Fairuz: a breath of Lebanon in the City of Angels

Concert is arguably greatest manifestation of Arab culture in US this year
Elias Abou Jaoude
Special to The Daily Star

LOS ANGELES: It is no longer possible to write objectively about Fairuz, so intertwined has our biography as Lebanese become with her voice. Was that she who was singing at Los Angeles’s Shrine Auditorium on Oct. 18, or was it the soundtrack to our lives? Fairuz knew that a lot was riding on what is arguably the greatest manifestation of Arab culture in the US since the Sept. 11, 2001 events. So did the diva disappoint?
Following the orchestral intro, the choir opened with Bhebbak ya Libnan, a safe choice that was assured to set the house on fire. Fairuz then entered the stage joining the song, her voice drowned by deafening applause and screams of “We love you!” from an audience filled with desire for this rare concert.
Before you could judge her appearance, her poise and her voice, you had to feel your heart, catch your breath, brush aside 50 years of listening to her and ignore countless personal moments that resurfaced in you because you have come to associate them with certain songs.
And, just when you felt closer to achieving the necessary distance between critic and artist, came another charged masterpiece that she had sung, of course, just for you, erasing the illusion of distance, and turning any possible criticism of the performance into self-criticism.
The evening became a mine field of beauty and memories, with you tiptoeing among intense emotions elicited by such landmark songs as Shadi, Btitloj al-Dini, Sawa Rbina, and Salemli Aley, trying not to be too harsh on the lady for fear of hurting your own feelings.
Certainly the voice has changed but in a way that announces a delicious new phase rather than an end or a decline. Gone are the vocal gymnastics, true, but what remains is the more haunting essence, a luxuriously sad state that resonates with warmth and humanity. The throatier timber makes for a more intimate, sexier Fairuz, a Fairuz that transports you in a song such as Sawa Rbina further than she ever could before.
And no one seems to better understand the “new” Fairuz than her son, Ziad Rahbani. Besides beautiful renditions by the chorus of some of his standards, notably Al Hali Tabani ya Layla, Aychi Wahda Balak, and Mish Kayen Hayk Tkoun renditions that garnered the loudest cheers from the audience two unreleased songs of sheer genius were introduced: Ya Salam ala Hobbak, and Habbayt ma Habbayt.
Calling Fairuz’s works with Ziad at this point an adventure or an experiment is misinformed and not simply a matter of diverging tastes. After 30 years of professional collaboration, and 20 more in mother-son interactions, this duo is hardly adventurous or experimental.
Instead, they now constitute an entrenched school marked by exquisite compatibility. Nothing better suits the current voice in its directness and sublime but precarious humanity than these lyrics that say the most by saying the least, and that underline the fundamental uncertainty of our condition while finding beauty where one least expects it.
And all this against a background of really big music that compares favorably with the best being composed anywhere.
So there we were, in Fairuz’s glorious twilight, in the city of angels, LA, comforted by how some things such as the halo around her and her hold on you are constant and never change. How many more such events we may witness is not ours to guess, but you couldn’t leave the Shrine Auditorium at midnight that Saturday without being sadly reminded of your mortality while simultaneously feeling blessed and uplifted to have been born in her age.

The Daily Star

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