by Rana Mroue, ASWAT Ensemble soloist and ZAWAYA Board Member
The beloved Lebanese singer Fairuz’s music plays an important part in our world premiere of We Swim, We Talk, We Go to War. Mroue explains the historical importance of this artist in the Arab world.
“The Voice of Home,” “The Neighbor to the Moon,” “Our Ambassador to the Stars” are but some of the ways used to describe Fairuz, whose voice became synonymous with a country’s emerging identity. Born Nuhad Haddad, the young woman from a humble working family discovered her love for singing by listening to the neighbor’s radio and singing along to the divas of the time, Asmahan and Umm Kulthum. Her talent was discovered at school where she would participate in choral performances, and where she would eventually be heard by composer and music scout Mohammed Fleilfel, who recommended that the aspiring singer study the ways of Quranic recitation to perfect her Arabic enunciation, and learn the maqam traditions upon which Arab music is built.
Nuhad’s talent led her to a position in the Lebanese Radio Station choir, where she was discovered by the composer Haleem Al Roumi, who became her mentor, and who is credited for jump-starting her career. It was Al Roumi who would dub her Fairuz (Turquoise), in reference to the pure, haunting, and malleable quality of her voice. Fairuz sang under Al Roumi’s direction until meeting the young musicians Assi and Mansour Rahbani, with whom she would start a lifelong musical journey as “Fairuz and the Rahbani brothers.” Fairuz and Assi would later marry, cementing the collaboration, and together the trio would change the landscape of music and theater performance in Lebanon and the Arab world, imbuing it with a new flavor, distinct from the classic “Tarab” genre that dominated the early- and mid- 20th century.
In her long and illustrious career — as recently as 2017 she produced an album with her daughter, Rima Al Rahbani — Fairuz has sung for love, peace, the beautiful ways of Lebanese village life, and the justice which is ever evasive in the Arab world, especially in Palestine. In her songs, she has celebrated the history and beauty of great Arab cities: Baghdad, Cairo, Alexandria, and Damascus, among others, saving a special place for her beloved Beirut, as well as Jerusalem. Her music sustained the Lebanese through civil war, and her voice, which refused to partake in the political divide, carried hope that the nation would one day heal from its wounds. For Palestine, the songs “Al Quds Al Atika” (Old Jerusalem) and “Zahrat Al Madaen” (The Flower of Cities) became hymns expressing an amalgamation of prayer, call to action, and declaration of love, longing, and outrage.
In Lebanon, Fairuz and the Rahbani’s songs, plays, and dabke dance numbers celebrated the simplicity and purity of village life through pieces that set impossibly beautiful poetry to tunes that combined western and Arab scales. Their body of work served to personify the emerging Lebanese character and identity, and to connect it with the Arab world through a new style of melody and song.
Although the Rahbani brothers composed the large majority of Fairuz’s songs, her rare collaborations with other composers resulted in memorable pieces, most notably with Mohammed Abd El Wahab, Zaki Nassif, Ziad Al Rahbani, and Philemon Wehbe. Fairuz also reinterpreted a large portion of the Levantine folk music repertoire, as well as works by the seminal Egyptian composer Sayed Darwish. Every year at Easter time, she maintained a tradition of singing classic Good Friday hymns.
Fairuz’s voice has been called one of the most beautiful in the world. Her demure stage presence, her shying away from the public/media eye (she hardly ever gave interviews), and the idyllic subject matter of most of her songs contributed to form an image of her as an almost mystical figure. One who is close to everyone’s heart, but is out of reach, residing in her own world of heavenly beauty. It’s no wonder that most of the radio stations of the Arab world choose to play Fairuz’s songs as part of the daily morning routine. For millions of people, her voice provides a dose of serenity and peace, and imbues the start of each day with hope.
Here is one of the Fairuz songs included in We Swim.
by Mona Mansour directed by Evren Odcikin
While trying to navigate the currents of the Pacific, an Arab-American woman and her nephew, who has enlisted in the military, dive into the murky waters of family, identity, and politics. Adventurous and playful, We Swim takes the form of a literal conversation on stage, and expands into a nuanced dialogue about what it means to be American, Arab, and Arab-American at our current moment in time.
November 16–December 16, 2018 at Potrero Stage (1695 18th Street, San Francisco)