The Lebanese singer and composer Wadih Al Safi, known as The Voice of Lebanon, was an Arab music legend.
His death on Friday, in Beirut after a short illness at the age of 92, prompted tributes from leading Lebanese pop stars, many of whom saw him as the father of the modern Lebanese folk song.
“We have lost a Lebanese cedar,” tweeted Arab Idol judge Ragheb Alama. “The world will have to wait a long period before such a voice, ethics and humility return.”
The Lebanese singer Nawal Al-Zoghbi also went online to express her grief. “With great sadness, moments ago we lost a Lebanese mountain and pyramid,” she said.
“The great Wadih Al Safi. May he rest in peace.”
Born in 1921, Al Safi first delved into the world of music after having studied at the Beirut National Conservatory.
His first taste of success arrived at the age of 17, after he emerged victorious at a singing competition sponsored by the radio station Lebanese Broadcasting Network.
Soon after, a young Al Safi began composing and hit the road where he immediately made his mark.
Al Safi’s success lay in melding his common-man lyrics with the technical virtuosity obtained from his time at the conservatory.
The end result is a staggering 3,000-plus folk songs appealing to both, the villagers and the educated urbanites.
In 1947, Al Safi relocated to Brazil where he earned a successful living performing for the burgeoning Lebanese community. Returning to Lebanon three years later, he began focusing heavily on the musical traditions of the homeland. His compositions at the time incorporated zajals – a form of poetry using colloquial Lebanese terms, to address subjects such as patriotism and love.
While the lyrics became more domesticated, the musical front was anything but. Although he continued to work within the Lebanese folk music canon, Al Safi’s travels were key influences on his compositions, often marrying traditional melodies with urban sounds obtained from the Mediterranean region or Latin America.
His love of languages also had him expand his repertoire by performing songs in Syriac, French, Portuguese and Italian.
It was this expansive voice that was largely responsible for his regional fame, and Al Safi gained immense respect from his international peers.
The late Italian opera tenor Luciano Pavarotti was reportedly a keen admirer of Al Safi, praising his powerful voice: “This man does not sing alone,” he said. “It feels like somebody sings with him.”
While his fame and legendary status in the Arab world was cemented more than two decades ago, the musician himself remained restless in challenging himself and expanding his music further.
In 1999, Al Safi turned Lebanese music industry heads by collaborating with the “Mozart of Flamenco”, the Spanish musician José Fernandez as part of the Byblos Mediterranean Festival. The project was helmed by the Dubai Music Hall creator and producer Michel Elefteriades.
The successful partnership resulted in both Al Safi and Fernandez doing a joint UAE tour in 2002 – with dates in both Abu Dhabi and Dubai – where the artists added a Latin spin to some of Al Safi’s famous songs.
A return UAE tour was in the works for 2010 but it was nixed due to scheduling issues.
The Abu Dhabi Music & Arts Foundation founder Hoda Kanoo, who was in discussions to bring Al Safi to Abu Dhabi as part of that tour, said the region lost a musical giant.
“He was The Voice of Lebanon, a true icon,” she said. “He was part of the golden age of Arabic music.”
Generations of Lebanese pop stars, including Fairuz and Najwa Karam, have used Al Safi’s blueprint to attain international acclaim.
Both artists, like Al Safi, managed to successfully explore international sounds whilst remaining true to their music’s Lebanese spirit, thus winning an international audience but not at the expense of losing their home base.
Al Safi began curtailing his steady performing schedule after 1990 after undergoing open-heart surgery. Last year, he reportedly broke his leg and months later was rushed to hospital after suffering lung complications.
On Friday he fell ill at his son’s home and died soon after being transferred to a Beirut hospital. His funeral will be held today in Beirut’s Saint George Maronite Cathedral.
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