musical career.
Fairuz father valued the importance of education and despite having a meager salary, he opted to put aside some of it for his children’s education. Fairuz was, therefore, able to attend school. At school, her voice was immediately recognized as having a unique quality. She had the gift of transforming any national hymn into something spectacular. Fairuz got her fist musical break in 1947. The school had a party and among the guests was Mohammed Feifel, a teacher from the Lebanese Convention, who was immediately struck by Fairuz’s singing abilities. Feifel at the time was looking for young singers who would sing national hymns that would be aired on a new radio station. Feifel, impressed by Fairuz singing talent, decided to tender her musically. He started by instructing her not to eat citrus, spicy foods and any other food that might damage her vocal cords. He also mentored Fairuz on how to chant verses from the Koran and cautioned her from singing in the high register. He was quite confident that Fairuz’s singing career would be enormous and wanted to be in the spotlight when this dream materialized.
As part of his job, Feifel on one occasion presented some songs sung by Fairuz to the head of the music department at a Lebanese Radio Station. The director of the radio’s music department was Al-Rumi, who on hearing Fairuz’s voice was quite impressed and asked to see her. He asked her whether she was interested in joining the radio station as a singer which she gladly accepted. The fascinating quality of Fairuz’s voice according to him was that it incorporated the typical eastern quality with the flexibility to render western approval. Fairuz was thus employed at the radio station in Beirut as a chorus singer.
Fairuz’s conservative father wasn’t pleased with her daughter working at a radio station. It took a lot of convincing and coaxing by close friends for him to loosen his tough stance on the matter. He later decided to allow her to work at the radio station on condition that her mother and siblings must accompany her whenever she went to work. Fairuz was around 14 years at this time, and she fully embraced the newly found opportunity. She tightly took the time to observe and practice techniques in the musical world. Her singing ability allowed her to learn the different techniques of other choir singers and would often substitute for musicians who were late and failed to appear.
The Rahbani Brothers
Mansour and Assi Rahbani were born and raised in Beirut, in a small village called Antilias. They had a strong liking for music from a very young age and formed a musical group while still young boys. They always dreamt of perusing a musical career but due to financial constraints, were forced to take jobs as policemen. The two brothers still had their musical ideas and saved most of what they were paid. Having saved enough money, they both enroll in the Lebanese Academy of Arts. The art school helped them expand their training in Middle Eastern music, and they also studied different forms of western music. After graduation, they opened a recording studio where they were both directors. The Rahbani’s had natural talent in composing music, and their training at the art school perfected their skills. They composed song skits; a musical theater form of art which became very successful in Lebanon, building their reputation. They later met Fairuz at their studio and their long relationship began here. They are acknowledged as the first Arabic composers to synchronize modern instruments and orchestration with Ancient Arabic music, to create a blend of both worlds.
Fairuz and the Rahbani Brothers
At this time, Fairuz was working very closely with Al-Rumi, who was overly excited about the new talent he had discovered. He went on to introduce Fairuz to Assi Rahbani, a talented composer who was a policeman by profession. Assi had heard Fairuz’s voice too and wanted to mentor her. Fairuz and Assi went on to produce their first collaboration was significant in catapulting her career for the first time on a widespread scale. They started by composing light dance tunes that were quite familiar with the Lebanese population.
Beirut at the time had an expanding Westernized segment living in its capital. The western population attracted big bands from overseas, which came to play tango and rumbas in the capital. One of these groups that visited Beirut was the Eduardo band from Argentina. Their band director had always wanted to incorporate eastern musical style in their band performances and Fairuz was asked to sing along the band. This event took place on 1st October 1951 and marked a turning point in Fairuz and the Rahbani brother’s musical career. Their newly acquired singing technique by borrowing from the western band is said to be instrumental in introducing dance songs in Arab music. Al-Rumi was the first to suggest a stage name for this young aspiring talented singer and proposed the name Fairuz (turquoise). He explained that her voice always reminded him of a precious stone, and this was the birth of the name Fairuz. Radio programs at that time did not record songs and only aired them live from the studio. Fairuz and Assi, who had by now grown fond of each other as musical partners, spent most of their time next to a pond in the backyard of the broadcasting station where they talked and composed more songs. Fairuz at this time, according to Assi had little expectation of becoming a great musician; in fact, all she wanted was to become a teacher when she grew older.
Love and Marriage
Fairuz was still a devoted Christian. Many a time, she would be seen kneeling down for prayer in the broadcasting studio. She acted like most Lebanese girls her age would, maintaining proper morals and respect for everyone, irrespective of their status. She always told people she never saw herself getting married. One day, however, Fairuz complained to Assi about how he was looking at another girl in the broadcasting studio, which she did not like. Assi did not take this innocent gesture lightly. They had grown very fond of each other and naturally, romantic feelings had spouted. One spring day in 1953, while sitting in their usual spot near the pond, Assi made a marriage proposal to Fairuz, and she gladly accepted. Their engagement news spread through the community like wildfire, their wedding was going to be a spectacular occasion. They got married the following year, with hundreds of visitors coming to congratulate them. They set out for their honeymoon at the luxurious Masabaki hotel in Shtura which lies in the heart of Lebanon’s mountains. After returning from their honeymoon, the couple moved into a modern house in the suburbs of Beirut.
In 1955, a year after their wedding, Fairuz and Assi were formally invited to sing their songs in an Egyptian radio station in the Egyptian capital. This was a turning point in Fairuz’s career. It uplifted her to major success on the scale of the entire Arab world and her music consequently got more airplay with her fan base drastically increased. Many famous Egyptian composers approached her asking to sing with her. She attended gala nights where she met many stars she only saw on Broadway shows. Her fame seemed to be growing while in Egypt with the passing of every day. She stayed in Egypt for five months with her husband and got pregnant during their visit.
Musical Theatrical Plays
Fairuz gave birth to her fist son Ziad, on returning to Lebanon. Even though being a mother meant that Fairuz had to spend more time at home caring for the child, Fairuz still focused on her singing. She had come to the realization that her singing was able to give her unimaginable success. She was focused on moving beyond the arena of a musical studio to a bigger stage. This dream came to reality in the summer of 1957, where she performed to an open audience for the first time. The Baalbeck International Festival was her stage, and the Rahbani brothers had scripted a theatrical song with Fairuz playing the leading role. Her performance was at the temple of Jupiter in Baalbek. This was the first time such a magnitude of people had gathered at the temple, and her performance did not disappoint the magnitude of fans present, in fact, the performance left everyone wide-mouthed. Fairuz, flooded with a blue light and standing under the crescent moon, began signing in a confident, melodic voice. It was a magical moment.
The performance earned her a spot for singing and acting major musicals, at least once a year. She would sing and perform in major musical classical plays for decades to come. The following are some of the musicals plays Fairuz performed;
- Jisr-al-Qamar (Bridge of the Moon). This musical was composed by the Rahbani brothers in 1962 and was conducted at the Baalbeck International Festival. At the beginning of this operetta, a spellbound maiden appears near the bridge of moon. She begs for her life, asking the village chieftain to save her, claiming she can only be saved through love and then she disappears. The following days are characterized by a tension between the first village and the neighboring village due to lack of water to irrigate crops. A fortune teller in the first village then makes the maiden appear, and she announces that hidden treasures will come to existence right below the bridge separating the two communities. While meeting at a traditional festival, the two villages start a confrontation again and this time, it almost results in physical fighting. The maiden then appears again and explains to the feuding villages that the only way they would acquire the treasures is if they co-operate. The villagers then decided to co-operate and share the water for irrigation.
- Bayya al-Khawatim (Rings Solomon) This light musical operetta was composed by the Rahbani brothers in 1964 and performed at the Cedars Festival. It tells a story about a small village that is preparing for annual festivals where young people get to choose spouses. The mayor of the village on feeling that his subjects are bored and lacking motivation decides to cheer them. He decides to stimulate their imagination by coming up with a fictitious story. He tells stories about a man called Rami, whom he describes as an enemy of the village. Two idlers in the village on hearing this story decide to start damaging property and steal, laying blame to Rami, the fictitious character created by the village mayor. Things get more confusing when a tall stranger approaches the village, introduces himself as Rami and asks to see the mayor. The villagers soon come to the realization that he is not the infamous village enemy, but different Rami whose objective was to get permission from the mayor to sell engagement rings. The story ends joyfully as the two idlers are forced by the mayor to marry two girls who he chooses.
- Ya’ish Ya’ish (Hurrah, Hurrah) This satirical musical play was written by the Rahbani brothers in 1970 and was performed at the Damascus International Festival. It tells a story of successive coups in the imaginary country of Mida. An emperor, who rules Mida, is deposed as the play begins. The deposed emperor escapes disguised as an ordinary citizen. He later takes refuge in a village shop where he learns a lot about the feelings of the citizens towards their country. He goes on to befriend a leader of a gang of smugglers from whom he learns of another planned coup. The second coup is successful, and the emperor returns to power. He quickly sends his followers to look for other deposed leaders from the past.
Rise to the Global Stage
A large number of creative Arab poets started writing poems for Fairuz. Her musical composition had moved from total dependence on the Rahbani brothers to the hands of composers from all parts of the world. In the estimated over 800 songs Fairuz sang, the list of its writers is endless. The spotlight she got from performing for live audiences allowed her to travel across the world. She visited far and wide countries; countries she had only heard of from stories her grandparents told her. She performed her songs in Cairo, Algiers, Baghdad and Damascus, just to mention a few. With an increasing fan base in western continents, Fairuz went on to sing in London, Paris, Rio de Janeiro, San Francisco, and many other cities.
During her numerous trips, Fairuz became accustomed to receiving priceless welcoming gifts. Among all her gifts, Fairuz acknowledges that the golden key presented to her by the mayor of Jerusalem as the most heartwarming. She was on a private trip to Jerusalem with her father when she received this gift. Fairuz had never imagined she would be such a respected celebrity, and when the president presented her with the highest medal ever conferred to a Lebanese artist, the ‘Cavalier,’ Fairuz broke down into tears. It was an overwhelming experience. This was, however, to be a first of many heartwarming experiences to come, and twelve years later, a Lebanese memorial stamp was issued in her name.
As a kid, Fairuz had always dreamt of meeting royalty. Her dream came true when King Hassan of Morocco invited her to sing in one of the events at his Royal Palace. The king not only asked her in person but was present at the airport on her arrival to welcome her to Morocco. In 1963, she received a medal of honor from King Hussein of Jordan, and later in 1975, she was awarded His Majesty’s Golden medal.
Lebanon’s Voice of Hope
To many of her countrymen, Fairuz has embodied what it means to be Lebanese. Her voice carried them through as they fled from Lebanon during the civil war, and even when they began new lives, her impact was felt in other countries too. Part of her appeal was the use of accessible themes in her songs, topics such as drunken neighbors, village life and the smell of fig trees and vineyards, among others.
In the recent years, however, malicious newspaper articles have tried to defame her by claiming she is a supporter of the Syrian dictator leader Bashar al-Assad. This started after 2008 when Fairuz went to perform in Damascus. Many were not for this idea, as Syria was at loggerheads with Lebanon. The thought that Lebanese’s greatest singer was to play in a country the Lebanese saw as its enemy caused havoc throughout the country with politicians and fans engaging in active debates. Most of them did not want her to go. In fact, a poll carried out in regards to if her going to Damascus was a good idea, 67% of the respondents opposed her visiting the town in Syria. Fairuz however later explained that her reason for wanting to perform in Damascus was to entertain her fans and not the rulers.
Despite her global fame, Fairuz has not changed at all from the little girl who loved to sing to her family and friends. She explained that her greatest joy was not the recognition or acclaim she has received, but rather a joy of seeing an anonymous listener of her performance enjoying her singing. She refers to her profession as only a way of life. She stills attends masses at the village church of Atlantis, where she sings during Holy Weeks. Fairuz’s character has been instrumental in maintaining her legacy as one of the most influential Middle Eastern musical singers.
Fairuz has always been a unifying voice in Lebanon, a country that continues to witness political unrest, even after a decade-long civil war. Even though most people view her as a diva, owing to her gorgeous looks and meticulous dressing, Fairuz has sought to maintain the non-flashy performance of her songs. She has always relied on her voice to carry her performance, employing traditional dancers and an orchestra in her concerts. Fairuz will for a long time be the queen of Arab music and her influence to Arabic people will remain embedded in history books.
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