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MICHELE NORRIS, Host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, Host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

Now a voice that will be familiar to most people in the Arab world, especially the Lebanese. She sings about a time long ago, before war, about a simple life in mountain villages, memories that remain with people scattered around the world.

NPR's Jamie Tarabay has the story of the singer who goes by one name, Fairuz. She's the latest in our year-long series of 50 Great Voices.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FAIRUZ: (Singing in foreign language).

JAMIE TARABAY: You don't have to be Lebanese to know this voice, but if you are, chances are this is a voice you've heard ever since childhood. Even if you were born and raised on the other side of the world this voice probably sang to you from LPs and tape decks in kitchens and living rooms. Without ever needing to ask, when you hear the words - I loved you in the summer, I loved you in the winter - you just know, this is Fairuz.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FAIRUZ: (Singing in foreign language).

TARABAY: Her real name is Nihad Haddad, and she was born in 1935 in a Lebanon that was still finding its place in the Arab world. The name Fairuz means turquoise in Arabic. The man who discovered her said her voice was like a rare gem, that it worked with both Arabic and Western music. Listen here to the way she sings the word habibi(ph), which means my darling.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FAIRUZ: (Singing in foreign language).

VIRGINIA DANIELSON: Her voice is very delicate.

TARABAY: Virginia Danielson is an expert on Middle Eastern music at Harvard University.

DANIELSON: It's extremely flexible. She can produce the kind of ornaments and the delicacies of pitch and intonation that are so much a part of Arab music with great ease, and her singing very often feels effortless.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FAIRUZ: (Singing in foreign language).

TARABAY: Her young, light voice came onto Syrian and Lebanese radio at a time when people were used to traditional heavy sounds of mainly Egyptian music. The songs, composed by her husband, Assi Rahbani, and his brother Mansour, were short, sweet and modern, radically different from other artists whose songs sometimes lasted half an hour.

NASSER AL TAEE: They came up with an alternative model, a model that's light, still elevated, nostalgic.

TARABAY: Nasser al Taee is associate professor of musicology at the University of Tennessee. He says the beginning of Fairuz's career coincided with a desire throughout Lebanon for something new, and the fact that her career began as Lebanon gained independence linker her inextricably to the country's history.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FAIRUZ: (Singing in foreign language).

TARABAY: And her voice sang for an undivided Lebanon. During the country's bloody civil war, when Beirut split in two in the '70s, Fairuz refused to take sides. She wouldn't perform anywhere in the country and only gave concerts overseas. Her music was her political activism.

One song in particular war-weary Lebanese clung to at a desperate time. They still do. It's called "Behebak Ya Libnan" - "I Love You, Lebanon."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BEHEBAK YA LIBNAN")

FAIRUZ: (Singing in foreign language)

AL TAEE: She sang about a unified Lebanon, from its north to its south, from its hills to its valleys, in poverty and richness. And she culminated that stanza by saying that one piece of its sound equals the treasures in the world.

TARABAY: It wasn't just Lebanon's troubles that Fairuz sang about. Her song "Sanarjiou" - "We Will Return" - was adopted by the Palestinians as their own anthem.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SANARJIOU")

FAIRUZ: (Singing in foreign language).

TARABAY: But she wasn't always political. The theme of so many of Fairuz' songs centered on village life in the mountains of Lebanon, songs about nightingales, drunken neighbors, the smell of jasmine, fig trees and vineyards and crazy bus rides up steep mountains. Like (Unintelligible), a song about a bus ride from the village of Himalaya to Tanourin.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FAIRUZ: (Singing in foreign language).

TARABAY: This is the core of what it meant for so many to be Lebanese, and Fairuz encapsulated it. And it was her voice that Lebanese took with them as they fled the war and began new lives on the other side of the world.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FAIRUZ: (Singing in foreign language).

TARABAY: And where they went, Fairuz went, too, touring in her own style. Her concerts weren't flashy affairs with outrageous costumes. She had traditional dancers and an orchestra. And as she's done throughout her life, Fairuz relies on her voice to win her audience.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

TARABAY: That's something Bassam Sabbagh can speak to. He's a Lebanese musician who now runs the Arabic Orchestra in New York City. His favorite instrument is the oud, a Middle Eastern lute. His oud has accompanied Fairuz, recording albums with her and performing alongside her. He remembers teasing the diva for her seemingly aloof stage persona.

BASSAM SABBAGH: Her personality, the way she was, we always, we used to always criticize her with love, that she is very, very serious on stage.

TARABAY: Her seriousness on stage is part of Fairuz's mystique. She's very conservative when she performs. The most animated she ever gets is to clap or wave her hand a little in the air to the music. But her appeal stretches to the West. Fans from Paris to Vegas, who don't necessarily under the work but love her voice and the melodies, sell out her shows. This is Fairuz at London's Royal Festival Hall in 1986.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FAIRUZ: (Singing in foreign language).

(SOUNDBITE OF APPLAUSE)

TARABAY: Fairuz remains a living part of Lebanon's culture, adhering still to the simple and poor world she came from. She still refuses interviews, still lives in Beirut, and every year, she goes to church and sings the Passion for Good Friday. Her voice, while not as powerful as it used to be, is still great. She even has a new album coming out, and she has a loyal following spread across the globe, waiting to hear it.

Jamie Tarabay, NPR News.

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