Mansour Rahbani: Musician and poet who spearheaded the Lebanese cultural renaissance

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The Independent Online

Mansour Rahbani, the Lebanese composer, musician and producer, known most popularly as one of the Rahbani Brothers, left a legacy of innovation in the spheres of music and theatre in Lebanon and in the wider Arab world. He was largely recognised for his lifelong collaboration with his brother Assi, and Assi's wife, the legendary Lebanese diva Fairuz. By the time of his death, Rahbani's oeuvre as a writer, poet, lyricist, playwright and musical dramatist was phenomenal.

Mansour Rahbani was the middle son of Hanna Rahbani and his wife Sa'edy. Assi (also rendered Assyor Asi) Rahbani (1923-1986) was the first-born, with Elias, born in 1938, the surviving brother of the three. A strait-laced and frugal Lebanese family it may have been, but the brothers grew up absorbing multicultural influences in what was then one of the most cosmopolitan crossroads of the modern world. Lebanese, Arab and colonial influences, literature, music and faiths flourished and co-existed alongside each other.

Both brothers had musical andliterary gifts as well as lofty cultural aspirations. By dint of their musical talents, they gradually insinuatedtheir way into radio, first with jingles. The key to their success layin the fact that they complemented each other. Both worked as musicians and arranger-composers; moreover, Assi, whom Fairuz married in1954, wrote in demotic and dialect Arabic while Mansour leant towards its classical form.

When the two musician brothers first met Fairuz at a radio session, she was Nouhad Haddad. She would try out other stage names – Yola and Fatat al-Jabal ("Mountain Girl") – before adopting one variously rendered as Fairuz, Fayruz and Fairouz. For over 50 years Fairuz has held sway and held an unassailable position in the hearts of music lovers not only in the Arab world, but anywhere where people are moved by truly great music.

When Haddad went into the radio studio in Beirut and met the Rahbani Brothers in 1950, all of them were hopefuls, and they clicked. At the time there was a pan-Arab spirit abroad. There was also openness to new musical potentials, inspired by developments in contemporary Egyptian populist film, literature and music and movements in Lebanese folk and Latin-American music.

The brothers almost immediately set to work on a new repertoire for Haddad. It began with "Itab" ["Blame"], which became a huge hit throughout the Arab world. Initially a Lebanese radio hit, it grew so popular that it was cut for commercial release in Paris. It was the start of a cultural renaissance for Lebanese music.

Fairuz and the Rahbani Brothers dominated the Lebanese arts scene until they parted ways in the late 1970s. Fairuz still sings Rahbani Brothers compositions alongside those of her son Ziad Rahbani – as albums such as Live 2000 Festival de Beiteddine Liban (2001) illustrate – for the trio's musical creations are core to the Lebanese psyche.

Rahbani later worked with other female singers, including Ronza, Fairuz's younger sister Huda (whohad appeared on stage and screen with her sister) and Carole Samaha, but it is Fairuz with whom he will be forever linked.

Ken Hunt

Mansour Al Rahbani, composer, musician, poet and lyricist: born Antelias, near Beirut, Lebanon 1925; died Beirut 13 January 2009.