Remembering Zaki Nasif: A Lebanese Musical Odyssey
The death of Lebanese composer and singer Zaki Nasif
in Beirut last March marked the end of a significant era in Lebanese musical heritage.Nasif
left a legacy placing him among the greats in the field of Arab music. Born in 1916 in the town of Mashghara in Lebanon's Biqa Valley, Nasif studied music composition and piano at the American University of Beirut . After his studies were interrupted by World War II, he continued to pursue music at the hands of a European professor at St. Joseph University.In the early 1950s, under the French Mandate, Nasif joined the music staff of the Near East ( Al-Sharq al-Adna ) Radio station under the direction of Palestinian musician Sabri al-Sharif.
That station had moved from Jerusalem to Cyprus and was based in Beirut before closing down but, during a brief period, brought together many musicians who built the foundation of the modern popular music genre in the region.
In the mid 1950s, lyricists/composers Asi and Mansur Rahbani, singers/composers Wadi al-Safi, Zaki Nasif
, and Filimon Wahbe, and singers Fairuz, Sabah, and Nasri Shamsiddine, along with other contemporaries such as Tawfiq al-Basha, Halim al-Rumi (whose daughter Majida later sang many of Nasif compositions), long-time flautist Joseph Ayoub, and percussionist Michel Mirhej Baklouk, most of whom met at the Near East Radio station, became a core group credited with the establishment of the modern popular Lebanese song with the start of the Baalbek festivals, set in the Roman ruins of Baalbek.
career reached national recognition with his
early contribution to the Baalbek Festival with the song "Tallu Hbabna Tallu" (The Beloved Ones Have Arrived), which quickly became a huge hit.The lyrics, which describe receiving beloved visitors in the beautiful setting of the Lebanese countryside, cover three themes: romance, hospitality, and patriotism.The magnificence of the lyrics was matched by Nasif's brilliant melody, which combined beauty and folk-style simplicity.Decades later in a 1991 interview, Nasif
discussed how village folk tunes inspired his
compositions and revealed that "Tallu Hbabna" was inspired by the comic folk chant "Qam al-Dib Ta Yurqos " (When the Bear Tried to Dance).
The third element of the song's success was the vocalist.Nasif
intended that his
song would be performed by the Baalbek chorus, but decided instead that it would be best performed by his
colleague Wadi al-Safi, an archetypical folk singer.The rest is history; for nearly four decades, Wadi al-Safi probably performed this song at every concert in his
life; it was requested by delighted audiences who would typically rise to the traditional dabkah line dance.The song was typically performed by al-Safi at live concerts during a suite of songs with a similar theme such as " Khadra Ya Bladi Khadra " (My Green Country) and " Zra'na Tlalik Ya Bladi " (We Planted the Hills).Unfortunately for Nasif
, with time his
name lost association with "Tallu Hbabna"; many people erroneously assumed that the song was composed by either Wadi al-Safi or the Rahbani brothers. Nasif
collaborated with many groups and artists.In 1960, journalist Said Fraiha founded the Al-Anwar group that included both Zaki Nasif and Wadi al-Safi and often performed at Casino Lubnan.Al-Anwar featured the typical style of Zaki Nasif
, namely modern music rooted in folk rhythms and melodic simplicity.This was similar to the work of the Rahbani Brothers but, while the Rahbanis drew on folk music of Mount Lebanon, Nasif
did the same for the Biqa Valley.The Rahbanis, Filimon Wahbe, Tawfiq al-Bahsa, and Nasif
also formed a quintet called the League of Five modeled after the Russian group; during this collaboration they modernized their music.
Throughout this period, Nasif
continued to compose for the country's leading singers, including the Gibran poem " Ya Bani Ummi" for Fairuz.
Although outside of Lebanon Nasif
was known as the great folk singer who popularized the dal'una genre and composed popular songs for the Baalbek festival, people who worked with him knew two other aspects of him.Nasif was a classically trained pianist with a passion for playing Chopin pieces at private gatherings and was a scholar of ancient Byzantine chants.He
had an encyclopedic knowledge of the Byzantine repertoire and discussed how the chants' Eastern scales, similar to the traditional Arab modes called maqamat, inspired his
own compositions.Lebanese ethnomusicologist Nidaa abu Mrad researched the influence of Byzantine music on Nasif's work for an academic publication.
Just as Nasif
career with a hit, he
ended it with another hit when he
composed and sang "Raji' Yit'amar Libnan " (Lebanon Shall be Rebuilt).Intended as a celebration of the end of the long civil war in Lebanon and a show of the solidarity of all the Lebanese factions in re-building, the song became an unofficial anthem for all who shared a patriotic feeling of conciliation.Even for a serious topic like this, Nasif
chose an upbeat rhythm and, sure enough, was received by impromptu dabkah lines when he
Since for most of the 1990s Nasif
taught at the conservatory and seemed detached from folk music, " Raji' Yit'amar" brought him back to the people and the sam e crowds who loved "Tallu Hbabana," a fitting conclusion to a long career.This song, however, brought up parallels between Zaki Nasif
and Egypt 's Sayyid Darwish (1892-1923).