Warda al Djazairia, the Rose of Algeria, was perhaps the last great Arab diva of the pre-pop era, a name to rank along with 20th century stars of the languorous, Egyptian-dominated ballad such as Oum Kalsoum and Asmahan. But she was also an emblem and product of the country she was most closely identified with, Algeria, and her death came months from the 50th anniversary of the national independence she so energetically supported. She was given a state funeral in Algiers, and was still massively popular. But although her songs resounded through the Arab Spring uprising in Egypt last year, it is notable that the letters pages of the Algerian press featured dissonant voices among the many eulogies, criticisms that she was a crony of the despots who had ruled the region for too long.
Warda Ftouki was born in 1940 in the Paris banlieue to a Lebanese mother and an Algerian immigrant father from the Eastern city of Souk Ahras. Her father ran one of the little café hotels which catered to the crowds of male workers who were beginning to come over from what was then a North African possession of France to the capital to work in the car factories and on the building sites. This was a period of nascent anti-colonialist movements such as the North African Star, later succeeded by the FLN, the party which eventually led Algeria to independence. Mohamed Ftouki, Warda's father, was an ardent supporter of the FLN and first his hotel, then a café chantant he opened in the Quartier Latin, the Tam Tam (simultaneously French for tom tom and a construct of the initials of Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco) became meeting places for activists.
Warda began singing as a child on the family premises, mainly the songs of great Pan Arab stars such as Oum Kalsoum and Farid Al Atrache. She was 11 when her attractive voice and presence were noticed by Ahmed Hachlef, a producer with French radio, who began to feature her on a show aimed at North African youth.
In 1958, the family's stay in Paris came to an abrupt end when the Tam Tam was closed down by the authorities, ostensibly for harbouring arms for terrorists: the Algerian independence struggle was in full spate, with armed clashes in Paris between FLN activists, non-FLN, and police. Denied residence in French-ruled Algeria, the family moved to Beirut, home to Warda's mother, and second only to Cairo as Arab entertainment capital.
Living with her family in a small flat in Al Hamra street, Warda began obtaining singing engagements in Beirut nightclubs. Here her unusual mix of classic Lebanese- Egyptian love songs, more folkloric North African pieces, and odes in praise of the independence fighters, brought her to the attention of powerful figures of Cairene showbusiness, including the great singer and composer Mohamed Abdelwahab.
Invited to perform in Cairo, she was taken up by Riad Al Soumbati, another major composer, and began to scale the ranks of the cultural élite, where her Parisian chic and the more vivacious North African colourings she imbued her music with, attracted much attention. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the first President of Egypt, invited her to represent Algeria in a major song festival for the Arab world; she also starred in the first of a number of successful films.
Warda first set foot in the country which adopted her in 1962, shortly after independence. Ironically this marked her first retirement from the stage, when she married a former officer from the ALN independence army who disapproved of her career. It was 10 years before she resumed singing, on the invitation of the then President Boumedienne, who insisted she take part in the country's 10th anniversary independence celebrations.
Swept up anew in her career, she divorced her disapproving husband and moved from now austere, repressive Algeria back to Cairo. There she encountered, and soon married, another of the great names of Egyptian music, the composer Baligh Hamdi, a Svengali figure with his own energetic production company and a penchant to match Warda's for traditional music to leaven the dominant classical orchestration.
Two more decades of prolific film-making, recording and concert activity ensued, interspersed with minor setbacks such as the period when Nasser's successor, Anwar Sadat, banned her from the stage for her song in praise of Libya's Colonel Gaddafi, at that time in conflict with Egypt, but also spectacular high points such as her triumphant performance to huge crowds in Algiers for the 20th anniversary of Algerian independence in 1982.
In later life Warda's career was slowed by ill health and her last album was recorded in 2001, but her appetite for performance was not dimmed. This year saw new film clips recorded for the 50th anniversary of independence, and for a mobile phone company campaign. Her coffin was flown to Algiers from Cairo in an Algerian military aircraft and numerous government ministers, cultural luminaries and representatives of other Arab countries attended her funeral.
Warda Ftouki, singer and actress: born Paris July 1939; married firstly (marriage dissolved), secondly Baligh Hamdi (died 1993); died Cairo 17 May 2012.