Fairouz, Um Kulthoum: Singing Teflon Factors of Arabism

Published October 29th, 2019 - 10:09 GMT
Um Kulthoum and Fairouz  (Twitter)
Um Kulthoum and Fairouz (Twitter)
Their project emerged at the 1959 Baalback festival, where they performed songs and musicals, usually situated in idealised villages of Lebanon.

What made singers Fairouz and Um Kulthoum true legends of the stage?

The amswer remains in their extraordinary voices and their great composers.

However, in their heydays, the Arab nation was going through immense political and social upheaval, and their work operating as a unifying force - they became much more than just singers.

Considering Lebanon's independence in 1943, Egypt's revolution in 1952 and Arab defeat in 1967, they were performing while their states underwent fundamental structural and cultural change.

When Fairouz was 21 years old, she married renowned composer Asi Rahbani, and repeatedly declared her indebtedness to him.

Their project emerged at the 1959 Baalback festival, where they performed songs and musicals, usually situated in idealised villages of Lebanon.

Rahbani, his brother and Fairouz were the first local Lebanese musicians to perform at the international music festival, helping to re-establish a new distinctively Lebanese "folk music" that combined traditional Levantine folk (or debke) with Western instrumentation.

"The Fairouz/Rahbani team's vision of Lebanon tapped into fuzzy recollections of and strong yearnings for a comforting image of the country," said Elise Salem, an academic and cultural critic. "The Rahbanis succeeded like no one else in inspiring national pride."

In a study of Fairouz and the nation, Christopher Stone describes that, politically, the group's efforts came to reflect the unifying efforts of Fuad Chehab, then Lebanese president.

Chehab attempted to overcome sectarianism by advocating ideas of a particular post-independence Lebanon; ideas that also revolved around a utopian society on Mount Lebanon.

This formative role in constructing an idea of a new nation that Fairouz played within the Rahbani project was paralleled by Um Kolthoum's part following the revolution in Egypt in 1952, during which she threw her support behind Gamal Abdel Nasser.

The fact remains, however, that, before she sang Ya Gamal Ya Methal al-Wataniya ["Oh Gamal, symbol of nationalism"], she was singing Ya Leilet al-Eid ["Oh night of the feast"] in honour of Egypt's King Farouk.

However, soon she threw her weight behind the new revolution, and during the 1950s at least half of Um Kulthoum's repertoire were nationalist songs that celebrated the new Egypt.

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Many of these songs had initially reflected military band music, or Arab nationalist anthems - influenced by the sort of propaganda coming out of the Soviet Union at the time.

She broadened the musicality and instrumentation, by starting to incorporate Egyptian elements within instrumentation and rhythm in songs such as 'ya Salaam Ala 'idna' and 'Soot al-Salaam'.

Um Kulthoum was generally cautious about the integration of Western music within her repertoire.

"If this modernisation is composing dance music or foreign music, and setting the words of a song to its rhythms, I regard it as chaos, not modernity," she famously remarked to the suited singer, Abdel Wahab, in 1942.

Her attitude towards Arabic music at this time reflected the more general mood of the 'Nahda' ["renaissance"], also a central message in various novels - which held a prevailing theme that the Arab world could, perhaps, adopt certain aspects of Western culture - but, ultimately, this should be integrated into a dominant indigenous Arab nation, culture and history.

Both Um Kulthoum and Fairouz carefully assimilated the traditional and the modern in their music, albeit in differing ways; Um Kolthumm through her modernising of classical Egyptian forms, and Fairouz, initially through adaptation of the folk scene.

Many Fairouz songs reflect life of the Lebanese countryside, with qualities of space, and childish innocence. Poet Mahmoud Darwish once said that her songs "always forget to grow up".
She exploited her image in Rahbani plays as an innocent mountain girl situated within village life, speaking in public with romantic nostalgia of summers spent in her ancestral village.

Like Fairouz, Um Kulthoum also gave an image of rural innocence. In her films she played virtuous and heroic slave girls from of Arab history, or village girls who became stars.

"There is sincerity in the character of the slave girl and modesty is a mark of historical heroines," she said.

Her professed naivety stood in contrast with the general cultural preferences of King Farouk's time, during which many tried to highlight their cosmopolitan nature.

"The fallaheen ['peasants'] are simple people... but they have hearts of gold. They were my first audience. Whatever success I have realised goes back to them. They are the real masters of this country because they are the source of goodness, generosity, and love."

Some believed that part of her success was that because her rise coincided with rising urbanisation across the country.

Um Kulthoum's words also reflected Gamal Abdel Nasser's rhetoric concerning "the common people" of Egypt.

The disillusionment that followed the crushing 1967 Arab defeat also came to affect popular cultural figures associated with governments.

Um Koulthoum started to attract criticism concerning her monopoly of the airwaves, the social make-up of her weekly concerts, and the similarity of her songs.

Possibly partly in answer to this, she started fundraising concerts around the Arab world - and one performance in Paris - the only one she would ever do outside the Arab world.

Armed with a diplomatic passport, these trips took on the role of state visits, donating all proceeds to the Egyptian government. By the time she died she had reportedly donated more than $2 million.

Fairouz meanwhile contributed to the Arab cause with her 1971 album dedicated to Jerusalem, featuring large orchestral arrangements, such as the operatic Zahrat al Madaan.

Following a divorce from her husband, however, she started to work with her son, Ziad Rahbani, whose work reflected a new, more cynical generation in Lebanon.

Ziad's most overt commentary on the previous generation's outdated ideas was demonstrated in his 1983 play, A Failure, which includes criticism on the association between his mother and the state.

In the play, a director is asked by a producer to make the play more sexual, but he points out it is the nationalism in the script that will attract audiences.

However, when the producer asks the director if he remembered to include something for "the South" of Lebanon, the director realises his vision is failing to include the whole country.

Commentators view the play as criticising Chebab - whose idea of unity failed to encompass Lebanon in its entirety.

Fairouz started dealing with political issues in a different way, musically and lyrically, such as the song Shady, in which a boy she used to play with in the snow disappeared during the war, and Wahdon, based on a poem about three Palestinians who headed towards the border and never returned.

Both songs focused on individuals who were caught up in conflicts and were void of grand nationalist narratives - as well as being catchy popularist anthems.

It should be noted that Fairouz and Um Kulthoum dealt with different contexts; Kolthum played a role in uniting a country whose internal divisions were not based on religion or ethnicity - in many ways she was expressing an idea of a pre-existing unity which was already felt.

Fairouz, on the other hand, was singing in a context where internal division was severe enough to give rise to a civil war - during which she refused to sing in the country.

The 1976 I Love You Lebanon spoke tragically of her adoration for the country ripped apart, and in 1994 she performed again in Lebanon on the Green Line, separating West and East Beirut, creating a much commented-on, temporary feeling of unity.

Both Um Kulthoum and Fairouz managed to achieve high status through their talent, but also by protecting their personal reputation, and representing ideals of innocence, religiosity, marriage and rural life to embody the nation's projected ideals.

Such ideals also allowed them to become all things to all people, and they managed to adapt and navigate their way through changing contexts to sustain their success in a manner that has yet to be matched.

Their popularity far outstripped their rival performers, such as the singer Asmahan, who had a brilliant voice and a beautiful face, but was plagued by accusations of working for foreign countries, was involved in affairs and consequently failed to embody a suitable public persona.

Additionally, Asmahan was a foreigner in Cairo, singing Western-inspired songs such as Waltz in Vienna.

"Asmahan's story observes that performers were given special status but not necessarily high status," wrote her biographer, Sherifa Zuhur.

"Entertainers' special status evolved in the Middle East from the necessity of patronage... and thus the linkage of the performer to the courts," she added. "Although all recognise the 20th century as a new era, old attitudes die hard and slowly."

Um Kulthoum and Fairouz embodied hope at a time of radical change within Lebanon and Egypt.

Now, after wars , ideological sectarian rifts and massacres, the absence of hope may go some way to explain why there are no comparable performers in today's era.

Closely reflecting Europe, class divisions show themselves in the contemporary popular acts in both Lebanon and Egypt; between "indie" bands, arabic hip-hop, the ghetto auto tunes of muraghanat in Cairo and debke-inspired local Lebanese tracks. 

There are still certain acts bring everyone together - many could tolerate Amr Diab or Nancy Ajram at a wedding – but such commercial acts are incomparable to Fairouz or Um Kulthoum.

Although the hopes of their time were dashed, and indeed proved to be false, it is while listening to their songs that such feelings are renewed. It is not nostalgia for that time, but for a longing for that time when people were - at least - able to feel nostalgia; longing for legends that never emerged into reality.

This article has been adapted from its original source.    

Copyright @ 2022 The New Arab.

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