Dispatches From Kuwait: Fairuz at Night
Looking back on it, the decision to move to Kuwait was almost made on a whim. Perhaps I was tired from too many interviews, perhaps the sense of the unknown compelled me, but it really doesnt matter now. Im here, living in Kuwait while working as a teacher and sometimes foreign correspondent, and without any of the three hundred or so records, countless tapes or any of the thousand CDs I own. Perhaps moving 8000 miles down the road then is an excuse to cut some weight, travel light and fill those voids with new sounds, music and rhythms.
While I was cutting down my apartment into two bags to take with me I actually looked forward to not having my music collection for awhile. I had left it behind when I moved to the Caribbean and when I returned I discovered new things about it endlessly for months. What would two or more years away from it do? Besides, not having my old crutches to fall back on, I would have the excuse to explore foreign record stores and go digging in dusty second-hand souks (outdoor marketplaces) for vinyl and CDs I would never be able to get my hands on in the States. An excuse to wander the night and talk to cab-drivers about what they listen to, get turned on to some new music, make new discoveries and hopefully bring some of it back with me. At the least I could answer my own questions about Arab music: how different is it? How has it changed as our borders have gotten more fluid? How does having a different set of musical scales affect improvisation? What are the connections between what I listen to at home and whats here? Can I find some good music for my head out there in the desert? What do the Arabs listen to after midnight?
I knew it was well after midnight and I was tired. I was spread out across the back seat of the taxi watching the drivers prayer beads dangle and sway from the rearview mirror. I smoked my last cigarette. My Jordanian friend was riding shotgun, his arm out the window. He turned to the cab driver. Music, man, music, he said to the driver. No, its late. Im tired, the cabbie replied. Yes, music, I said. Do it. Hes American, my friend said. theyre used to getting what they want.
Bastard. Hes starting that again. I caught the cabbies eyes in the rear-view, hang-dog and bloodshot. Never mind him, I said in English, hes deformed. Nayef wheeled around in the seat and stared at me with his one good eye. The other is hidden behind an eyelid that drops closed and flutters, giving you peeks at the dead white behind it. He is an Arab Cyclops, a true seer. Its good to have such a visionary in a cab with you, riding shotgun through the night, near dawn and down the litter filled alleyways of Kuwait City. He spun back around and looked at the cabbie again. Umm Kalthoum, he said.
The cabbie looked into his one good eye. Umm Kalthoum, the cabbie said.
A tape materialized, the tape deck clicked and Kalthoums voice shot out of a speaker behind my head, improvising the word habibi across a scale, across the cab, through the smoke and out into the night.
When Umm Kalthoum died the streets of Cairo filled with four million mourners. In order to get her coffin to the mosque it had to be passed over the top of the swollen crowd, through the upraised hands, so her fans could touch her and feel her presence just one last time. Her funeral may have been the largest public gathering in history. Since her death, Kalthoums fame and ability to touch as a singer has not diminished in the least, regardless of generation.
We got out of the cab and instinctively I craned my head upwards to look into the moon. Youve heard Umm Kalthoum at night, but Fairuz is for the morning, Nayef said.
I had been told this piece of advice more than once since then: that Fairuz, a Lebanese singer, is best heard in the morning. Ive heard it from a Yemeni cab driver over a game of dominoes, from the Egyptian owner of the sheesha caf spend most of my nights at and from a Kuwaiti friend who teaches Islamic Studies. She told me, With your tea and dates rolled in crushed pistachio nuts, as soon as you rise, Fairuz is best.
I appreciate that kind of soul-advice, since I am always matching the music that I am listening to around the mood and tone of what I need. I like King Curtis before I go out, the Butterfield Blues Band or Canned Heat when I help my uncle prep Thanksgiving dinner, Hank Mobley over wine, the Allmans all the time
So I picked up a Fairuz compilation——Chillout Classics (EMI)—-and listened to it all the way through over breakfast. The Arabs are right. But listening to her at night was revelatory.
Fairuz has a soft voice, but its not unpowerful. Her voice smokes, smolders and turns the way a womans voice does when shes in love with you and shes telling you something you have to hear. The way a womans voice does when shes got her fingers in your beltloop and is drawing you close, backing out of the living room towards her bed. Its the type of voice that doesnt need to shout, belt or moan when her heart breaks. The edges just get a little more frayed and the deep resonance hangs just a little longer. In pain you hear it and you do the breaking.
Fairuz senses this chameleon-like nature of her voice and uses it to a sublime effect. Her songs are usually backdropped by a small and tight jazz combo. Sometimes they are playing Arabic scales, sometimes they are using Arab instruments, but she always retains the feel of the greatest late-night jazz vocalists of the 1950s and 1960s. Part Etta Jones, part Johnny Hartman, part Little Walter. But all these are afterthoughts: it was hearing Khaleek bil Bait while looking down on midnight traffic from my eighth-story window that Fairuzs power and self came at me totally. Khaleek bil Bait translates as stay in the house, and even not being able to speak Arabic while listening to it you feel a woman staring down from her own window through the darkness at a car, her lover slowly reaching for the door handle, reflecting the moon shine. Maybe the woman, like the man, is smoking a cigarette, the glowing tip tracing an arc of fire in the night. Her eyes are tired and worn, not from crying but from having nothing left. And what can she do? Hes now in the car. Traffic hums by, a dumpster cat rummages, the screech of brakes. And slowly, as she exhales her last drag and the man leaves, her lips curl around the smoke to whisper, Khaleek bil Bait.
Id kill any man who stood in my way from coming back to a woman who sung me that, like that. Khaleek bil Bait is one of the saddest and sexiest songs I have ever heard.
Fairuz isnt all heartbreak and cigarettes though. She sings joy and the day equally well. Either way, its her tone, the mood she sets and the slow smoke she lifts with her voice that hits me every time.
Id love to bring Fairuz to the United States and set her up for a small four night engagement at the Village Vanguard or Blue Note. Keep the crowd small and intimate, the lighting violet, blue and a touch of burnt orange. Back her with a tight, jazzy, but always in-the-pocket, soulful band and let her work. Jaimoe on kit and Marc Quinones on percussion, Christian McBride on upright bass, Cornell Dupree on guitar and since Earl Van Dyke cant play keys and Hammond organ, Booker T. Maybe toss the Asbury Jukes or Dap-Kings horns in for a few numbers. But keep it tight, with just enough soul to keep the heads nodding and just let Fairuz do her thing. Wed all be better for it.
Until then though, weve got her on CD. And while Umm Kalthoum had been passed over her mourners heads and saved my cab ride, out here alone and at the edge of this desert, Ill still turn to Fairuz to get me through the night.