Wadi‘ al-Safi, known as the “Voice of Lebanon,” has passed away at the age of 91 on October 11. Al-Safi, a singer, songwriter, oud player and actor was renowned in Lebanon, the Lebanese diaspora, and the Arab world as a whole. Al-Safi was born as Wadi‘ Francis in Niha Chouf, a village in Mount Lebanon. Beginning his career at the age of 17 when he won a contest held by Lebanese Radio, al-Safi went on to have a long musical career, composing over 3000 songs.
Al-Safi, a classically trained tenor, studied at the Beirut National Conservatory of Music. He became one of the leaders of the baladi genre (discussed in an interview with Professor A.J. Racy for our Hip Deep program Lebanon 1: Fairuz, A Woman for All Seasons), which adapted traditional Lebanese folk songs to the urban musical idiom. However al-Safi did not limit himself to any one particular genre. He also sang in the ‘ataba, mijana, and mawwal (solo vocal improvisation) styles. The multitalented al-Safi was also a polyglot, singing not just in Arabic, but also Syriac, Portuguese, French and Italian.
In 1947, al-Safi traveled to Brazil where he stayed for three years. As covered in our second interview with Professor Racy for Lebanon 2: Diasporas, Safi served as a link between the Lebanese diaspora and the homeland. When he returned to Lebanon, he sang about immigrant’s nostalgia, and begged immigrants to come home to Lebanon.
Safi had been in poor health since he underwent surgery for a broken leg last year. His family have announced that he will be buried in his hometown of Niha “so that his grave will serve as a cultural landmark for all Lebanese and all his admirers throughout the world.”
Below, watch a vintage video for his songs “Mawal ya sayf” and “Zahher ya sayf,” and check out his live performance of “Walaw” with accompaniment from an orchestra.