Wadih Safi: Making Lebanon a “Piece of Heaven”
By: Kamel Jaber
Published Thursday, April 26, 2012
Whether in a church choir, as a temporary muezzin, on stage or on the radio, the strong and compassionate voice of Wadih Safi has enchanted millions in Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, and beyond for the past 60 years.
The conversation with the 90-year old legend, Wadih Safi, is sprinkled with poetry and melody. He talks a little then grabs his oud to play a song, occasionally pausing to cite a verse of poetry.
He divides his time between reading poetry and recording new songs at his son George’s studio. Safi and his family are awaiting the release of his new album. In the meantime, he has been recording religious recitations at the Tele Lumiere TV station.
Safi was born Wadih Francis on a snowy night in Niha, in the Chouf, in 1921. He has loved singing and music since he was a child.
“My grandfathers and uncles had great voices. My mother was a soprano and my grandfather Abu Bishara was a poet and sang zajal. I was the outcome. I inherited all those voices,” he says.
He memorized the poetry and mawawil (folksongs) that he heard from his grandfathers, expanding his knowledge of popular heritage. He began to adapt his voice and tune at the church choir.
“Before singing [professionally], I used to sing hymns at church. I was a young child serving the priest. The village came to know my voice through mass. I remain close to the church until this day,” Safi says.
He lived through the rise of Mohamed Abdel Wahab and Umm Kulthoum and was influenced by Sayyed Darwish and Asmahan.
His family left Niha for Beirut, joining his father who was in the mounted police in the internal security forces. Wadih and his brother Tawfik left Catholic school to help support the family.
But the naturally talented young man still practiced the oud, rababa (traditional fiddle), and violin with the help of his uncle Nimr al-Ajeel and teacher Alexi Ladkani.
“My brother Tawfik, two years older than me, once told me, ‘Go get your voice tested [for recording].’ I answered, ‘Brother, I cannot. The world of art is full of mafias.’ He said, ‘I want you to defeat them all.’ I did as he said and here I am now…” he explains.
He participated in a voice contest at Radio Orient and won first place, beating 42 contestants.
He sang, “Sing the melody of your desire / for my cure and yours / Love is eternal heaven / in which you are an angel.” It was composed by him with lyrics by Hadi Zuheir.
“Michel Khayyat advised me once to drop the Francis surname, to leave it at home. I got mad at him. He told me not to be mad and adopt the surname Safi [pure] because there is no voice purer than yours. He persuaded me and I accepted my new [name],” Safi says.
On one occasion, the radio muezzin was late for the call for prayers, so Safi replaced him with his sweet compassionate voice. Afterward, the station was showered with calls asking about the new imam.
During the interview, Safi mentions Zaki Nassif. “The late Zaki Nassif was my brother in spirit, art, and singing. He was a huge and humble artist. He was my twin. We used to appreciate and understand one another,” he says.
Between failed experiences in Egypt, where he appeared on screen with Nour al-Huda, and Beirut, which was not ready yet to accept a new style of traditional singing rich with rural vocabulary, Safi decided to try singing abroad.
He first went to Brazil, then sang in different Latin American countries. He toured the world extensively.
Safi may have chosen to sing abroad because he was not well received at home early in his career, even though critics appreciated the magnificence of this “strange” voice that is deep and smooth at once.
However, “some offended me. It took some time for them to understand my style and type. They used to ask: Who is this man singing for? The goats?” he says.
The people of Beirut eventually noticed the sweet voiced singer after he sang Allouma Allouma. He composed the song and released it through Damascus radio in 1952 after the manager of the Beirut radio station Halim al-Roumi refused it saying the lyrics were of low standard.
Safi met Mohamed Abdel Wahab in Egypt. When the latter listened to him sing Lao (If) in the early 50s, he said, “It is impossible for anyone to have a voice like him.”
During unity between Egypt and Syria, Gamal Abdel Nasser used to take a private jet from Cairo to Damascus so he could attend Safi’s concerts.
At the famous Baalbeck festival, Safi performed with the Rahbani family in Mawasim al-Izz and others. “We wanted to promote morals, education, culture, tarab, music, and peace. We do not want to fight anyone and we do not want anyone to fight us,” he says.
When Safi could no longer tolerate the civil war in Lebanon, he left for Britain, eventually settling in Paris in 1978, and remaining there until 1990. “The Lebanese who fled there found solace in me,” he says.
Safi has been honored by several countries, institutions, and organizations. He received several orders of merit in Lebanon.
“With all due respect to the Lebanese people and all Arabs, but the Syrian people revered me like a saint. The Egyptian people granted me the Egyptian nationality after I sang the national song Atheema ya Masr (Great, O Egypt) in 1995,” he remarks.
He believes his song Libnan ya Qithet Sama (Lebanon, O Piece of Heaven) has become a second Lebanese national anthem, and so has the song Alla Mahak ya Bayt Samid bil Janoub (God be with you, O Steadfast House in the South, 1967).
But it is clear that Safi is discontent with politicians who do not appreciate art and do not know the value of artists.
Today, he spends most of his time at home and when he goes out, his sons George and Antoine accompany him. They have been performing with him for years in most of his artistic appearances.
“I have been through illnesses that had affected my voice, but it will soon return to normal,” says Safi, who has performed about 6,000 songs and recorded almost half of them.
“Art has become all about appearances and fashion, but what we did will last for hundreds of years. Authenticity will be back, but not in the next 100 years. It may return during another generation,” he laments.
This article is an edited translation from the Arabic Edition.