2005 Honorary Degree Recipient
The legendary Lebanese singer Fairuz has throughout her life dominated the vocal scene in the Arab world. In Lebanon she has been known as the "Seventh Pillar of Baalbek"; her "velvet voice" - "the soul of Lebanon." She has been called the "Callas of Arabia," and "the Arab world's most beloved singer," whose moving tones were said to have halted fighting between combatants during Lebanon's fifteen-year civil war. When his embattled homeland became foreign to him, the poet Ounsi El Hajj said, "Her voice remains my only friend."
The rise of the humble Nouhad Haddad of Jabal al-Arz to become the world famous Fairuz is made of the stuff of fairy tale and myth. When she was still a toddler, the Haddad family moved to Beirut. When she enrolled in public school, Nouhad quickly became a member of the school choir.
Her beautiful natural voice and compulsive delight in singing soon attracted attention. The composer Muhammad Fleifel, visiting her school to recruit young members for the new Lebanese radio station, selected Fairuz for his chorus. She soon became an important member of the choir. Sargon Boulos, a biographer, reported, "She had a keen artistic sensibility and a memory so sharp that she was able to learn by heart in two hours four pages of poetry or five of notation."
Nouhad's singing career developed rapidly when she was recognized by composers Halim al-Rumi and 'Assi Rahbani. Fairuz took her stage name from the suggestion of al-Rumi. "Fairuz," is the Arabic word for "turquoise."
The singing career of Fairuz first flourished in the '50s and '60s. While singing at the national radio station she studied the voices and techniques of the other singers. There, too, Fairuz's relationship with her composer 'Assi Rahbani and his brother Mansour developed. Through their compositions and arrangements she was soon singing tunes influenced by the many western dance bands popular in Beirut at the period. The two brothers developed the "dance song" in Arabic music. But Fairuz's first big success came with a song full of melancholy, ' Itab (Blame), which lifted her to recognition across the Arab world through the excellent recording made in Damascus in 1952. After her marriage to 'Assi Rahbani in 1954, the success of ' Itab was followed by an invitation to Cairo, the Middle East center for music, film, and the arts.
Back in Beirut she gave birth to her son Ziad in 1956. In 1957 she held her first live outdoor concert at the base of the six famed columns of the temple of Jupiter in Baalbek. With the Rahbani brothers writing and composing, she then began a career in colorful traditional folkloric musicals set in such places as Jisr al-Qamar, Beiteddine, Baalbek, and the cedar forests of north Lebanon.
As Fairuz's fame spread throughout the Arab world she sang in Damascus, Amman, Cairo, Rabat, Algiers, and Tunis as well as Beirut. King Hussein of Jordan decorated her in 1963, 1977, and 1999. On the occasion of a performance in Morocco, King Hassan II of Morocco received her personally at the airport. She also traveled to Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Montreal, London, and Paris, and made concert tours of the United States, where she was frequently awarded the keys to the cities in which she performed. During her concert in Las Vegas in 1999, the mayor of the city officially proclaimed May 15, 1999 as "Fairuz Day."
Numerous prizes and awards have followed her throughout her career: the Lebanese Order of the Cedars, Knight Rank, in 1962; al-Istehkak honor from Syria in 1967; a Lebanese memorial stamp issued in 1969, followed by a Syrian stamp; Officer Rank Honor, Lebanon, 1970; the golden key to the city of Jerusalem, 1973; the Jordanian Medal of Honor, 1975; the French Honor for Arts and Letters, Commodore Rank, 1988; the Palestinian Authority's Jerusalem Award, 1997; Knight of the French Legion of Honor in 1998; and Tunisia's al-Thaqafa al-Rafie' Honor in 1998. On a special invitation from the United Nations and the International Red Cross Committee in 1999, she represented the Middle East at the Fiftieth Anniversary of the Geneva Conventions held in Geneva.
Across the world, many listeners can instantly recognize the voice of Fairuz over the airways and on CDs. Her musical tones are penetrating, haunting, unforgettable. Biographer Boulos said she was able to "transmute ordinary national hymns into something beguiling." The "golden reverberations" of her "calm, confident," and "throaty" voice are colored by mellow sweetness, "soothing," "softer than silk" - an "Angel's voice, melodious and strong."
Many of her works are nostalgic songs about village life, homeland, romantic love, and loss. She has always sung achingly of poignant love, but frequently blended images of nature in her love songs. Although she always maintained that her songs were not political, the times in which she sang linked many of the tunes and lyrics to the sociopolitical situations of the day. She admits that many of her songs have been interpreted politically: "Everybody explains the song according to their own situations or feelings," she says. "My choice of music is always linked to love, not to politics."
She was the singer of cities and homeland: Jerusalem, Cairo, Beirut; Palestine, Egypt, Syria, Lebanon. Her interpreter once explained, "She prefers to sing about the human side of the Lebanon, the things that bring people together. It's not political, but it's very patriotic." During the long and agonizing years of Lebanon's civil war, Fairuz left Beirut only to perform abroad, but refused to sing in the country until it was united again. She broke this silence only to maintain her tradition of celebrating prayers in Holy Week every year, choosing songs from all Christian rites - from Byzantine liturgy to a wide variety of Maronite and Catholic hymns.
In 1985 she returned in triumph to Syria after a seven-year absence to sing before 150,000 people in Busra-Eskesham. In 1994 she performed once more in Beirut to enthusiastic acclaim, and in 1998 she returned to the Baalbek Festival where she performed a remake of her past performances in Baalbek.
Between 2000 and 2004 she appeared at the Beiteddine Festival with her son Ziad Rahbani and the American Philharmonic Orchestra, performing many lyrics, songs, and arrangements set by her son. These concerts and her last album of releases have heralded a new era of the works of Fairuz with Ziad Rahbani's new compositions.
Through her rich oeuvre of theatrical pieces, uncountable love songs, Bedouin refrains, symphonic compositions, "orientalized" tangos, and liturgical hymns," Fairuz remains the living legend of Arab song.