The Lebanese music icon revisits her past with a nostalgic collection of covers
Fairuz's new album Bebalee is a quiet statement of rebellion
If you search for Fairuz on YouTube, you will find a rare televised interview. Recorded in 1989 in Egypt, the legendary Lebanese singer sits in an empty cafe overlooking the pyramids with her interlocutor opposite her. The contrast between the two couldn’t be any more apparent – there’s the giddy interviewer in his white suit, noticeably sweating from nerves and excitement, and Fairuz, then 53, with her signature sunken eyes burning into him.
Leaning from his chair – as if ready to pour adoration on his subject – his long-winded introduction summons the birds, the Moon and the Lebanese mountains as examples of Fairuz’s artistry and place in the cultural fabric of the Arab world.
Fairuz soaks it up with a detachment that speaks more of defensiveness than arrogance. She is dressed in a black sweater embroidered with flowers, her hands clasped as she weathers the deluge of praise.
It is a terrible interview – the host’s over-eagerness unnerves Fairuz. The famously reclusive singer is curt, her answers clipped and delivered succinctly.
While not the most riveting of discussions, the mostly one-way conversation does offer a few valuable insights into a woman revered across the Middle East. The first of these is her accent – despite being a pan-Arab cultural icon that has commanded the attention of leaders and fans across the region, Fairuz has never lost her thick mountainous “jebeli” tone, which is synonymous with the Lebanese dialect.
Secondly, and perhaps not surprisingly, we see that she is more comfortable under the spotlight of the stage than in front of any camera or journalist.
The interviewer, perhaps knowing this will be his one and only sit-down with the legend, prods Fairuz about her artistic process and what is going one beneath the stony composure.
“I do feel the love that is given to me,” she replies quietly. “I feel it, I acknowledge it and I also give that love back. But my love is silent. It’s not expressed through words, but when I sing.”
There is clearly more to it than that. Despite a more-than-six-decade career that has seen her perform in small village churches and packed amphitheatres through some of the most testing periods gripping Arab societies, Fairuz still gets the shakes before going on stage.
She details this recurring stage fright in Bghayr Denee, one of the tracks on her startling new album Bebalee, which was released a fortnight ago and is her first in seven years.
The lyrics transport us to Fairuz walking onto the stage to the applause of a sold-out crowd. Behind the smile is the inner turmoil scored by the throbbing bass, pensive piano and circling flugelhorns.
The lyrics – “Their eyes are focused on me/ My heart pounds and my fear increases/ This feeling is not new despite the chaos surrounding me” – speak for themselves.
It is but one of the many revelations of Bebalee, which is a somewhat controversial offering.
Produced by her daughter Rima Rahbani, who also serves as a translator, the album is a covers collection of international songs that inspired Fairuz throughout her career.
It is an eclectic offering, indicating that the 81-year-old veteran has a more expansive ear than perhaps many thought. The first single, Lameen, is her take on French chanson Pour Qui Veille L’Étoile by Pierre Delanoë, and then there are her versions of John Lennon’s Imagine and Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Don’t Cry for Me Argentina.
After a seven-year wait for the new material from a star who so often manages to capture the regional mood, one can understand the reaction of fans and Arab cultural personalities to the new album, which also sees Fairuz taking on Besame Mucho.
Lebanese composer Ziyad Sahhab was scathing in his assessment of Bebalee, deeming that the decision to record a set of international cover songs was the move of an amateur, as opposed to an artist of Fairuz’s stature.
However, Sahhab squarely pins the blame on Fairuz’s daughter, stating that her production doesn’t hold a candle to that of her eldest son and former collaborator Ziad Rahbani.
While claiming that some of the songs have merit, Lebanese singer-songwriter Tania Saleh also expressed disappointment with the overall quality on offer. She dismisses any suggestions that Ziad would have done a better job than his sister stem from sexism.
“The issue is not about men and women here,” she tells me.
“Ziad has more experience and he is the real artist in the family. He has proved that he is a genius in being able to provide beautiful and timeless songs to Fairuz.”
Meanwhile, Abdou Wazin, culture editor for pan-Arab newspaper Al Hayat, stated that the criticism regarding Fairuz recording non-original songs are unfounded, reasoning that any basic examination of her career will reveal she covered songs by European artists throughout her career.
Some of the reaction points to the deep and creatively dangerous esteem fans hold for Fairuz – it is indeed the kind of adoration that causes the heart to pound, the fear to increase, and the furore is coupled with a messy court case triggered by a family dispute.
Her subsequent decision to break free is a grand statement of quiet artistic rebellion.
With Bebalee, Fairuz flips the script. Where her oldest, most popular songs spoke of a hopeful future, her latest collection finds her singing mostly of a nostalgic past.
She was born Nouhad Haddad in 1935 in the pastoral mountain village of Jebel Arz, south of Beirut. Her family eventually moved to the capital and set up home in the cobblestone streets of city quarter Zuqaq Al-Blat.
Inspired by the great Egyptian singers of the era – particularly the yearning songs of Asmahan and Layla Mourad wafting out of the family radio – Fairuz started singing as a teenager and subsequently began landing gigs as a chorus singer for Lebanese radio.
It was there she met music producer Halim Al Rumi. Impressed by the young Haddad’s ability to memorise long, complex poems, he began composing a string of songs for her. While the pieces didn’t amount to much, it was through another creative endeavour that he cemented himself in Arab music folklore.
As per regional custom, an artist’s stage name is often given by the person who discovered them. Al Rumi chose Fairuz, which means “turquoise”, because he deemed her voice as delicate as a precious stone.
Sensing that he could only take her prodigious talent so far, Al Rumi introduced her to Assi Rahbani, who alongside his brother Mansour, was a fledgling composer often found in the station shopping their latest compositions.
Fairuz represented the missing link to the brothers’ work, and her sensuous take on their lovelorn song Itab (Reproaches) was an overnight success in 1952. It also helped set one of the trademarks of that Fairuz sound: a soft crystalline voice detailing powerful emotions such as love and longing.
Songs such as Ana La Habibi (I Am for My Love) and Kifak Inta (How Are You) were written from a singular perspective, but the feelings that they evoked were communal. Her love stories were ours, in addition to the heartbreak that came along the way.
These songs also spoke of the blossoming relationship between Fairuz and Assi, which was cemented when the two married in 1954 and moved to Antelias, a town on the outskirts of Beirut, which was home to the Rahbani clan.
Fairuz recalls that time in Bebalee with Lameen, a touching, sepia-toned love letter to her husband, who died in 1986.
You can visualise Fairuz in the studio smiling whimsical as she remembers those early tender moments.
Where Lameen evokes the whimsy of the courting process, the settled jazz and tango groove of the following track, Ana Weyak, based on Besame Mucho by Mexican singer and pianist Consuelo Velázquez, is the sound of a seasoned couple: “We fought and we made up and you would sing me a song/ Our days and nights and the stories we would tell I would not forget.”
With the Arab world’s cultural centre of gravity’s moving from Cairo to Beirut from the late 1950s, it heralded a golden age of Fairuz and Lebanese folk music.
It was a period symbolised with Fairuz’s now-legendary debut appearance at Beirut’s Baalbeck Festival in 1957, where among the Roman ruins she performed Rahbani Brothers operettas – which spoke of love of country and national unity – almost annually until the advent of civil war in the 1975.
With Bebalee functioning as a sonic travelogue during her career, it is the omission of any songs evoking that heroic period that caused the most critical consternation.
The closest it comes to that era is in Yemken, her version of Imagine. With the 1971 track by the ex-Beatle being a staple of popular culture, Fairuz and her team needed to provide a unique perspective to keep it fresh for the ears. Unfortunately, the original is afforded too much respect and Yemken sounds like a mediocre karaoke cover. This is a pity, because it overshadows the interesting lyricism involved.
Part of Fairuz’s appeal during her heyday was her stubborn refusal to leave Lebanon, as the country stumbled into the abyss of civil war. Instead, she would famously lock herself at her Beirut home whenever she returned from an overseas show.
With Yemken’s alarmingly trite production of piano, gentle acoustic strumming and an ill-advised Polynesian-style percussion, one can almost imagine Fairuz peering out the window of her self-imposed national exile as she dreamt of a better future “without injustice, death, fear and reprisals”.
It is here, and on the album’s closing, song Baytee Zgheer (a more modern remake of an earlier Fairuz track), that one misses Fairuz’s previous collaborative work with Ziad.
Since her husband’s death, it is their eldest son who has taken on the lion’s share of the composing duties, including Fairuz’s previous hit album Eh Fi Amal in 2007.
Rahbani’s erratic behaviour and controversial comments regarding his mother’s alleged support for Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah were what caused his present blacklisting from this latest project. Then there was the added tension of the 2010 court case – instigated by the children of one of Fairuz’s main songwriters, the late Mansour Rahbani (her husband’s brother) – regarding copyright permissions. The end result was a court ruling that effectively banned Fairuz from singing the patriotic anthem Ya’ish, Ya’ish (Long Live, Long Live) until the ongoing dispute over royalties is resolved.
With all that going one, it made sense for Fairuz to go for an album of covers.
Bebalee is a statement of defiance by an artist intent on expressing herself. Through the songs of the others, Fairuz bares her soul.
Bebalee is out now on Decca