Neighbor to the Moon, Ambassador to the Stars, the legend of today is yesterday's shy little village girl. The superstar acclaimed by millions as magical, brilliant, and angelic is our one and only Fairuz.

Born and raised in Lebanon, Fairuz began her musical career as a teenager. From chorus girl at the Lebanese radio station in the late 1940s, to critical and popular acclaim from the 1950's to today, Fairuz is acknowledged not only for her musical talent and contribution, but also as a cultural and political icon. A symbol of a people, a heritage, a quest for peace, and of humanity.

During most of her career, Fairuz reflected two other great artists, Assi and Mansour Rahbani. They wrote the lyrics and composed her tunes. Today, many of her songs reflect the composing talent of Ziad Rahbani who is Fairuz's son. Her songs testify to the Rahbani musical genius, as well as to Fairuz's broad musical background. As Dr. J. Racy says, "More than just a singer's name, Fairuz is a concept whose connotations are ethnic and nationalistic, as well as musical and poetic." Referred to as "The Soul of Lebanon" in the 70's, Fairuz became a pre-eminent figure, a superstar of current music in the Arab world. Together, the Rahbani family is both a school of music and a cultural phenomenon.

For the girl who loved to sing to her friends and neighbors in the little village, it was an overwhelming experience when, in 1957, Lebanon's President Chamoun presented Fairuz with the "Cavalier", the highest medal ever conferred on a Lebanese Artist. In 1969 a memorial Lebanese stamp was issued in her name. Meeting royalty, once an experience she had expected to encounter only in the fairy tales of her childhood, has become a reality for her. She is routinely welcomed, greeted, received, and honored by today's world leaders. In 1963, King Hussein of Jordan presented her with the Medal of Honor, followed by his Majesty's Gold Medal in 1975. In Brazil, the crowds attempted to carry her with her limousine. In 1981, while touring in the U.S., Senators, Governors and Mayors of various cities honored her. A Harvard University scholar, Barry Hoberman, even wrote: "Quite simply, Fairuz is one of the world's nonpareil musicians and outstanding Artists, an international treasure of the order of Rostropovich, Sills, Ravi Shankar, Miles Davis, Sutherland, Pavarotti and Dylan."

Her record-breaking concerts at the Royal Festival Hall in London made headlines worldwide. The Daily Mail wrote: "The box office was besieged as never before. Tickets changed hands at more than 1,000 Pounds on the black market. Takings reached a record, breaking the previous best when Frank Sinatra was in town. And who was the star that packed them in last night? Madonna? Springsteen? Domingo? Horowitz? No ... FAIRUZ, the top female singer in the Arab world". Fairuz has headlined at the most prestigious venues in the world including the Albert Hall, Carnegie Hall, Lincoln Center, and Salle Pleyel, among many others.


One day in 1935, Wadi Haddad moved his wife and two children into a new home on the cobblestone alley called Zuqaq al-blat, an old neighborhood in Beirut where the poor of all denominations have for generations found company and shelter. The Haddad's new home consisted of a single room on the street level of a typical stone house that faced Beirut's Patriarchate school.

Several other families were also living in the house; the residents shared the kitchen and other facilities. This was a time of migrations when a family could suddenly appear from nowhere and seek their next of kin, relatives, or just acquaintances from their own village who had already arrived in the big city. Wadi (a name meaning "gentle"), who worked as a typesetter in a nearby print shop, was quiet and gentle in manner; he was readily accepted by the folk of the neighborhood as one of them.

The eldest child in Haddad's family was a girl named Nouhad, who would later grow up to be Fairuz, one of the most famous singers of the Middle East and a legend in her own time. From her early childhood, Fairuz displayed a natural flair for singing. Many a winter night, in neighborhood gatherings, she would surprise everyone by suddenly bursting out into song. Her family could not afford to own a radio, the magical commodity possessed by a fortunate few; it was a vehicle for dreams that, in the houses of the poor, provided solace and a vague feeling of belonging to whatever was throbbing out there beyond their reach. She used to sit on the window ledge to listen to the songs from the neighbor's radio that fascinated her. Some of the songs that she loved to sing over and over again in those early days were those by Laila Murad and Asmahan, two Egyptian women singers famous at that time. She did that as she stood in the backyard washing utensils, kneading the dough for marqouq (the Lebanese mountain bread), or helping her mother in the morning. At the same time, being the oldest, she had to take care of her two sisters, Huda and Amal, and her brother Joseph. Sharing things was an article of faith, as it still is among the poor. Once a week, a woman neighbor would shout to the mother from the window to send her children over for their bath. She would bathe the Haddad children with her own and before they would be tucked in bed, the Haddad girl, lounging on her mattress, would sing for them a song or two for a good night's sleep.

The father put aside some of his meager income for his children's education, so Fairuz was able to attend school, where her voice was immediately recognized as having a unique quality that could transmute ordinary national hymns into something beguiling. At a school party one day in 1947, a teacher from the Lebanese Conservatory heard her and was struck by certain intimation that he had just made a discovery. This man, Muhammad Fleifel, was looking for new talents at that time among school children to sing national hymns for airing on the newly established Lebanese Radio Station. Hearing the golden reverberations latent within the young singer's throat, Fleifel tended to her voice with fatherly care. He instructed her not to eat spicy food, citrus, or anything else that might hurt her vocal cords. He also cautioned her about singing in high register, or parts that required a shrill delivery. Later on, he was instrumental in helping her enter the National Conservatory. Perhaps his most outstanding contribution is that he taught her how to chant verses from the Quran according to what is known as tajweed, the high style of Quranic intonation in classical Arabic.

One day, when Fleifel was presenting a group of songs sung by Fairuz among others, the head of the music department at the Lebanese Radio Station, Halim al-Rumi, happened to hear Fairuz at the recording room and asked to see the girl. After the program was over, a shy, thin girl came to his office. When he asked her if she wanted to sing on the radio, she said that she did. He asked her to sing something for him other than hymns. She thereupon sang Ya Zahratan Fi Khayali by Farid al-Atrash, and Mawwal by Asmahan. Al-Rumi was deeply impressed by her voice, which was typically Eastern and at the same time flexible enough to render a Western mode admirably. She was appointed as a chorus singer at the radio station in Beirut. "My wish was to sing on the radio," Fairuz reminisces. "I was told then that I'd be paid 100 pounds a month (today about $7). To me, this was overwhelming. But at the end of the month I wasn't fortunate enough to fill my eyes with a 100-pound note, because of the tax deductions. It took me a long time to get hold of a 100-pound note intact."

Her father objected to her going to the radio station at first. It took a lot of coaxing and some heavy-handed interference by close acquaintances to convince him. He stipulated that Fairuz was to be accompanied by her mother, her brother Joseph, or the neighbor's boy when she went to the station.

This was a period of practice and observation for Fairuz. She closely studied the style of delivery of each singer in the chorus, and it often happened that she substituted for another singer who was delayed or failed to appear. She had a keen artistic sensibility and a memory so sharp that she was able to learn by heart in two hours four pages of poetry or five of notation.

Her first song was composed by Halim al-Rumi, with words by Michael Awadh. The second one, In an Atmosphere of Magic and Beauty, was in the Egyptian dialect. Al-Rumi, so excited about the talent he had discovered, introduced Fairuz to Assi Rahbani, a policeman by profession and an aspiring composer who was already aware of the talented new voice and anxious to meet Fairuz.

The subsequent collaboration between the composer and the singer eventually resulted in a song that was to launch Fairuz for the first time as a major talent on a popular scale. At first, however, their efforts were mainly in the area of light, dance tunes. Beirut was attracting big bands who came from overseas to play tangos and rumbas to an expanding Westernized segment in the Lebanese capital. One of these was the Eduardo Bianco band from Argentina. While recording at the Near East Broadcasting studios, Sabri Sharif, who directed the music section there, suggested a new experiment hitherto untried in Eastern music. Fairuz was to sing, with Bianco's orchestra, tunes originally composed for dancing, like La Compersita and the tango La Boheme. This took place on October 1, 1951, a decisive day in the life of Fairuz and the two Rahbani brothers, Assi and Mansour. They believed that this was the true beginning of the dance-song in Arab music; only Midhat Assim, an Egyptian composer, had been experimenting in this direction before.

The watershed song that launched their career was not a dance-song but a melancholic song called Itab (expostulation). Overnight, Itab established Fairuz as a major singer throughout the Arab world. One of the reasons for the song's success was the excellence of the equipment at the Damascus radio station where the song was recorded on November 12, 1952. Later a commercial disc was cut in Paris.

Al-Rumi suggested that she take the stage name Fairuz (which means "gem" and "turquoise") because her voice reminded him of a precious stone. At first she thought he was joking, but later on she took his advice and history was changed forever.

At that time, radio programs went directly on the air and were not recorded. While waiting their turn, Fairuz and her composer Assi, by now her constant companion, used to sit under a tree near a pond in the backyard of the broadcasting studio. Sometimes she daydreamed, but often they chatted together to kill time. She did not anticipate a great future for herself as a singer. Rather, her real dream was to become a teacher. She had said on many occasions that she would never get married. Brought up in a devout Melkite household, almost ascetic in her manners and bearing, Fairuz was typical of many Lebanese young women of her class and age. Many of the people who have known her tell how they often found her during a break kneeling in prayer somewhere in the vicinity of the recording studio.

One day Fairuz, in passing, told Assi that she did not like the way he paid attention to a certain girl at the station. This innocent remark did not go unnoticed. She still kept to herself and persisted in her obstinate rejection of the idea of marriage. But on a certain spring day in 1953, while they were practicing together at the edge of the same pond, under the same tree, Assi repeated an earlier offer of marriage. This time Fairuz said yes.

They got married in July 1954. At their wedding, large crowds from Beirut gathered on the summer Sunday afternoon to witness the ceremonies. To the Lebanese, Hotel Masabki in Shtura, surrounded by aloe trees, is a dream place that lies in the heart of Lebanon's mountains; there, right after the wedding, the bride and groom went to spend their honeymoon.

When the young couple returned from their honeymoon, they moved into a modern villa in the village of Antilias in the suburbs of Beirut. On one side of the house lay orange groves and the Mediterranean; from the other side, one could see cypress woods and mountains. This typical Lebanese setting contributed to the atmosphere of her future songs. The first major success on the scale of the entire Arab world took place one year later, in the summer of 1955, when Fairuz and her husband were formally invited to the Egyptian capital to air their songs from the Egyptian radio station. The couple spent five months in Cairo, then the center of Arab Theatre Cinema and Song. Every night Fairuz would be introduced to some star she had previously seen only on the silver screen. Celebrated Egyptian composers approached her to sing for them, film makers asked her to star for them, but Fairuz - by now pregnant - politely declined. In her private moments she would go out to the streets of Cairo and lose herself in the crowds. Sometimes she would seek a poor juggler who played his "pianola" on a street corner; "he was an artist in his own right" she would think to herself. Other times, she would sit alone wondering what kind of future her new baby would have. Back in Lebanon, she gave birth to her son Ziad on January 1, 1956. Even while she was spending much of each day indoors caring for her baby, Fairuz was preparing to move beyond the limited arena of the recording studios.

In the summer of 1957, she faced an audience in the open for the first time, standing at the base of one of the six columns that comprise the temple of Jupiter in Baalbeck. It was the largest audience that had ever gathered at the Roman temple. Under a crescent moon, Fairuz, flooded with blue light, began to sing in a calm, confident voice, Lubnan Ya Akhdar Hilo (O Green, Beautiful Lebanon). People were spellbound; it was a magical moment. From that day on, Fairuz would sing and act, at least once a year, in major musicals such as al-Baalbakiyya (The Baalbeck Woman), a fantasy in which gods ordain Voice to come to life among humans; Jisr al-Qamar (Bridge of the Moon), where a charitable fairy makes peace between parties hostile to each other; and Ayyam Fakhreddin (The Days of Fakhreddin), the story of a seventeenth-century prince who struggles to rebuild his country, having faithfully fought for its liberation. Affectionately referred to as Baalbeck's seventh column, Fairuz was on her way.

Whereas before her talent had found expression only through the lyrics and music of the two Lebanese brothers Assi and Mansour Rahbani, now the most creative poets of the Arab world rushed to compose lyrics to be interpreted by her voice. The list of those who have written lyrics for one or more of her over 800 songs includes Omar Abu Risha, Qablan Mkarzil, Nizar Qabbani, Michel Trad, Sa'id Aql, Joseph Harb, As'ad Saba, Badawi al-Jabal, Abu Salma, and other contemporary poets. She has also sung works by Kahlil Gibran, Mikha'il Nu'aimeh, Elias Abu Shabaka, Harun H. Rashid, and Boulus Salameh, as well as by such ancient classical poets as Ibn Dhuraiq al-Baghdadi, Ibn Jubair, and Ayadmur al-Muhyawi. Fairuz's list of composers has expanded to include Tawfiq al-Basha, Filmon Wahbe, Zaki Nasif, Khalid Abulnasr, George Daher, Muhammad Abd al-Wahab, Halim al-Rumi, and now her own son Ziad.

Since the first time she appeared live before an audience in 1957, Fairuz has traveled to places that as a child she seemingly could hope to know only through her grandparents' tales. She has sung at the ruins of the Philadelphia Amphitheatre in Amman, as well as in Damascus, Baghdad, Rabat, Algiers, Cairo, Tunis; she has traveled overseas, reaching out to Arab emigrants in Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, New York, San Francisco, Montreal, Sydney, London, Paris, and many other cities throughout the world. On these trips, Fairuz has been offered as a traditional gesture of welcome, the symbolic key to many cities; perhaps the closest to her heart remains the golden key she received from the Mayor of Jerusalem, which she received during a private visit there with her father in 1961. Although Fairuz did not sing during her one visit to the holy city, Jerusalem is honored in many of her songs.

Yet to Fairuz, all the official acclaim and recognition that she has received over the years does not parallel the joy she experiences as she sings when she spots the absorbed attention of a single anonymous listener in a crowd. To her, singing is not merely a perfected profession, but a way of life. The Fairuz of today, like the Fairuz of yesteryear, continues to attend mass in the village church at Antilias. There, every year, during Holy Week she sings to the devout villagers with a dedication that perhaps is equaled only by their simple piety. It is this dedication that consistently refines her talent and continues to set Fairuz apart in a category all her own amid the chaotic trends of Middle Eastern music.

 


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