x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 21 July 2017

Warda Al Jazairia's melodious voice 'got to you'

Racha Makarem remembers attending her first Warda concert in Lebanon.

A video grab of the Algerian singer Warda, who died in Cairo in May 2012 at the age of 72.
A video grab of the Algerian singer Warda, who died in Cairo in May 2012 at the age of 72.

I was 12 when invited to my first Warda concert. At the time, I had only heard the name, Warda Al Jazairia, and I found it exotic. But I wasn't at all familiar with her music.

I didn't know what to expect, but judging by the frenzied congestion of cars and buses transporting fans to the venue in Mount Lebanon, I understood that she was no ordinary artist.

Thousands of anxious fans had gathered. At 8pm sharp, I remember, the crowd started to chant her name, calling her on to the stage. Sure enough, she responded with a cappella rendition of Wahashtouni (I've missed you).

"I've missed you, my eyes have been longing for you and now that I see you, I remember the good old days", she sang, with her arms extended in an embrace and a big, hearty smile. It was enthralling. I wanted to hug her back.

The woman owned the stage - and the crowd. Her clear, melodious voice came out effortlessly and got to you so easily. It was one of those voices you could listen to for hours at a time, and still want more. I was too young to appreciate the depth or the meaning of her lyrics, yet I was engrossed by her performance.

She never broke her smile and her smile never affected her singing.

At times, she would burst into laughter at some fan's adoring gesture or at the flow of "Allah" and "Ya Salam" interjections that punctuated a long breath of song or an especially poetic lyric.

She was in her element. By the end of the performance, the entire crowd was almost in a hypnotic trance. People swayed with the movement of the pink handkerchief she held. The young adolescent I was couldn't begin to appreciate the artistic merits or the nonpareil lucidity of the great diva's singing voice.

This isn't to say that I later became an expert of the musical arts, but over the years it wasn't difficult to develop a deep admiration for the great Warda. I can't remember a time in the past two decades when I didn't have one of her cassettes or CDs in my car.

Her chirping accompanied many a lovers' promenade with my long-term boyfriend. A few years down the road, at our wedding, when I was asked to perform a song to my bridegroom, it was my favourite passage from Warda's song, Albi Saeed (You fill my heart with happiness), that I belted out.

It wasn't the best rendition of her timeless air, I admit, but almost everyone at the wedding, young and old, sang along.

Warda's appeal stopped at no barrier, her songs spoke to all generations. This was one of her greatest talents - the ability to reinvent herself and her musical genre.

It is a rare skill, especially in the Arab music scene, where artists often cast themselves in inflexible, time-bound moulds. Just last week, the London-based newspaper, Al Quds Al Arabi, published an interview with Warda bearing the headline: "Warda promises her fans a surprise soon."

I was anticipating what the beautiful lady would have up her sleeve next, but alas, death had the best of her before she could fulfil that promise.

Warda's passing is a great loss for Arabic music, although I can say with certainty that her voice will continue to enchant for years to come.

rmakarem@thenational.ae