Arabic music in 2014: Technology and Fairuz

Arabic music in 2014: Technology and Fairuz
9 min read
05 November, 2014
Alongside the larger-than-life impact of Lebanon on the Arab consciousness, it was the studio-sharp quality of her early recordings that ensured Fairuz triumphed as the voice of the Arab collective.
Fairuz, here with Philmon Wehbe, changed Arabic music [file]

Editor's note: This is part two of a three-part series on Arabic music today and the impact of technology. Read part one here. Read part three here

Just like it was for countless others, being stuck in my mother's car during traffic jams on the way to school helped form the backdrop of my initiation into "good taste", and what that meant in terms of music.

And as with all Arab families - I simply do not know a counter-example - "good taste" on those school runs was typified by Fairuz.

Born Nouhad Haddad in 1935 in Beirut's working class Zuqaq Alblat neighborhood, Fairuz's musical career began inauspiciously as a choir girl for Sunday performances on Lebanese radio. The conservatism of the prevailing mores meant that there was no choice but for her to take a stage name, the religious piety of her early work notwithstanding.

Even today, more than 60 years after her first recorded hymns were broadcast, Fairuz's Easter hymns - first compiled on an album in 1962 - are a seasonal favourite and a hit on Facebook. Fairuz remains, by all accounts, religiously devout and continues to record hymns.

Over time, however, the singer has become the most potent - certainly, the most melodic - symbol of a shared "Arabness". Turn the dial on your car radio on the way to work anywhere between the Atlas Mountains and the Gulf, and her voice is likely to be found somewhere on the airwaves to greet you during those morning commutes.

Long before Yassine al-Ayyari's beloved Bjork, this Lebanese diva knew what it took to create a one-name musical brand, and her fans have remained loyal for decades. While her own musical genius, and that of her collaborators
, is the main factor in this success, technology and economic history also played their parts.

     Fairuz… is the most easily identifiable benchmark of good taste in Arabic music.

It may be a subjective statement, but its plausibility makes it noteworthy: Fairuz - and the Rahbani family into which she married and with whom she made the bulk of her music - is the most easily identifiable benchmark of good taste in Arabic music.

Over the decades, many others have vied for her crown. Perhaps many were worthy at some point or another. But by and large they were too easy to pigeonhole: Abdelhalim Hafez as the doe-eyed hearthrob; Sabah Fakhry as a non-innovating traditionalist; Um Kalthoum as a model of chaste womanhood (but only after an earlier career upset). What Fairuz has done and what these others have failed to do is to encapsulate decades of aesthetic sensibilities, social experiences and the full spectrum of the Arab nation in its geographic enormity.

The capital of Arab modernity

That Fairuz had her early beginnings in the 1950s was also fortuitous. As the historian Fawwaz Trabulsi illustrates in Fairuz and the Rahbanis [Riyadh Al Rayyes, 2006], the Rahbani brothers - Mansour and Assi, Fairuz's husband - helped to create an entire industry of Arabic musical theatre by retelling the stories of Lebanon's early-modern past. Interest in their work was sharpened by the fact that Lebanon - a country about half the size of Wales - had by the mid-20th century become the capital of Arab modernity.

In banking and industry, politics, aesthetics and education, Lebanon, unfettered by military rule, was central. And it was where modern Arabic music came into its own.

Emir Fakhreddine II, the 17th century ruler of Mount Lebanon who stood up to the Ottomans, discovered red roof tiles used to shield houses from the snow while he was exiled in the Medici court. He loved them so much that he brought them to Lebanon on his return. Later, Fairuz would sing the words "how pretty it is to walk back home in bird song... to look at the village and its red-tiled rooftops". By the time Ya mahla al rajaa bakeer, part of the 1957's Ya Tara Nsina album was released, the red roof tiles Fakhreddine discovered in Tuscany had become a fixture on the houses of the prosperous in Amman and Ramallah, where they can still be seen today.

So good did Lebanon become at this export of cultural motifs that it began to invent musical traditions for other countries in the region. When Samira Tawfik, a near-contemporary of Fairuz, could not find a foothold among more accomplished Lebanese performers - besides Fairuz, Wadih al-Safie and Sabah - she simply upped sticks and moved to Jordan, changed her accent and created a genre of kitsch Bedouin folk music for national radio. The forces which shaped the careers of Fairuz and Samira Tawfik are the forerunners of what Ayyari is witnessing today from his vantage point in Doha: electronic technologies that not only recorded the music, but altered its form.

Technology transition


Fairuz in concert

The musical theatre created for her by the Rahbanis was Fairuz's ticket to stardom, but few who watched those plays did so at the theatre. Safarbarlik, possibly their best-known work, which told the story of Lebanese and Syrian resistance to the Ottomans, did a roaring trade on television and VHS video. Fairuz's early success was due in large part to the parallel spread of recording and broadcast technologies in the Middle East. In some of the earliest recordings of Arabic music, of the likes of Iraq's Mulla Yusuf Omar, it's not only the scratchiness of the recordings that listeners detect, but also a hesitancy - the singer seems unaware of the audience he's engaging with through radio or vinyl.

With Fairuz, it's another story. It's clear that Fairuz and the Rahbanis learned to master the recording studio and harness its power ahead of their competition. In Jisr al Qamar, produced for the stage in 1962, Jayibli Salam ["The Songbird Brings Me Tidings", music by Philemon Wahbi] distils these lessons: coming in under five minutes long, the recording makes Arabic singing modern.

The madhab, the introduction, is almost entirely done away with and the improvisation typical of a traditional Lebanese zajal is turned on its head and reinvented as a disciplined, rehearsed chorus. Here too, Fairuz was standing on the shoulders of giants, and particularly Egypt's Sayyed Darwish. Yet Darwish's life was tragically cut short, and he never had the opportunity to experience the radio revolution in full.

Alongside the larger-than-life impact of Lebanon on the Arab consciousness, it was also the studio-sharp quality of even these early recordings that ensured that Fairuz trumped Iraq's Nazem al-Ghazali - who did his bit to re-package the classical and folk genres of Iraq - as the voice of the Arab collective. It's hard to imagine this any other way than that Fairuz knew how to adapt to the unrelenting wave of technology, and used it to broadcast herself from Morocco to Bahrain.

If Mohammed Abdulwahhab is credited for the successful introduction of Western instruments and the creation of orchestras for Arabic music, then Fairuz, the Rahbanis and their collaborators - such as Wahbi - deserve the credit for realising the full potential of radio and what it meant. While contemporaries such as Um Kalthoum continued with on-stage marathon sessions for her haunting, complicated vocals, trying to give the impression of a live performance to which a working class Cairo resident might treat themselves, Fairuz's voice, crisp and romantic, made the most of the medium of radio. Packaged in short bursts, it was meant for broadcast in rapidly urbanising Arab cities.

Fittingly, the songs echoed a sense of nostalgia for rural idyll amongst those newly arrived in the city, and made a singular contribution to the imagined ideal Levantine village, with thinly veiled social tensions to boot. Revolutionary though the form of their music may be, the Rahbanis and Fairuz also persuaded, and continued to persuade, Arab listeners that their product was authentic and deep-rooted. When it became fashionable for wealthy Gulf Arabs to holiday in quaint mountain villages such as Bhamdoun, they took the vinyl records of Lebanon back with them. Along with these came the collective memory of the Rahbanis' ancestral village in the north of Mount Lebanon, told through the prism of a nostalgia gained in the Beirut suburb of Antelias.

The voice of 'authenticity'

Today, the Rahbanis' authenticity is so well established in the minds of the public that the music they arranged is played on a constant loop at Beirut's international airport. The point is that their sounds - despite much of it clearly being inspired by Balkan and Turkish melodies - remain the true voice of Lebanon. That Fairuz and the Rahbanis realised that the Arab public craved authenticity was an accomplishment in itself. 


During the second half of the 20th century, Arabic music was swamped by acts which were directly inspired by Western bands. The Beatles for example, have direct descendants in Algeria’s Ez Zibda. Later, the Iraqi Elham Madfaie took this a step further and a sound that was neither fully traditional nor entirely "Western" - for lack of a better word - was born.

Another impressive result of the encounter between Arabic musical traditions and the technology and production values born in the West is Morocco's Nass El Ghiwane: a band born in the slums, they gave voice to the country's marginalised and the radical left. Despite impressive skill and the enthusiasm they commanded, Nass El Ghiwane were predictably relegated to a limited, political niche.

Even Marcel Khalife, one of the very few modern Arab composers whose body of work can guarantee him a place besides Mohammed Abdulwahhab in the pantheon of Arab all-time greats, has not managed to make his music as ubiquitous as Fairuz's. While Khalife could sell out a football stadium when he visited any Arab city, crowds chanting back the words of his allegorical, patriotic music, that enthusiasm simply didn't follow him when the oud virtuoso and composer shifted his emphasis to more cerebral, complex work.

Fairuz, on the other hand, seems always to grow at the right pace. She is part innovative jazz musician, part classical music performer who sings with perfect diction in fusha, and part village folk singer, all in the right proportions. Her latest album, Eh Fi Amal [2010], a collaboration with her son Ziad - an accomplished jazz performer in his own right - has ensured that an entirely new generation of listeners remains enchanted.

To understand the value of Fairuz one must submit to the sublime beauty she represents. Describing Fairuz's voice, Khalid Albaih, a Romanian-born Sudanese cartoonist and hardened cynic, becomes uncharacteristically soppy: "Today, when I sit down to draw and to read an article on how messed up things are in the Arab world, I have Fairuz playing in the background. [Her music]...smells of the homeland. I listen to it in the garden at my uncle's house [in Khartoum] while my aunt makes coffee. In Doha, in my dad's car while on the way to school."

For Albaih - whose native Sudan has a musical tradition so different from that rooted in Lebanon that it is a wonder how Fairuz fit in - as for tens of millions of others, Fairuz seems a natural, obvious representative for the voice of authenticity. Yet if it had not been for the broadcast and recording technologies that were once revolutionary, the political and economic forces that pushed Lebanon to the forefront of the Arab world and the way both of these forces shaped her music, Fairuz may have ended up merely a former choir girl from Beirut whose voice was once thought beautiful. Those same forces, of course, are alive and well today.


Read part one here. Read part three here.