Marwan Mahfouz: Tradition Across Generations

Mahfouz began to frequent the Ali al-Aris Theater, where he performed with other amateur singers folk songs and covers of classics from that era.

By: Kamel Jaber

Published Tuesday, September 4, 2012

The Rahbani brothers so admired Marwan Mahfouz’s voice when performing the traditional musical genre the ataba, they repeated the mawwal (colloquial folk song) My Eye Does Not Sleep Oh Deeb three times in the film Safar Barlik. To this today, his voice continues to glow with its melodious and silky quality.

At the beginning of this month, Mahfouz turned 70. He has been spending his time in his archive selecting some of his old gems, which he intends to record again with new musical arrangements.

Mahfouz was born in the Lebanese village of al-Mraijat in the Bekaa. He grew up hearing his father’s roundelays – authentic Lebanese zajal (sung poetry in colloquial dialect) – as well as mijana and ataba (both zajal sub-genres) that were sung by the peasants of the Bekaa Valley and the surrounding areas.

Not only did Marwan inherit the timber and strength of his father’s voice, so did the rest of the family.

In pursuit of education and work, Marwan left the village with his brother, heading to Beirut in the late 1950s. He went to the dean of musicians Salim al-Helou who “was a great teacher, with whom Wadih al-Safi and Muhammad Abdul-Wahab studied. I came to him towards the end of his life and learned a lot from him,” he says.

He also began to frequent the Ali al-Aris Theater, where he performed with other amateur singers folk songs and covers of classics from that era.

Pursuing a singing career, Mahfouz joined the National Conservatory for Music in 1963. There he studied with Helou, George Farah, Toufic al-Basha, and Abdul Ghani Shaaban.

In 1964, Rashad al-Bibi was presenting a show called “Art is My Hobby” on Tele Liban, the national television station. The same show that introduced singers like Issam Rajji, Melhem Barakat and Joseph Azar to the public. Mahfouz was invited on the show and because he was so influenced by Safi, he sang The Morning Appeared, Oh Sister the Night Stars and Why Oh Why My Son Did You Stay Away For So Long...

After hearing him on the show, Assi Rahbani invited him to join his group in 1965. Mahfouz began appearing in music programs presented by the Rahbani brothers on TV shows. In “Dafater al-Layl” (The Night’s Notebooks), he sang the duet Oh Waterwheel with the singer Nawal al-Kik and Riding the Car and Flying with Hoda Haddad.

In the film Safar Barlik, he sung Come Out Oh Beautiful Girl Come Out with Joseph Nassif and Barakat.

In theater, his first appearance was in the chorus of the play Dawalib al-Hawa (Wheels in the Air). In the play al-Shakhs (The Person) he sang a dabke song I Promised You the Stars and Forgot composed by Elias Rahbani. This led the Rahbani brothers to cast him in Jbal Esuwan (Granite Mountains) as the “Horseman of the Groves” character. After that, he played many supporting roles in Rahbani productions.

Ziad Rahbani was barely 16 years old when he started coming to the theater where his father Assi and his uncles Mansour and Elias were working. Ziad met Mahfouz at George Kfoury’s office while was working on a play called The Village of Riddles. Ziad composed a lot of the music in that production and Mahfouz sang one of his songs called Your Heart is Still Young.

“As we were rehearsing, Fairouz and Mansour Rahbani heard the song People Have Asked Me About You, so they asked Ziad if they could have it. Ziad by asking me first. I immediately welcomed the idea when I knew that Fairouz would be singing it.”

“Ziad made it up to me,” he adds, “by composing two songs – Oh Sword Which Strikes the Enemy and I’m Afraid I Fell In Love with You – and by casting me in a leading role in the play Sahriye (1975) with Joseph Sakr and Georgette Sayegh.” That play was a turning point in Mahfouz’s career.

Miss Universe Georgina Rizk had a leading role with him in the play Nawwar (1975) whose music was composed by Romeo Lahoud. After that, Wehbe introduced him to Amira, who accompanied him on his singing tours with his Lebanese Nights Group in 1976.

Mahfouz spends most of his time today between Lebanon and Canada. In Lebanon he meets with his friends and companions such as William Haswani and Moussa Zgheib whose poetry he used in many of his songs. He checks on Safi and spends time with his brother Brigadier Francis, the Gendarmerie’s musical director.

He had been getting ready to record a collection of songs with new arrangements and new music composed by Safi and the late Wehbe. “However, what is going on in Syria has postponed all these plans as I had intended to record my project there,” he says. “I am currently looking for a specialized studio in Lebanon. I don’t want money or financial compensation for the work, I just want a studio that will record my work with a music band.”

“I don’t want to record it on a keyboard and I do not want a return from sales,” he insists. “But unfortunately, music today is controlled by one studio that records for young people seen as the real face of art.

Mahfouz believes that “what is happening in Syria today is a big conspiracy against everything that is considered resistance. Either we stay under the US boot or we get in deep trouble. What happened in Lebanon during the civil war is being repeated today in most Arab countries. This is very unfortunate. And it remains for the Arab peoples to realize the danger of what is being plotted against them.”

As to the role of the artist at this time, he says: “The artist who does not take a position regarding these foreign conspiracies is not an artist. We in Lebanon cannot but be with Lebanon first and with our [Arab] brothers second.”

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

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