Mawazine 2019: Walid Toufic on his enduring career and a possible television biopic

The Lebanese crooner says the music industry has radically changed over the past four decades

Walid Toufic performs at the Mawazine festival in Rabat, Morocco on June 26. Courtesy Mawazine.
Beta V.1.0 - Powered by automated translation

In an enduring career that includes hit songs, roles in popular films and an esteemed place as one of the Arab world's most beloved crooners, Walid Toufic has few regrets. One of them, however, involves a popular shampoo brand.

It was the 1980s and the Lebanese singer, who had a full and shiny bouffant at the time, was at the peak of both his singing and acting careers. His film roles included 1984's Qamar Al Leil and 1986's Angham. But when he was offered the chance to be the face of the brand and appear on TV and billboard advertisements, he was bemused.

"I was like, 'Are you kidding me?'

I didn't even have to think about it. I said 'thank you, but I will decline'," he says. "A few months later, they found another singer – out of respect for him I won't say who it was – and it became so popular. It was stupid of me."

The story strongly suggests it was the Head & Shoulders advertising blitz featuring Egyptian singer Amr Diab, but the anecdote is still illuminating because of the reason Toufic turned down the offer. And it had nothing to do with the singer's vanity.

"I said no because at the time that was simply not what we artists did," he explains. "We were almost too embarrassed to do anything that was kind of outside the artistic sphere. It didn't make sense to me back then. We are in a different world now."

At 65, Toufic, whose many hits include his ode to Lebanon Ya Babour and Baado El Heleiwah, is content, with his most recent performance at the Mawazine Festival in Rabat

. There is a certain joy in interviewing an artist with nothing left to prove or promote, given that his latest album was 2016's self-titled release. As such, he is happy to shoot the breeze and discuss various aspects of his career.

The main theme of the conversation, perhaps naturally, centres on how today's music industry is almost unrecognisable to what he encountered when he first started out. That was at a time when the classic Arabic song, also known as "tarab", was in its golden age, with famous singers such as Egypt's Umm Kulthum and crooner Abdel Halim Hafez still on the scene.

As Toufic explains, it was a time when every artist felt like a winner. "If you had talent then you would shine. And when it came to music, everyone was celebrated, from the singer to the composer and the lyricists," he explains. "And that was because the songs were so different then. They were 10 minutes long and played regularly on the radio. When a song is that long, everyone gets a chance to show their skills. The singer does, of course, but also the composer, whose skills are shown through his various musical movements, while the lyricist tells a story."

While Toufic was part of the eventual change as artists began singing shorter pop numbers, he says that he joined it begrudgingly. "Sometimes I feel like I am not even singing," he says. "The songs are now so short I simply feel as though I am just talking."

Toufic also criticises the increasing corporatisation of the regional music industry, which he describes as a creative endeavour. "I can tell you that we had and valued our freedom," he says, referring to a time earlier in his career. "Some of the contracts that young singers sign today are so prohibitive in terms of what they can do, from performing in certain venues to who they can collaborate with on songs. I was happy to talk with anyone. As long as it had value then I was interested."

That open-door policy resulted in what remains his signature song, Enzel Ya Gameel. As well as acting in the 1982 comedy Man Yatfi Al Nasr, Toufic was offered the opportunity to compose and sing the film's key track. Performed during an important party scene in the film, the song – with its Arabic-pop-meets-Boney-M-disco stylings – is still played at birthday parties across the Arab world.

"That is the song everyone loves and what they associate with me the most," Toufic says. "I have other songs that I perhaps like more, but this is normal. There are many Arab singers whose songs are linked to a particular moment in people's lives, and when that happens, that song will be stuck with them and with you."

The experience of writing that song, as well as other aspects of his long and storied career, could be told on the small screen. Toufic says he has expressed an interest in an offer to make a TV series that traces his life story.

As well as providing an insight into a much-revered period of Arabic culture, he says he hopes the potential series could provide some guidance for a new generation of artists taking their first steps in the music industry.

“You need to work hard and keep refining your skills,” he says, giving an example of some the advice he could offer. “The focus needs to be on the music and what you are creating. Don’t get too focused on the numbers of views and streams. The only number I follow is 45, and that’s the number of years I have been doing this. That’s what matters.”

And, of course, being able to recognise a good opportunity when it comes along. "I am still interested in doing a shampoo commercial," he quips. "My hair is natural and healthy, so I am open to offers. I won't say no this time."