Who is the biggest star, the most prominent name, in contemporary western popular music? Mick Jagger? Paul McCartney? Bob Dylan? There really isn't a single, obvious choice—it just depends on whom one asks.
In the Arab world, however, the situation is different. From Morocco to Oman, from Syria to Sudan, there is overwhelming agreement that the pre-eminent figure in current popular music is the captivating Lebanese vocalist, Fayrouz, the woman called 'The Soul of Lebanon." Small wonder then that Americans and Canadians of Middle Eastern origin were jubilant when it was announced, last September, that Fayrouz would soon embark on her second concert tour of North America, a full 10 years after her first set of performances here. For the thousands of devoted fans who had last seen her in 1971 - and had been awaiting her return since - it was welcome news, indeed.
Fayrouz's North American concert series - which began at Washington's John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, October 4, and concluded with a triumphant appearance at Boston Symphony Hall on November 22 - was actually part of a spectacular three-continent tour that included Mexico, Argentina, Brazil, Venezuela and Australia on its subsequent itinerary. Organized and sponsored by the Forum for International Art and Culture, and the Arab American Cultural Foundation, the tour is the most extensive ever undertaken by Fayrouz and those accompanying her: the Lebanese Folkloric Ensemble Dance Troupe, the Lebanese Choir and Orchestra, her talented sister, Hoda Ziade, a much-beloved vocalist in her own right, in all a supporting cast of over 50 musicians, singers and dancers.
I had never seen Fayrouz in concert, so, when the tour was announced, I was thrilled at the prospect of hearing, in person, the premier singer of Arab music. Now, having attended two of her performances, I realize that she is much more than that. Quite simply, Fayrouz is one of the world's nonpareil musicians and outstanding artists, an international treasure of the order of Rostropovich, Sills, Ravi Shankar, Miles Davis, Sutherland, Pavarotti, Ella Fitzgerald and Dylan.
Joseph Eger, music director and conductor of the United Nations Symphony, agrees. Having long admired Fayrouz and recognized her inimitability, Eger invited her to inaugurate the U.N.'s "music in the lobby" series, an example of Eger's oft-demonstrated willingness to explore unfamiliar musical territory.
Formerly an associate conductor to Leopold Stokowski, Eger has also worked with such popular musicians as the late John Lennon and keyboardist Keith Emerson and is thus well suited to stage a collaboration with Fayrouz. And Fayrouz, many of whose songs trumpet the poignant yet proudly defiant promise of a Lebanon made whole again, of a healed and rejuvenated homeland, seemed the ideal choice for this concert in a building dedicated to peace.
The performance at the U.N. came a few days after Fayrouz's appearance at the Music Hall in Houston, which members of her entourage cited as being one of the tour's musical peaks. (Following her debut at the Kennedy Center, she had also played Cleveland, New York's Carnegie Hall, Detroit, Montreal, Toronto, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.) The U.N. concert, my first opportunity to see her, was unusual for a number of reasons. It marked the only time on the tour that she was not supported by her normal accompanists - although several musicians from the Lebanese orchestra sat in with the U.N. Symphony.
The audience was by invitation only. It was also the one concert at which Fayrouz was unable to use her own sound system. And although members of her organization - perfectionists all - were heard to grumble about the latter fact, her listeners did not seem the least bit disappointed. My friend Sheri and I certainly weren't.
Fayrouz was introduced by Ghassan Tueni, Lebanon's Ambassador to the U.N. Attired in white, she walked onstage with measured, graceful steps, her manner supremely dignified and legal. The concert was designed, in part, to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the death of the Lebanese poet Khalil Gibran, and Fayrouz opened with al-Ard Lakum ("The Land is Yours"), a Gibran lyric set to music by her son, composer/multi-instrumentalist/playwright/actor Ziad Rahbani.
From the first few notes, you know immediately that you are in the presence of one of the world's most remarkable voices. It has a vibrant purity and rich, velvety texture that contrasts sharply with the grainy, guttural quality characteristic of many traditional Arab vocalists. Fayrouz's range, moreover, is breathtaking, and she eschews the profuse trilling and clustering of vocal embellishments favored by other singers. As a result, her sparing, elegant use of traditional ornamentation is all the more striking.
Her very selective use of onstage gestures produces an equally dramatic effect. When she sings, Fayrouz stands straight, her look coolly deadpan, almost stern at times. It's as if she were saving every last drop of emotion for that gorgeously expressive voice. But on the occasions when she stretches her arm out toward the audience, or clutches her hands to her breast, or gives a quick, fiery shake of the shoulders - then the crowd's impassioned response tells you a lot about the relationship between Fayrouz and her fans. There's a constant two-way flow of energy between performer and audience that makes a Fayrouz concert more than just a musical event—and this is true even for fans who do not understand her Arabic lyrics.
The U.N. performance was thoroughly satisfying. Fayrouz's Lebanese musicians meshed well with Eger's mostly youthful ensemble - and there were memorable juxtapositions: the stark woodiness of a na'i, a simple reed pipe, sounding its sinuous, fluttery tune above a background of violins and cellos. And where else could one hear a tabla, the common Middle Eastern-South Asian hand drum, suddenly pick up the tempo to kick a western orchestra into high gear? The audience clearly enjoyed themselves, yet they weren't as unabashedly demonstrative as I'd expected. Dignitaries don't want to be seen yelling and hollering, I suppose.
Two days later, in the nearly empty expanse of Boston Symphony Hall a few hours before the concert there, I chatted with Iraqi-born San Franciscan Violette Yacoub, president of the Forum For International Art and Culture and chief organizer of Fayrouz's 1971 and 1981 North American tours. I commented that the crowd at the U.N. had been enthusiastic but perhaps a touch restrained. "Wait till you see how the Arab community here reacts," she replied. "And Hoda will sing a song in Armenian for the many Armenians in Boston — and the Arabs will cheer just as loudly as the Armenians."
I asked Violette if she could think of any western performer, past or present, who might stand as a good analogy to Fayrouz. "Vocally she has always been compared to Edith Piaf, but in terms of how she is regarded in the Middle East, I would say a combination of Judy Garland and Bob Dylan." Judy Garland and Bob Dylan? "Well, Judy Garland, because of the great love Fayrouz's audience has for her, and their massive outpourings of affection. And Bob Dylan because the audience listens closely to the lyrics she sings and puts a lot of stock in them."
The concert that followed was the kind of joyous celebration that gets even the dourest skeptic clapping his hands and tapping his feet if not dancing in the aisle. Violette was right about the substantially more extroverted crowd. Who says Bostonians are prim and proper?
Fayrouz wore twice as many stunning costumes as she had at the U.N., sang more than twice as many songs, and smiled five times as much. (I think she liked us, Boston.) As for Hoda, she sang her Armenian song and, as predicted, everyone went wild. The dancers of the Lebanese Folkloric Ensemble contributed a splendid exuberance, performing tastefully updated versions of traditional folk dances - including the famous dabke, or line dance. The orchestra, conducted by Tawfiq al-Basha, provided Fayrouz with exceptional instrumental support, and once again I found the musicianship of Samir Siblini on na'i and Setrak Sarkassian on tabla especially irresistible. Oh yes - it was Fayrouz's birthday, and we did our part too at the end by singing "Happy Birthday to you."
Backstage after the concert, I spoke briefly with a drained but smiling and obviously pleased Fayrouz, a tiny woman, softer and more delicate-looking than she appears on stage or in photographs. I wished her happy birthday, congratulated her on an outstanding and memorable performance, and tried for a quick interview.
Fayrouz listened to my questions in English and then responded in Arabic, after which her brother, Joseph Haddad, interpreted. Did American audiences differ this time around? Yes, they were more emotional and showed an even greater love and appreciation than in 1971, making her try that much harder. Was it true that she admired Bob Dylan and Joan Baez? Yes (she grinned). When would she be returning to the States? I'm ready for the next performance now, she joked.
I'm ready for her next performance, too. Whenever and wherever it may be. I should add that I saw Bob Dylan for the first time about a month before the Fayrouz concerts. I've enjoyed his music for many years, and it was a great thrill to see the elusive and enigmatic Mr. Dylan in person. But it was an even greater thrill to hear Fayrouz, the Soul of Lebanon indeed.
Barry Hoberman, a free-lance writer specializing in Islamic history, studied at Duke University, Harvard and the University of Indiana.