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Since the middle of the 20th century, the most famous living Arab singer and crown jewel of Lebanese music has been Fairuz (birth name Nuhad Haddad). She is world-renowned and has performed on all continents. She has been the voice of the Arab people -- regardless of political affiliation -- since she began working professionally as one of the young Lebanese artists to perform at the Baalbek International Festivals along with Sabah, Wadih Safi, Nasri Shamseddin, the dance group Abdulhalim Caracalla, and the songwriting and playwriting team of Assi and Mansour Rahbani, her longtime collaborators. The Baalbek International Festivals -- first used as a gathering place for poets, painters, and musicians in Lebanon in the 1920s -- birthed the golden era of Lebanese music. Fairuz was born in 1935, 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. The young Fairuz showed her singing talent as a young child and often sang for her family and neighbors. In high school, at age 14, she was discovered by Mohammed Fleifel, who scouted schools for singers to perform on a then-new national radio station. Struck by her talent, he became her first agent and manager; he assisted her in gaining entry to the National Conservatory of Music, where she studied for five years. There and in public Fairuz sang for the Palestinian cause without politicizing it. She also paid respect to various Arab capitals without personalizing them. Of course, her home nation of Lebanon was among them, and her singing garnered her more political and diplomatic bona fides than most professionals. As her agent and manager, Fleifel believed in a singer's training method prevalent in Egypt at the time, the chanting of Koranic verses, which birthed the careers of Umm Kulthum and Mohammed Abdul Wahab. This skill, which Fairuz employed to great benefit in her intonation and command of the classical language, became clear in her singing of maquam, a classical Arabic poetic form and a secular musical genre. It probably helped her sharpen the Eastern style in her singing in the proper melodic Arabic modes. She distinguished herself from typical Arab singers by using crystalline resonances; initially, some critics remarked that she actually sounded Western. It was not long before officials of the new national radio station hired her as a chorus singer. 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. In the late '40s and early '50s, Fairuz absorbed on-the-job training at the radio station. Her supervisor, Halim Al-Rumi, composed songs for her. At the time it was not uncommon for singers to take a stage name. Rumi suggested that Nahud Haddad sing under the name Fairuz, a word meaning turquoise. He also introduced her to Assi Rahbani, a policeman by profession, who, along with his poet brother Mansour Rahbani, frequented the radio station looking for a break in the music business. It was there that one of the most formidable, prolific, and long-lived collaborative teams in Arab music was born. The first Rahbani Brothers song Fairuz sang on the station was "Itab," a romantic poem. This song launched her career and almost overnight made her a star in Lebanon. They traveled to Damascus in 1952 to record the song at a Syrian radio station. It was an immediate hit and she quickly became known throughout the Arab world. In 1953, Assi proposed to Fairuz and they were married the following year and moved into a house in the Rahbani village of Antiliyas near Beirut. The rural environment in close proximity to the Mediterranean inspired many songs, and she continues to live there. Their success streak continued, and the young couple was invited to travel to Egypt the following year. Cairo, the cultural center of the Arab world, was the proving ground for every artist. Assi and Fairuz, however, turned down offers for collaboration from members of the Egyptian art community because she was pregnant; they simply played their tour and were widely accepted by artists and the general public alike. Fairuz did make new introductions and form new friendships. She returned home and gave birth to son Ziad in 1956. Ziad Rahbani grew up to become a great composer and has played a critical role in shaping his mother's music during the later stages of her career. Given her natural shyness and reserved persona, performing concerts was not an easy proposition for Fairuz, but she was diligent and fearless. Focusing on her singing rather than body movements, she won over a large audience in her first performance at the Baalbek International Festival in 1957. The Rahbani family chose a song about the beauty of Lebanon for her debut, a winning strategy that quickly earned her a medal from the president. This was the first of many career accomplishments, including the issuing of a memorial stamp. The leaders of many Arab nations have hosted and honored her with medals. One example is that the King of Morocco personally received her at the country's state airport -- a protocol normally reserved for heads of state. She has collected a multitude of keys to cities around the world. One of those keys came from the Arab mayor of Jerusalem in 1961, when she accompanied her father on a pilgrimage to the city. Arab intellectuals worried that attention from politicians might co-opt the influence of the Rahbani family for partisan purposes. However, the political savvy of Fairuz, Assi, and Mansour led them to sing only for the glory of the land itself. They composed and performed a series of songs for all the major Arab capitals -- each became a celebrated piece of popular art. These nations have taken the songs as secondary national anthems and have often played them during official broadcasts well into the 21st century. By singing for the Palestinian cause without politicizing it and by paying respect to Arab capitals instead of leaders, Fairuz earned political respect for Lebanon. She has, since the very beginnings of her professional career, been an effective ambassador for her country. During the nation's long civil war she refused to leave -- even when virtually every other popular artist did -- and never performed for factional warlords. Despite her celebrity status, Fairuz never acted like one. She maintained an almost ascetic decorum and was more comfortable recording her now legendary Christian liturgy albums than her hit dance songs. Fairuz rose to the pinnacle of Arab singers. Her repertoire on recordings and in performance offered a broad spectrum of material unmatched by virtually any other vocalist. From classical language tomes, pop and dance music, Eastern tarab, and Western classical (including a Mozart tune with Arabic lyrics) to art, children's, and patriotic songs, she excelled. The Rahbani brothers were brilliant at bringing new material to the many musical plays they composed as well as the Arab music scene at large. In the 1950s, audiences in Lebanon and elsewhere were used to solely Egyptian vocabulary devoted to the complications and intense emotions of love and romance. Suddenly, the Rahbanis were offering songs about a young girl carrying a water jug or Dabke dancers celebrating at a wedding. The universal imagery elevated life's simple moments to the realm of art. This became the Rahbani school, imitated by succeeding generation of artists. But Fairuz and Assi's son Ziad was a rebel. He entered the family business and composed some of his mother's best songs, but eventually broke off and produced plays that satirized their formula. Turmoil engulfed the family; Fairuz and her husband separated. They were not reconciled when he died in 1986. The Arab world lost a brilliant composer in Assi Rahbani. In commemoration, Fairuz and Ziad reissued Assi's compositions in a new instrumental style. Ziad then took on the responsibility of composing for his mother, often incorporating jazz in some songs and Eastern themes (manipulating maqam masterfully) in others, proving his skill in both. Ziad's fine work is a modern commentary on the debate about the ability of Arabs to compose in Western styles. 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 (whose songs Fairuz also recorded). They wanted to leave their mark and 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 experience and customs of their culture and created new musical plays that some called "Arab light opera." Through the voice of Fairuz, the Rahbani Brothers re-orchestrated the ancient muwashahat and composed their own take on it, singing classical poetry in the style of the Arabs in Andalusia. In the 1960s, Fairuz also became an actress, starring in four films between 1965 and 1968. Between the middle of the 1960s through 1973 she also made numerous appearances on television and in the Rahbani Brothers' musical theater productions. She was most prolific in the recording studio in the 1970s and 1980s -- she issued literally dozens of albums during the era. These included titles as diverse as Dahab Aylou, Sings Christmas Carols at St. Margaret's Westminster, and Jerusalem in My Heart. Interestingly, throughout their careers together, the Rahbani Brothers and Fairuz did not work together exclusively. The Rahbanis welcomed other composers, and some of Fairuz's best songs are attributed to composers such as Filimone Wahbi, Najib Hankash, and Wahab. In turn, the Rahbani Brothers 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 International Festival. People demanded Fairuz's return, and in 1998 her performance -- attended by some international political leaders as well as an audience of nearly 100,000 -- was universally acclaimed. That spring, Fairuz staged another historical event by performing in Las Vegas and attracting more than 14,000 people (with another 5,000 reportedly outside listening from hastily installed speakers) 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. The crowd gave her numerous standing ovations. She returned to the stage to perform five encores. Although Fairuz subsequently dialed back some of her intense performing and recording appearances, she remained active. Released in 2000, Al Mahatta was among her most critically lauded albums. Issued on Voix de l'Orient, it sold millions of copies globally. Arriving in 2002, Wala Kif spawned numerous editions and was critically acclaimed in the European press as well as a best-seller in the Arab world. Whenever she took a stage or entered a studio, the results were remarkable. In 2007 Fairuz became the first artist from the Arab world to perform in Greece, at the Odeon of Herodes Atticus. Her albums such as Live in Dubai (2008), Eh Fi Amal (2010), and Ya Tara Nsina (2012) have garnered only positive reviews. After a recording break of nearly five years, Fairuz released Bebalee in 2017 at the age of 82.
© Thom Jurek. /TiVo
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