Wadih al-Safi (1921-2013): A Career That Shaped Lebanon’s Musical Identity

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Lebanese singer Wadih el-Safi performs with the Fahed al-Abdullah dance troupe at the ancient columns of Baalbek late on August 9, 2000. (Photo: AFP - Ramzi Haidar)

By: Bassem Alhakim

Published Saturday, October 12, 2013

Wadih al-Safi, 91, has passed away at the Bellevue hospital in Mansouriyeh. It is the end of an era in Lebanon’s musical history, with the end of a career that spanned nearly 75 years, beginning in 1938 with Lebanon’s Radio Orient when Safi was 17. Safi would later rise to fame with the festivals in Baalbeck and Byblos in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Safi’s beginnings were in his hometown of Niha in the Chouf District, where his teachers were the first to notice his talents. Safi’s fame would ultimately reach the four corners of the world, and the late singer became a citizen of Egypt, France, and Brazil.

News of his death struck his fans abruptly, with an outpouring of grief on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. Renowned singer Souad Hashim lamented the great loss, saying, “Whenever I hear his voice, I remember Lebanon and its proud cedar trees.”

Hashim recalled her first meeting with Safi during al-Anwar Festival, founded by the late journalist Said Fraiha, in the 1960s. Back then, the two singers dueled in competitions of traditional folk poetry and sang duets. Hashim reminisced on their joint tours in Arab capitals, including Kuwait City and Cairo, and said that the late Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser would visit the Lebanese embassy in Egypt to listen to them.

Safi, who sang “Lebnan Ya Ot'et Sama” (Lebanon, a Piece of Heaven), caught people’s attention since he was very young. His uncle Nemer al-Ojail was the first to discover his talent, teaching him how to play the oud and giving him one as a gift, which Safi kept until his last days.

Safi had a modest childhood, studying at the Deir al-Mukhallis school. Safi left school as he became more and more preoccupied with his music. He found in singing both leisure and an opportunity to help his father support the family. The biggest fee he received in those days was eight Lebanese lira gold coins from Nazira Jumblatt (Kamal Jumblatt’s mother). He was 11 years old.

By sheer coincidence, or perhaps it was destiny, his brother Tawfiq once brought him a flyer about a singing competition organized by the state-funded Radio Lebanon, which was known back then as Near East Radio. Wadih participated in the competition and won first prize, beating 40 contestants. The judges included Michel Khayyat, Salim al-Helou, Albert Deeb, and Muhiddin Salam.

Safi would later join the radio, which served as a conservatory for the singer, helping him to develop his talents. There, he came to be known as Wadih al-Safi instead of his birth name of Wadih Francis. Safi was able to prove himself very quickly, and his debut song was “Ya Mersal al-Nagham” (Messenger of Melodies).

The poet Asaad al-Sebaali left an important imprint on Safi’s career. The collaboration started with the song “Tal al-Sabah w Taktak al-Aasfour” (Morning Has Dawned and the Bird Is Chirping) in 1940. Throughout his career, Safi collaborated with a large pool of poets and songwriters, but collaboration with Maroun Karam in particular would last the longest, until Karam died in fact, three years ago. Karam wrote hundreds of songs for Safi, most notably: “Beit Samed bil Janoub” (A Steadfast Home in the South); “La Inta Radi” (Nor Are You Happy); “Nadam” (Regret); and “Mersal al-Hawa” (Messenger of Affection).

In the late 1950s, several musicians would collaborate through the Baalbeck Festival, which brought together Safi, Philemon Wehbe, the Rahbani Brothers, Zaki Nassif, Walid Gholmieh, Afif Radwan, Tawfiq al-Basha, and Sami Seeda, to name a few. In 1944, he met Mohammed Abdul-Wahab, the famed Egyptian singer and composer.

With the beginning of the Lebanese civil war, Safi left to Egypt in 1976, then Britain, before settling in Paris in 1978. Safi also lived in Brazil for a while.

In 1990, the late singer underwent open heart surgery, but this did not stop him from continuing to sing and compose music. He would later collaborate with Lebanese producer Michel Elefteriades, performing concerts in and outside Lebanon with singers like Jose Fernandez and Hanine.

Although Safi sang songs written by the Rahbani Brothers, Zaki Nassif (e.g. “Tallou Hbabna” (Our Lovers Have Come)), Mohammed Abdul-Wahab, and Farid al-Atrash, he wrote most of his work himself. Safi also appeared in Egyptian and Lebanese TV serials, including “Nar al-Shawq” (Fire of Longing) in 1970; “Al-Isti’rad Al-Kabir” (The Great Show) in 1975; “Layali al-Shawq” (The Nights of Nostalgia) in 1965; “Inta Omari” (You Are My Life) in 1964; and the series “Kanet Ayyam” (Those Were The Days) in 1964.

Lebanon has honored him repeatedly, and issued postage stamps to honor him along with Sabah and Fairouz. Safi received five decorations from presidents Camille Chamoun, Fouad Chehab, Suleiman Franjieh, Elias Hrawi, and Emile Lahoud. In 1991, the Holy Spirit University in Kaslik (USEK) granted Safi an honorary doctorate in music.

Wadih thus turns the page on a long career in music, leaving behind more than 5,000 songs. His rich legacy has helped etch an authentic Lebanese musical “identity,” drawn from the folklore and heritage of the country and the region, which he sang in his distinguished “avuncular” voice.

This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.

Comments

May God bless his soul, he had one of the most pure & amazing voices in the region. It is indeed a terrible loss of a cherished icon. A personality of his stature is difficult to replace.

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