Probably the greatest Arabic singer of modern times, Fairuz (neé Nuhad Haddad; born 1933), also known as Fayrouz, led the creation of a new musical language in the Middle East.
Fairuz was born Nuhad Haddad in 1933 in Beirut, Lebanon. She was raised in humble surroundings in the old neighborhood of Zukak el Blat in Beirut, where her father, Wadi Haddad, was a simple typesetter in a small print shop. Nuhad attended the Saint Joseph School for Girls in Beirut until the hardships of World War II forced her father to move her to a public school.
In 1947, at age 14, she was discovered by Mohammad Fleifel, one of the founders of the National Conservatory of Music in Beirut, who was in search of talent for a newly formed choral group. Fleifel was instrumental in Fairuz's admission to the National Conservatory, where she spent five years training. But perhaps his greatest contribution to her development as a singer was the instruction he gave her in the classical tradition of the tajwid, or classical chanting of Koranic verse.
Fairuz began her musical career as a member of the chorus at the Lebanese Radio Station. There Halim Al-Rumi, a composer and musical director at the radio, recognized her unique talent and made her lead soloist. He composed songs especially for her and gave her the stage name of Fairuz (turquoise) because her voice reminded him of a precious stone.
The young Fairuz met with unprecedented enthusiasm from listeners everywhere in Lebanon. This led to a meeting between her and the Rahbani brothers, Assi and Mansour, themselves rising talents as composer and lyricist, respectively. The collaboration between them at first took the form of adaptation by the Rahbanis of modern Western dance tunes into Arabic songs. This gave the team of three a certain amount of public exposure. However, the song that catapulted them into the limelight on the popular scale was not a Western dance tune but a melancholy love song entitled "Itab" (Blame) that they had recorded on November 2, 1952, at the Damascus Radio Station. What followed was a period of experimentation in a variety of musical forms. In all instances Fairuz's songs expressed artistic qualities that extended their appeal to listeners from a wide variety of social and national backgrounds.
In July 1954 Fairuz married Assi Al-Rahbani in a church wedding attended by a large crowd of adoring fans. They set up house in a villa in Antelias, a suburb of Beirut. The beautiful setting of their new home was to serve often as inspiration for many of their future songs.
Becoming an International Star
In 1955 Fairuz and Assi traveled to Egypt for the first time. Cairo, which was then the center of the Arab theater, cinema, and song, was conquered by the young Lebanese singer. Fairuz's triumph in Egypt led to many offers by celebrated Egyptian composers and filmmakers, but by then she was expecting her first child. She returned to Lebanon and gave birth to her son Ziad on January 1, 1957. She was later to have four more children, three girls and one boy. But it was Ziad who remained closest to her of all her children and who in later years wrote and composed the music for many of her songs.
In the summer of 1957 Fairuz appeared for the first time before a live audience. Until then she had been restricted to the recording studios. She sang in a musical review ("Ayam el Hissad," or "Harvest Days") before a large spellbound audience seated in the Roman ruins of the Temple of Jupiter in Baalback. This was her first appearance at the Baalback International Festival, and she was awarded the highest medal for artistic achievement there, the Cavalier, by the president of Lebanon, Camille Chamoun. Fourteen years later a stamp was issued by the government to commemorate her name.
Fairuz became one of the main attractions at the annual International Festival of Baalback, where she sang in musical plays or massrahiyaat that were written especially for her by the Rahbanis. In 1975 the 15-year civil was in Lebanon began, putting an end to the Baalback Festival, and some time later Fairuz's separation from her husband Assi ended her artistic collaboration with the Rahbani brothers.
With a reputation that had grown to include all the Arab world and the expatriate communities in Europe and the Americas, poets and composers everywhere rushed to write for Fairuz. The result was a repertoire of more than 800 songs, three feature films, and 400 LP recordings during a period of three decades. She was invited to appear in the major Arab capitals. She gave concerts in New York, San Francisco, Montreal, London, and Paris. She was awarded the Medal of Honor in 1963 and the Gold Medal in 1975 by King Hussein of Jordan. Fairuz had become a legend in her own time.
The Fairuz Legacy
The Fairuz-Rahbani artistic legacy was in tune with the social and cultural developments in Lebanon and the Middle East. The post-World War II years had begun to see the expansion of urban communities and the growing importance of Western influences on the daily lives of the people in that region. Furthermore, the growing role of the media (radio and television) and public entertainment (concert halls and theaters) led to the rise of an urban audience with new demands for entertainment. The new public was further impassioned by a nationalistic sentiment that had followed Lebanon's independence in 1943. The conviction was growing that the cultural heritage was in need of a more developed national expression suitable to the new image of the country. The music of the Rahbanis came to reinforce and project this image by combining the discoveries of contemporary Western techniques of composition with the forms, patterns, and sounds of Middle Eastern traditional music, thereby creating a modern musical language hitherto unheard in Lebanon. The context was unmistakably urban but the inspiration was folk and rural.
Fairuz's songs were a superb manifestation of this new musical expression. Her repertoire as a whole, both in text and music, was marked by innovation. It testified to her own broad musical background. She sang of love and the simple life, of love of country, and of the longing for a lost Jerusalem; she sang old bedouin chants and obscure shepherd's songs; she brought back the muashahat, a musical form first heard in the gardens of Andalusia; she interpreted the quasida and the nashid, two highly structured lyrical verse forms and, with equal success, the improvisational vocal expressions known as the mawal and meyjana. It was this special combination of lyrics, music, and vocal quality that earned Fairuz the name of "ambassador to the stars." Fairuz became a major influence on contemporary Arab music and culture.
In March 1994, at the age of 60, Fairuz performed a concert at the Olympia in London, drawing over 6000 fans. Western critics compare her to Billie Holiday and call her the "Callas of Arabia."
Further Reading on Fairuz
A list of Fairuz's musical plays, records, and songs in Arabic and English, along with a biography and photographs, may be found in a publication entitled "Fayrouz Legend and Legacy" published by the Forum for International Art and Culture (Washington, D.C.: 1981). The following cassettes and albums by Fairuz may also be obtained from the above forum: "A Christmas Album," "Fairuz sings Gibran," "Fairuz in Concert," and the "United Nations Concert Album." A brief article on Fairuz and her March 1994 London concert can be found in New Statesman & Society March 18, 1994.
A copy of a 37-mm. color documentary entitled "Fayrouz in America and Canada" (1971), filmed by Parker and Associates, may be obtained from the United States Information Agency. The main source of information about Fairuz remains the annual programs and catalogues of the Baalback International Festival, 1957-1974, Beirut, Lebanon.