"I must say...that Fayrouz is an exceptional artist, exceptionally gifted, and inhabited by the soul of the poets of her race. I believe I would have felt that even if I had not felt the vibrations around me of the thousands of Arabs who were not just applauding a star."
—La Presse, Montreal
From my hotel in Houston I had telephoned an old friend from the Middle East in New York. "I have tickets to hear Fayrouz tonight," I said. "Don’t you wish you could come along?"
"Not at all," my friend replied. "I saw her here last week." Fayrouz—Lebanon’s hauntingly intense singer—was on tour.
Last fall, Fayrouz, accompanied by a full orchestra and a folklore troupe of 30 singers and dancers, made an 11-city concert swing through Canada and the United States. Everywhere, from Carnegie Hall in New York to Shrine Civic Auditorium in Los Angeles, from Houston to Montreal, she and the troupe were acclaimed—and not, as might be suspected, solely because some thing like half of the overflow audiences were usually Lebanese-Americans and Arab students. One soft-drink executive sitting next to me in Houston’s posh Jesse Jones Hall exclaimed, "I just had a free night from our regional sales conference and wandered in here—but this is really something to write home about."
Critics in the U.S. press seemed to agree. "An Arabic Edith Piaf," wrote the Boston Globe. "A younger and smaller Dietrich, very straight, very solemn and, when the mood is on, impassioned," said the Boston Record-American.
This was not Fayrouz’s first overseas tour. She had sung in Royal Albert Hall in London and enthralled audiences in Brazil and Argentina. But never before had she received a more enthusiastic reception—even in the Arab world, where she has been a stage, movie and recording star for 15 years.
Born Nouhad Haddad, Fayrouz (from the Persian for "turquoise") began her rapid rise to fame in the late 1950’s when, after studying at the Lebanese Conservatory of Music, she joined forces with Assi and Mansour Rahbani, a composing team specializing in marrying traditional eastern themes to modern western orchestration. And Fayrouz’s unique style suited their music perfectly. Assi, in fact, found his singing star so especially perfect that he soon married her.
Of the three leading female Arab vocalists Fayrouz is by far the easiest for a western listener to understand and appreciate. Her fine, clear voice places her somewhere between the classic improvisation of Egypt ian singer Oum Koulsoum and the torch-song throatiness of Lebanon’s Sabah. As the Globe said, an Arabic Piaf.
Despite this background Fayrouz is surprisingly stiff on stage. During her U.S. tour, critics almost unanimously commented on her "aloof, chaste" bearing. One said that "you cannot imagine her laughing...her voice conveys all the emotion.’’
In the lobby of their Houston motel, I asked tour manager Sabry Sharif, choreographer Abdel Halim Caracalla and designer Jean-Pierre Delifer to tell me about the production. The consensus was that for the U.S. tour costumes and choreography were very important. "Without bulky sets, costumes have to establish mood, and because the songs are in Arabic, the costumes also have to help tell the story."
In a nearby circle Joseph Chahine of the Voice of the Orient record company, who had come along to record the tour for an album called Fayrouz in America, was talking to the four-man movie team sent along by the United States Information Agency to produce a color documentary on the tour which would be distributed throughout the Arab world. The camera man was waiting for a light rain to let up to film a bus-load of the enthusiastic young singers and dancers (mostly students, secretaries and gym teachers when not performing) as they played tourist at Houston’s N.A.S.A. space complex. Although rehearsals necessarily filled much of the tight schedule, the troupe was obviously enjoying its whirlwind trip across the U.S.A.
Then Fayrouz came in, relaxed after a quick dash through a nearby shopping mall, and I asked what had impressed her most in the United States.
"Cities today look much alike anywhere in the world," she replied, "but I’m pleased by how gardens and lawns surround houses in American suburbs." Then she went off to her room to rest for her performance and I talked for a while with pretty Violette Yacoub, driving force behind the Forum for Arab Art and Culture, the non-profit San Francisco-based student group which had sponsored and organized Fayrouz’s U.S. tour.
We began this whole operation on a shoestring," she told me. "But from the beginning we have insisted on quality. Arab music deserves a proper hearing in this country, so we brought the best star, backed by the best troupe, and we have reserved the most prestigious hall available in each city for gala performances. It’s the first time the American public has had a real exposure to the Arabs’ rich cultural heritage and it’s a great success. We’re going to meet our expenses and even offer some help to Palestinian schools and orphanages."
I told Mrs. Yacoub that I gathered that the tour had also been a welcome shot in the arm for the morale of many Americans of Arab origin. She showed me some clippings. "There was something moving about the communication between artist and audience," The Christian Science Monitor wrote of the Boston performance, "the shared national pride and nostalgia of an ethnic group so often misunderstood and underrated in the United States." From Hollywood, the Star News and Pictorial, a monthly national newspaper for Arabic-speaking Americans, editorialized on the tour, "We know of no event that has had so great an impact... on our communities."
That night Fayrouz and the folklore company were booked into the glittering Jesse H. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, a five-year-old $7.4 million showcase. The audience, which had paid as high as $50 each for benefit tickets, was fashionably dressed and in a festive mood. "On an emotional high from start to finish," said one local paper the next day. Many had driven four hours or more from Austin and Dallas.
They were glad they had. The program, especially tailored for America’s restless, TV-honed viewers, was, according to one critic, "taut, fast, professional," and included hymns in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus, and a composition with lyrics from Kahlil Gibran’s The Prophet.
When it was all over Fayrouz was showered with roses and a spokesman read a congratulatory telegram from Lebanese-American Danny Thomas which brought the audience to its feet cheering. "I’ll tell you one thing," a socialite Houston matron said to me later in the plush lobby. "This hall has not seen an audience show so much natural enthusiasm and spontaneity since it opened."
Several weeks later I had a letter from another old Middle East friend in San Francisco. "Fayrouz was in town and I was able to get tickets for the concert," my friend wrote. "Don’t you wish you could have heard her?"
William Tracy is Assistant Editor of Aramco World.