RIP: Wadi El-Safi, The Great Voice of Lebanon

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Wadih El-Safi: Nov. 1, 1921 – Oct. 11, 2013 (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Lebanese vocalist Wadi El-Safi (also spelled Wadih Al-Safi) passed away in Beirut this past October, 2013. He was 91. Just as Fairouz remains the female voice of Lebanon, El-Safi was the most famous singer of his generation in Lebanon and widely admired throughout the Arab world. His powerful, passionate voice recalls that of Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan and other legendary singers whose music transcended language and cultural barriers. Unfortunately, he was never well-known outside the Arab world.

When I was Managing Director of the ill-fated world music label, Horizon Records at A&M, I went to Paris in search of artists to bring to the label. I had heard El-Safi on CDs and was completely blown away. This in spite of the fact that there were no lyrics or lyric translations, just the song titles in English and Arabic. No mind. His singing transcended language considerations.

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In the Spring of 1991, I met with two of his sons and we talked about the possibility of doing an album. El-Safi had recently undergone heart bypass surgery and was performing as strongly as ever. We dined together at some wonderful Lebanese restaurants, eating lamb tartare and other delicacies.

In Lebanon, he is so famous that postage stamps bearing his likeness have been issued. He had a great voice as a young man, and dropped out of school, singing to help the family make ends meet. When he was 17, he competed in a singing contest on state-run Lebanese Radio. He placed first out of 40 contestants. He left Beirut during the civil war of 1975-1990, finally settling in France, where he lived when I visited.

Here is a video of El-Safi performing with Cuban singer Jose Fernandez:

Here’s another video, a festive one with dancing and folky costumes: