Tuesday, May 26, 2009
Fayrouz by Neil MacFarquhar
Fayrouz's emergence as a singer paralleled Lebanon's transformation from a backwater of the Ottoman Empire to the vibrant financial and cultural heart of the Arab world, a rare oasis of tolerance that soon went up in flames. Born in 1935, she was the daughter of a poor Greek Orthodox Christian typesetter, she was discovered at age 14 by the founder of Lebanon's music conservatory. He heard her sing at a public school where he was scouting for a chorus for a new national radio station. An early mentor who considered her a rare gem dubbed her "Fayrouz," which means 'turquoise' in Arabic. She met Assi Rahbani, a composer who became her husband, and his brother Mansour, a lyricist at the radio station.
It was a time when Arab cities from Casablanca to Baghdad were filling with former villagers who wanted to shed their rural past and become more modern, more westernized. By combining Arab and European instruments with shorter compositions and Fayrouz's clear soprano, the trio revolutionized the region's music :"She made this wonderful mix of folkloric art and songs with European instruments and styles that was very appealing," Virginian Danielson, a music librarian and expert on the Middle East at Harvard University, told me. "The whole thing managed to be international, rural and cosmopolitan at the same time."
It was also rendered in a voice unlike any other, because Fayrouz eliminated the nasal tones favored by most Arab singers. To me, her moody voice is reminiscent of Ella Fitzgerald or Billie Holliday, but using Oriental quarter tones.
As performer, Fayrouz presented a melancholic, rigid figure on stage. About five feet tall, dressed in a series of ball gowns that swept to the floor and covered her arms, she stood stock still at the microphone. During a particular passage she might lift a hand slightly or twitch her shoulders. She rarely smiled. Talking to me, she laughed at the idea that even committed fans found her too serious. She told me that she had always been a shy performer, still wracked by stage fright. "If you look at my face while I'm singing, you will see that I am not there, I am not in the place," she said. "I feel art is like a prayer. I am not in church but I feel like I am, and in that atmosphere you can't laugh. And dance? If they saw me dancing they would kill themselves!"
I interviewed her for a second time in Las Vegas where she performed at the MGM Grand Hotel before a roaring, weeping, clapping crowd of nearly 10,000 mostly Syrian and Lebanese expatriates. She told me both times that for many of her fans, her songs conjured up an idyllic Lebanon of simple villages and fertile vineyards that was gone, if it ever had existed. "When you look at Lebanon now, you see that it bears no resemblance to the Lebanon I sing about, so when we miss it, we look for it through songs. It's as if the songs have become their country."