Obituary: Wadih al-Safi

Singer revered throughout the Arab world
  • @cmaume

Wadih al-Safi's strong, clear voice propelled him to fame throughout the Arab world. The Lebanese singer and composer, whose real name was Wadih Francis, and who has died at the age of 92, helped spread colloquial Lebanese Arabic outside his country, becoming known to many Arabs as “the man with the golden voice”.

During a career that spanned seven decades he worked with a string of legendary Arab composers and singers such as Egypt's late Mohammed Abdul-Wahhab and the late Syrian-Egyptian Farid al-Atrash. He contributed to a movement revitalising Lebanese music that saw it spread in influence across the Arab world, and the Lebanese president Michel Suleiman said, “His passing is a loss to the nation and every Lebanese home. He embodied the nation through his art.”

He was best known for popular and folk themes in his music, but also sang Lebanese and Arabic poetry. His stately music gave Lebanese a sense of pride in their country as it was in danger of being torn apart during the civil war. He wrote more than 3,000 songs, and became renowned for his mawawil (an improvised singing style). The nostalgic “Lebanon You Are A Piece Of The Sky”, and “We Are Coming”, about Lebanese migrants, were among his many hits.

The son of a policeman and the second of eight siblings, Safi was born in the mountain village of Niha. He lived in near poverty in the village until his family moved to Beirut when he was nine. There, he enrolled in a Catholic school and began singing with its choir. At the age of 12 he dropped out and began working and singing in order to help the family make ends meet.

When he turned 17, his elder brother Toufic showed him an announcement about a singing competition at the state-run Lebanon Radio. He finished first out of 40 contestants and began working at the station. He was a classically trained tenor, having studied at the Beirut National Conservatory of Music.

He later travelled to Brazil, where he spent some years performing for the burgeoning Lebanese community, before returning to Lebanon. He left the country again, at the start of the 1975-90 civil war, travelling first to Egypt, then Britain and finally France.

Wadi Francis (Wadih al-Safi), singer, songwriter and composer: born Niha, Lebanon 1 November 1921; married (two daughters, four sons); died Mansourieh, Lebanon 11 October 2013.