Vocal Performance - Fairuz

Having joined Music / Cultural Anthropology 130 late, I missed the opportunity to choose and exhibit a captivating voice at the very start of the semester. However, this gave me more time to think about my choice, allowing myself to consider multiple facets of culture, society, music, and the world before I made my decision. These considerations were informed by an understanding of the material presented in the readings and taught in class done through the lens of my personal experience and background. The voice I chose would not only express a personal circumstance or emotion, but also reflect a political or social circumstance. It would be a voice that sounds foreign to most listeners in our class, yet familiar in its employment of certain techniques to enhance its sonic qualities. Its sonic qualities would stand out as a paralinguistic feature recognizable by most listeners, who would not typically speak the language it is sung in.


I chose the voice of Fairuz, a Lebanese singer who is considered a shining beacon of the country’s musical folklore, because it embodies all of the aforementioned qualities and more. The song chosen is called “Sa’alouuni el Nas”, which translates to “The People Asked Me,” and talks of the singer being asked of the whereabouts her lover. On a literal level, the song tackles Fairuz’s dealing with not being joined on stage by her husband and longtime musical composer, due to his suffering a brain hemorrhage in 1972.

To the Lebanese listener, the voice of Fairuz encapsulates a yearning for the peace, freedom, and beauty of Lebanon (a large portion of her body of work is dedicated to singing, quite literally, the country’s praises.)  Indeed, before the eruption of the catastrophically destructive Lebanese Civil War, the former two adjectives accurately described the social and political climate of the country. However, as a result of its diverse religious composition and its unfortunate position among neighboring political regimes, the emergence of sectarian conflict in the country would soon change all of that.


This project, along with the annotated recordings chosen, aims to explain what makes Fairuz’s voice captivating in terms of its sonic qualities, its evocation of imagery pertaining to the political landscape of the region at the time of singing, and the implications that global colonial powers have had on this landscape: colonialism altered the power dynamic between Western and non-Western nations and therefore had several implications on the experience of cultural exchange between their people. The recordings chosen will thus explain the why the voice is captivating using the aforementioned criteria.


The first recording is that of an excerpt from a World War 1 documentary, which explains very briefly the Sykes-Picot Agreement. This agreement is representative of colonialist influence over the shaping of the Middle East, and is thought to be the reason for the impractically divided religious and sectarian clusters in the region. In fact, some historians believe that the division of the Middle East under Sykes-Picot was done with the intention of preventing communities in the region from ever gaining power through unity. With this in mind, it can be said that colonialism played a hand in the Lebanese Civil War, which resulted in the emigration of a large portion of the Lebanese population to Western nations.


The second recording, then, is that of French-Lebanese singer and popular singing competition “The Voice” finalist, Anthony Touma, whose cover of Thinking Out Loud by Ed Sheeran was recorded. Touma is a tenor with a voice that is characteristically devoid of the sonic qualities found in Fairuz’s voice. The recording serves to create a juxtaposition that demonstrates how culture, setting, and time influence the vocal style that is thought to be prevalent in popular culture. That is, Touma’s voice in this project serves as an icon for the pop culture voices of our time, both in Lebanon and across different borders, whereas that of Fairuz represents the pop culture voice of 20th century Lebanon.


This recording also serves to represent a form of cultural exchange that occurs largely in one direction, rather than the other. It symbolizes the preference of representation of Western culture over non-Western individual origins: Touma is Francophone and singing in English. The songs with which he chose to compete on The Voice were as well mostly in English. Touma’s displacement from his parents’ place of birth, Lebanon, was the result of the Civil War in 1975. It is often immigrants’ only choice to acclimate to the culture of the communities to which they move their residence.

However, the exchange is not exclusively unidirectional, as can be seen from the third supporting recording. In this recording, I am teaching a friend how to speak Lebanese Arabic, starting with basic, everyday sentences such as “how are you?” and “I’m fine.” When this kind of exchange occurs, however, it also tends to highlight the power dynamic created by colonialism: no one is obligated to learn Arabic, but the same cannot be said about English.


The fourth recording is that of a friend talking about her experience joining the African choir at her international school. This recording also serves to demonstrate a form of cultural exchange that some individuals strive to attain in their lives.


Finally, the fifth recording is that of Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an acclaimed Nigerian author, giving her TED talk on the dangers of “a single story.” The single story is a metaphor for an oversimplified, and often false, one-dimensional representation of a community that is often pushed and publicized by bodies of power. As we live in an age where radical Islamic terrorism has presented itself as a danger worthy of being heeded by the global community, this talk becomes relevant in the effort to prevent irrational backlashes to the entire Muslim population of the world.


All of the recordings are done on a Zoom H4n, even the ones that contain content that is being played off of the internet. This is done to emphasize, when relevant, the degree of separation between the location of origin of the content being played and the location of its playing.


- by Michael Daou