Fayrouz draws on an amazing life for Athens show

Her name, Fayrouz, means turquoise, but the legendary Lebanese singer was born Nouhad Haddad to a humble printer father and a proud and religious mother. In Arabic, the word «Nouhad» has a dual meaning – brightness and heavy-heartedness. This double meaning reflects the life of the Haddad family of four children, three daughters and a son. One of the siblings, Fayrouz, who performs at the Herod Atticus Saturday, went on to become a worshipped figure, both in her native Lebanon and throughout the Arabic world, for her art and life. Nouhad attended a lofty private school for a short while but was forced to switch to a state school when business for her father turned sour. A guiding force during the tough times, the youngster’s mother taught her values, such as self-respect. Years later, this major artist would draw on her mother’s teachings to deal with both her astonishing success and Lebanon’s civil war, which tore her homeland apart and wounded her soul. Nouhad, who was born on November 21, 1935, grew up listening to the major Arabic hits of the late 40s, mostly by female Egyptian singers, on the radio. Enchanted and drawn to the music, the young girl sang endlessly. An Orthodox Christian, young Nouhad, or Fayrouz, the future turquoise gem, would eventually exemplify the strength and grace of mutual concession and giving. Despite her Christian religious identity, Fayrouz became an ambassador for the history and civilization of the entire Arabic world. She was never forced to wear a headscarf. Fayrouz was never judged by her appearance. Instead, the judgment was based on the sound produced by her soul, her enormous vocal delivery of both sensual and maternal dimensions. While still in her early-to-mid teens, Nouhad attended Beirut’s conservatory between 1948 and 1950. At the same time, she earned distinctions at singing contests and began performing live on Beirut radio as a professional. The sessions prompted the station’s chief, Halim al Rumi, a prominent figure in Arabic music, to introduce the emerging singer to the brothers Assi and Mansour Rahbani, an extremely gifted songwriting team. From that point on, the young Nouhad’s life would change for ever. In Nouhad, the songwriters had found the ideal interpreter for their artistic visions. And she drew on their wealth of material to become famous worldwide. At this early stage of their collaboration, the Rahbani brothers wished to modernize Arabic music, both in sound and aesthetic quality, by establishing a harmonic coexistence between Western and Arabic music. The songwriters did not confine their work to the conventional song format but instead yearned to develop a musical drama, or Arabic musical, with Nouhad as their star performer. She underwent a couple of name changes, Yola and Fatat al Jabal – meaning mountain’s daughter – before permanently adopting Fayrouz at the suggestion of al Rumi, the radio chief. Fayrouz and Assi Rahbani married in 1954 to fuse their life and art. The newlyweds settled in a Beirut suburb, Antilias. Fifty years later, I spent some time living in this same suburb as a guest of a childhood friend, Alexandros Economou, a diplomat, who at the time was stationed at the Greek Embassy in Beirut. «Do you know who lives in this house?» he asked me one morning, as we took a walk in the neighborhood. «Fayrouz,» he went on. I was left feeling both stunned and extremely touched. That was the house Fayrouz insisted on remaining in between 1975 and 1989, during the fratricidal civil war between the Christians and Syria-backed Muslims. Fayrouz refused to move, emigrate, or abandon her homeland for the safety of a European capital, even when her life was threatened by bombings in the area. This was the home where the artist, devastated and embittered by the civil war, chose to remain silent and refused to perform publically. Fayrouz did not perform until 1994, when the civil war had ended. The show, staged in Beirut as a concert for peace, went down as a monumental event. Returning to the artist’s early days, Fayrouz and her husband traveled to Egypt in 1955. While there, the pair met a host of prominent Arabic figures in Cairo, including directors, writers, actors and politicians. The following year, Fayrouz gave birth to her beloved son, Ziad, a celebrated musician and composer in his own right, who nowadays collaborates with his legendary mother. Fayrouz’s ascent began in 1957. She performed in numerous major musicals, films and sang hundreds of songs, interpreting the lyrics of major Arabic poets and lyricists – both past and contemporary. These included Harun H. Rashid, Mikla’il Nu’aimeh, and Ibn Jubair. Fayrouz also sang the lyrics of Lebanon’s other famous artist, Kahlil Gibran. By now, all the major Arabic composers, including the Rahbani brothers, were fashioning their songs around Fayrouz’s voice. Her incredible talent encouraged composers to experiment with sound and also add Western dashes to the whole. Fayrouz began touring the world. Performances included stops at major European and American venues. She received various awards and was officially named ambassador of peace and civilization for all Arabs. During her career’s peak, between 1957 and 1977, Fayrouz spent time in Greece to record many of her top records at local studios, including the legendary Columbia facility. Fayrouz’s collaboration with the Rahbani brothers began to wane in the late 70s; the civil war limited her artistic activity, her husband died in 1986 and, two years later, she lost a daughter. The singer’s son, Ziad, prompted her return to music by writing tender music for his mother and touring with her. A wise woman of the world who has rich experiences from life and art, Fayrouz stands as both a glorious and pained figure. She lives in our world, and her own, balancing the silence and dignity that has characterized the artist’s spiritual stance ever since she made her reluctant start in singing as the young Nouhad who later became Fayrouz. (1) Giorgos Andreou is a composer.

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