Warda Al-Jazairia: the timeless Algerian rose
The flower that smiles to-day
All that we wish to stay
Tempts and then flies.
What is this world’s delight?
Lightning that mocks the night,
Brief even as bright.
This week marks the anniversary of the death of Warda Al-Jazairia (The Algerian Rose) who passed away at the age of 72 in 2012. She is one of the most iconic singers of the Arab world who in her time on this planet had a great impact on the Arab music scene that is still felt till present day.
Warda Al-Jazairia, whose real name was Warda Mohamed Ftouki, was born in Paris and had a Lebanese mother and an Algerian Father. Her father owned a cabaret in Paris called ‘The Tam-Tam’ (which was an anagram for Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco), which was where Warda’s singing career began.
The Tam-Tam was where renowned performers like Farid Al-Atrache and Sabah would sing, and served as a meeting place for Arab diaspora to come together and exchange ideas. In fact, during the Algerian War of Liberation against the French occupation, the Tam-Tam became a secret spot for the French section of the National Liberation Front (FLN) to meet and develop their tactics. This soon made the cabaret a target of the French police that closed it down after finding weapons inside.
''She soon became part of the line-up of singers for the Pan-Arab opera Al Watan al Akbar (1960). She sang alongside Abdel Halim Hafez, Shadia, Sabah, Faiza Ahmed and Nagat Al Sagira in celebration of the unity between Egypt and Syria within the United Arab Republic. This didn’t just align her with the stars of that period but also made her an Arab nationalist symbol.''
Subsequently, Warda, and her family were expelled from France in 1956 and went to live in Beirut. Her mother sadly died before they arrived in Lebanon.
In Beirut, Warda and her family settled in the neighbourhood of Hamra which was known for its nightlife and cabarets. Here she made her name and one of her performances was attended by the father of Arabic composition at the time; Mohamed Abdel Wahab.
She hadn’t noticed Abdel-Wahab in the audience and he asked to meet with her after the performance to invite her to come to Egypt. Her father and older siblings refused to allow her to make the trip. Later, the Egyptian director of musicals, Helmy Rafla, went to convince her father that his daughter’s talent was too great for her not to come to Cairo to further her career. Eventually, he was convinced (or conceded) and Warda left for Egypt where Abdel-Wahab introduced her to then Egyptian president and father of Arab nationalism, Gamal Abdel Nasser.
She soon became part of the line-up of singers for the Pan-Arab opera Al Watan al Akbar (1960). She sang alongside Abdel Halim Hafez, Shadia, Sabah, Faiza Ahmed and Nagat Al Sagira in celebration of the unity between Egypt and Syria within the United Arab Republic. This didn’t just align her with the stars of that period but also made her an Arab nationalist symbol.
And so, Warda became a symbol of hope for a blossoming future, especially for her homeland, Algeria, to be liberated from the French colonial rule. This dream would be realised two years after this performance.
After a short lived period of stardom during which she even starred in a film, Warda moved to the newly independent Algeria and married an Algerian officer. Her husband did not allow her to sing and she focused on raising her two children, her daughter Widad and her son Riad.
After 10 years, Warda was asked by the Algerian president Houari Boumédiene to sing at the 10th Anniversary of Algeria’s independence. This performance was heavily anticipated for several reasons. It marked Warda’s first public appearance after an entire decade of absence from the stage, and because it was an important symbol of the Arab nationalist project being led by Boumédiene as he attempted to establish Arabic as the main language of the country.
After Warda’s highly praised performance she wanted to go back to Cairo and resume her career, she and her husband divorced.
Despite not being allowed to take her children with her, she returned to Egypt where she later married one of the biggest composers of the 60’s and 70’s, Baligh Hamdi. His love for the singer, which was long standing and preceded her first marriage, was as transformative to her music as her life. Baligh understood her range of voice and how to accentuate her singing abilities, making the messages through her music even more impactful. Despite the fact that the relationship later broke down in 1990, Baligh continued writing songs for her.
''Warda was one of the much adored national symbols of the liberation struggle for Algerians. With a single note, she would bring hundreds to tears.''
In the early 90s Warda reinvented herself and metamorphosed her music style from 40+ minutes-long songs to relatively shorter songs (between 6 - 15 min) that were composed by the then contemporary producer Salah el Sharnobi. This collaboration gave us the now 90’s popular classic songs Batwannis Beek, Harramt Ahebak and Nar el Ghera. This newer repertoire paved her way to a younger audience and assured that Warda would be loved by all generations across the Arab world, it made her a genre-transcending timeless icon.
Throughout history, her songs were not limited to the borders of the Arab world. Even one of the biggest hip-hop producers, Timbaland, sampled Batwannis Beek for R&B star Aaliyah’s track Don’t know what to tell ya in 2003.
Warda is one of the greatest Arab Divas who was part of the golden age of Arab music but also transcended beyond this era. She was a woman who had dignity and who challenged taboos about divorce and women choosing to pursue their careers –which in her case provided us with art that would unite Arabs across the globe- all for the expected role of maintaining family life.
She also very admirably manoeuvred herself in a very male-dominated music industry.
Yet, through all her struggles, the second she stepped onto the stage, it was with an elegance and calmness that would make everyone forget their daily troubles. Once audiences heard her mesmerising voice, and the power with which she projected her music, all they would want to do is sing along.
Finally, it is important to also recognise that Warda was one of the much adored national symbols of the Liberation struggle for Algerians. With a single note, she would bring hundreds to tears.
And even today, despite Warda's absence from this earth for precisely a decade, her music is still playing loudly everywhere. It is being reissued on vinyl, played on radio stations, danced to in homes, at parties, and weddings. Her emotive performances are still shown on television and streamed on the internet.
Warda Al-Jazairia is not a wilted flower, but one who’s voice will forever be alive in our hearts.
Moataz Rageb a.k.a. Disco Arabesquo is a sociologist, DJ, researcher and collector of Arabic cassettes and vinyl. He specialises in Arabic-Western cross-over sounds that portray 'a splash of civilisations' and a creative generation searching for a new identity.
Follow him on Instagram: @discoarab
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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.