Why Warda Al Jazairia remains an icon of Arabic music

We look at how her influence on Arabic music is still being felt, on what would be her 80th birthday

Algerian-Egyptian singer Warda performs during the 45th session of the International Carthage festival, on July 28, 2009 at the Romain theatre in Carthage, near Tunis. AFP PHOTO/FETHI BELAID (Photo by FETHI BELAID / AFP)
Powered by automated translation

She died seven years ago, but Warda Al Jazairia remains an enduring presence in Arabic pop culture. Venture to any respectable Levantine restaurant and the chances are a few of her songs will be on the playlist.

The same is true if you party in clubs that play regional music, as the singer's catalogue has been remixed by plenty of DJs from across the Arab world. The ouds may be dialled down and the beats ramped up, but it is always Warda's yearning vocals that enchant listeners. Hers is a voice that not only beguiled regional leaders and composers, but also brought the artist her share of love and heartbreak.

By channelling all of those heady emotions into her vocals, Warda carved a permanent place into the region's psyche with songs fit for every occasion. If you were heartbroken, her tender Ale Eih Beyesalouni (They Ask Me) was an effective balm. And if you were feeling particularly nostalgic, the retro Arabic pop of Wahashtouni (I've Missed You) will get your toes tapping. No matter how well-worn the sentiments, most of her famous tracks still resonate with listeners today, on what would be her 80th birthday.

With plenty of Arabic music theorists breaking down the main elements of her supreme singing voice, there is no real science to Warda's artistry. The key was always that the emotions you heard were real.

I felt that deeply when Wahashtouni started playing while I was having dinner at a Lebanese restaurant in Abu Dhabi last week. Closing my eyes, I could clearly imagine her smiling when she sang the opening lines: "I've missed you, my eyes have been longing for you and now that I see you, I remember the good old days." 

She began as a young revolutionary singer

Like many of the great Arabic singers, Warda's rise to fame came at a time when the region was going through tremendous change. In her case, the winds of revolution were fanned within her own household and place of work. Warda Fatouki, her real name, was born on the outskirts of Paris in 1939, where her Algerian father ran a hostel for fellow Algerian migrants.

The well-known Algerian-born Arab singer, Warda al-Jazairiya, who has homes in Cairo, Paris and Beirut, answers media 10 September 1979 at Paris' Olympia music hall. Warda had her first success in Egypt in the late 1950s. Over her career she has sold some 14 million records. (Photo by AFP)
Warda Al Jazairia in 1979. AFP

It is was reportedly a base for the North African Star, a revolutionary group that called for Algeria's independence from France. The cause was also championed inside her father's next business venture, the Parisian cabaret club Tam Tam, which became a hotbed for revolutionaries. There, a teenage Warda was the star of the show as she sang a suite of notable Arabic songs that her Lebanese mother taught her as a child – including those by classic composers Mohamed Abdelwahab and Farid El Atrash.

However, when the Algerian War of Independence began in 1954, Warda, who was 15 at the time, did her bit for the cause and began singing revolutionary odes such as Ya Habibi Ya Mudjahid (O Friend, O Fighter) and Ya Merawah Le Belad (Those Going Back to the Country).

After French authorities shut down the club and hostel three years later, the family moved to Beirut. Keen to resume her singing career, Warda began performing at various venues in the city, with her talent catching the attention of Arabic music composers.

Such was the buzz surrounding Warda's dynamic voiceshe was also able to master different dialects and covered the songs of Asmahan and Umm Kulthum – that when one of her childhood heroes, Mohamed Abdel Wahab, watched her perform in Beirut, he offered to collaborate with her. "She has a nice, broad voice with special abilities that other singers lack," Abdel Wahab said. "I feel safe when she sings my songs and I am sure people will receive them so easily."

She found stardom in Cairo

This led Warda to move to Cairo in the 1960s – a city that at the time was the centre of the Arabic music industry – where the hits started to flow, such as El Ouyoun El Soud (Black Eyes) and Khalik Hina (Stay Here). It was also in Cairo that she got her stage name Warda Al Jazairia, which means both Warda from Algeria, as well as Rose of Algeria.

Meanwhile, her biggest break was facilitated by Egypt's president at the time, Gamal Abdel Nasser, who got her a part in the star-studded ensemble song Al Watan Al Akbar (My Great Homeland), a 1960 anthem promoting the president's ideology of pan-Arabism.

However, it was her passion for her father's homeland that spoke loudest. In 1962, Warda made her maiden trip to Algeria to settle in the newly independent country. She got married a few months later and gave up singing for a decade, staying at home to raise her children.

But Warda revealed in a few interviews how unhappy she was to be limited to singing only to family and friends. It took a request from Houari Boumediene, Algerian president at the time, to bring her back to the stage, when she performed to help mark the 10th anniversary of the country gaining its independence.

After her divorce in 1972, she returned to her old stomping ground of Cairo, with the city's music community welcoming her back with open arms.

Her voice is both powerful yet vulnerable

Despite her penchant for nationalist songs, Warda really hit her groove with songs concerning matters of the heart. These came about through celebrated collaborations with Egyptian composer and second husband Baligh Hamdi. Together they created exquisite ballads such as Dandanah (Singing) and Ashtrony (Buy My Love).

While their marriage didn't last, the partnership cemented Warda's place as one of the Arab world's great singers.

On the fan website Wardaonline.com you will find snippets of a lecture dedicated to Warda by musicologist Daniel Caux, a lecturer at Paris VIII University in the early 1970s. In it Caux explains that Warda's appeal lay in her emotional range. "It successfully combines strength and frailty," he said. "On the one side, there is will power, self-assertion, even challenge. While on the other side is sweetness and a tenderness implying some kind of vulnerability."

It's a dichotomy that gives her songs both the power to lift the spirit of a nation, while also being intimate enough for listeners to feel as though she is singing exclusively for them.

Warda died of a heart attack in 2012 at the age of 72 in Cairo, but her body was flown for burial in Algeria, where she received a state funeral. Her last song, Eyyam (The Days), was released the following year. It is an ode to the old times and sung in the Lebanese dialect, with a video shot in her homeland, which incorporated animation of the late singer.

The Arab world hasn't seen another singer that matches Warda's expansive talent. Until then, the songs from the Rose of Algeria will continue to bloom for a long time to come.