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George Wassouf: the People's Champ

[Album cover: Shei Ghareeb (Something Strange) by George Wassouf. Release date: 1993. Image by Moe Ali Nayel.] [Album cover: Shei Ghareeb (Something Strange) by George Wassouf. Release date: 1993. Image by Moe Ali Nayel.]

Whenever memories take me back to the time when the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) had just ended, one sound always echoes along the scenes: it is the special voice of that one singer who will always function as an anchor pinning down that particular slice of my remembrance of the past. Born in 1961 Kafroun, a Syrian village located in the countryside of Homs, George Wassouf came from a modest family. At the age of sixteen, he moved to Lebanon on his own and managed to find the space to shine as the star singer from within the Lebanese music scene. However, the young singer’s move to Beirut in search of his artistic path was far from a story of easy victories and instantaneous success. It was, in fact, entrenched with hostility and hardship. His hard early life is well-documented by his loyal fans. One of the many reasons he is so widely respected and revered is because of the well-known fact that he had to spend long nights sleeping on Beirut’s sidewalks before he became an iconic Arab singer.

In each album Wassouf released, he sang in a variety of tongues: for some, the songs were crafted in an Egyptian dialect, and for others, they were a mix of Lebanese and Syrian dialects. His loyal fan base chooses to call him by his nom de guerre Abu Wadi‘ (the father of Wadi‘), a name they created to express a certain kinship with this singer. Wassouf’s identity is perceived as not particularly Lebanese nor exactly Syrian or Egyptian, but a mix of these three all at once; an embodiment of one shared heritage that transcends borders mediated by the particular kind of Arab music and singing that for which this artist became famous. However, this uniting identity present in Wassouf’s character is now considered to be a non-phenomenon among his listeners across different Arab regions, who have grown up on a steady diet of his music and know his lessons well. 

Wassouf stepped into the Arab music scene and struck a resounding nerve at a time when the singing of Um Kalthoum had started to fade from memory. It was also a moment when people in Arab countries had entered a multiple setbacks and a sense of isolation. In the early 1980s, Wassouf prevailed after many singers had attempted and failed to re-incarnate Um Kalthoum’s singing. Through his unique vocals and his dedication to excellence while performing Um Kalthoum’s songs, he revitalized the legacy of this iconic Arab singer. As a result, he introduced Um Kalthoum to new generations of people growing up in the 1980s, while simultaneously reminding their parents and grandparents of the epoch of authentic singing that had taken place during the height of Arab nationalism, of which Um Kalthoum was a major symbol.

Later on during the 1990s, Wassouf became an icon that reverberated out from car sound systems parked on the streets, played by a vast sea of his loyal fans across the Arab world. This Syrian-Lebanese-Egyptian artist raced to the top of Arab music charts and remained on top of it; yet, the defining trait that earned his massive following was rooted in his personality. He never changed, abandoned his past, or ignored the hardships he had experienced along the way, and so Wassouf’s humbleness became a valuable addition that complemented and informed his singing abilities. This quality earned for him the true loyalty and respect of those who listened to his music, as his music provided a way to soften daily hardships for those whose value depended on the only things that were left to them: their pride and dignity.

Following his successful reincarnation and representation of Um Kalthoum’s songs, Wassouf almost instantly became recognizable outside the nightlife circles that he had typically performed to. Songwriters and musicians from Egypt, Lebanon, and other Arab countries started collaborating with this new voice. He had already proved to be a solid vehicle for “authentic” Arab singing. The young generation of the 1980s, who had learned about Um Kalthoum’s legacy through Wassouf’s voice, grew up to become his loyal fan base in the mid-1990s.

It is perhaps because this artist came from the popular strata of society that his singing spoke to the spirit of those languishing in among the popular classes. Wassouf’s voice and his performance of the lyrics he sang were molded by the pain and trauma from the time when he was sixteen and moved alone to Lebanon to find his way. As a child, Wassouf started singing when he was still in primary school, and from there onwards, singing became his only craft. Though pain and trauma were present throughout the expression of Wassouf’s singing, his style and attitude refused to be broken by the harshness of his experience. Through his songs, Wassouf projected pride, dignity, and an exaggerated sense of self-worth. It is through his portrayal of this combination of suffering and subtle chauvinism that he earned the respect of his fans, especially by a bulk of unemployed or under-employed young men. The unique niche he carved out for himself that simultaneously never diverged from his roots allowed Wassouf to become the voice of the people, despite the fact that he never sang as if motivated by ideology, nor did he lend his voice to become a tool for political sloganeering. He sang for a general pursuit of love, but not in such a way that emphasized love’s nostalgic, sentimental, or purely libidinal impulses and characteristics. The love encapsulated within Wassouf’s songs spoke of someone in the midst of personal plight searching for answers throughout all the ups and downs of life, which are always accentuated when one suffers while being in love.

Throughout the 1990s, during a time when satellite TV channels invaded most every living room in the homes of Arab cities, a wave of Arabic music channels pushed for establishing and controlling a corporate-owned Arab music scene. At that point, Arab singers became an abundant commodity, appearing on numerous music and entertainment shows which had degraded music until it was no was no longer a rigorous form of art, but became instead a way to fill the airspace space in promotions for cheap advertisement and empty content. Wassouf did not ride this new quick fix wave towards an inauthentic fame, as opposed to almost every other Arab pop singer who had eagerly jumped on the trend. He deliberately limited his appearances on such programs and rejected many repetitive offers to be a regular guest on one of the many “music shows.” He is well-known for saying that he “didn’t like the media because it is all fake and full of lies.” This fact alone aggrandized him in the eyes of his fans, especially the young men who saw in him and the message of his music a perfect role model. His fans would be heard saying, “There is no singer like Abu Wadi‘, who has so much self-respect that he refuses to sell himself and get belittled on silly TV shows. Abu Wadi‘ is a real man, not an actor.”

By the end of the 1990s, Wassouf had produced a song that was far unlike his other songs. His loyal fans base listened intently when the song was released, and as the lyrics sank into the crowd’s collective psyche, it struck a chord of awe and the sort of spiritual illumination that only music can trigger. The song is called “Sayyad al-Tuyur” (Bird Hunter). The story of how this song came to be gives additional layers of depth to its meaning. Wassouf was in Egypt in 1997 recording an album at the studio, when he met Ahmad Fouad Negm, a famous, populist Egyptian poet. Ahmad Fouad Negm had planned this encounter with Wassouf. Before Wassouf was getting ready to depart Negm pressed an envelope into Wassouf’s hand, urging him not to read its content until he was safely on the airplane back to Beirut. It was a song Negm had written and had intrinsically known that only Wassouf would be able to purvey its message. Wassouf read the song on his way back to Beirut, and as soon as the airplane landed, Wassouf made a phone call to Egypt asking Negm for permission to start composing music for this song.

Sayyad al-Tuyur” is a ballad about a small bird begging the hunter to spare him and his family from being hunted, and as an alternative, the little bird urges the hunter to spare his shots for the falcon, whose claws have ripped through the flesh of innocent little birds and brought pain and wrought destruction to their habitat. Negm’s words sought to convey a time of social inequality and persistent state repression, under which Egyptians had been suffering for decades. The song was written at a time when Mubarak’s fangs were stuck deep into the throat of Egypt, and removing his regime seemed either impossible or deadly to Egyptian society. Wassouf took the song and was able to capture the soul of the idea that Negm had embedded into the song’s metaphor. It crawled into people’s hearts and made listeners inside and outside Egypt imagine a common wretched reality, stretching far across the borders that had isolated and restricted their movements and denigrated their human dignity.

When I had to leave Lebanon at the start of the new millennium and I went searching for my own dream in the United States, I made sure that I packed Wassouf’s CDs and cassettes. Each time I listened to Wassouf’s music in the United States, I noticed that his singing induced a different effect within me that was different from the feelings illicited through my origins, listening to his music living in my home in Beirut. I also found out that among the community of Palestinians, Syrians, Jordanians, and Lebanese living in in the United States, Wassouf’s music proved to be a cure remedying the soul-crushing alienation one feels in a socially cold place such as the United States.

By the year 2001, Wassouf was ushered in as an official genre of his own, and a wave of new singers emerged and continue until this day to imitate his style of singing, even to the extent of mimicking his voice when it started to sound damaged and exhausted. Wassouf’s simple dressing style of a black t-shirt, blue jeans, a perpetually well-trimmed beard, was and still is the “Abu Wadi‘ must-have signature” for these upcoming singers who have yearned to emulate and personalize him within themselves. 

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