Zaki Nassif

 
Prestige Issue 3, August 1993

There are encounters that one never  forgets. This is one of them. Who didn’t keep for Zaki this tenderness we have for talented beings? His face remains an image symbol of our heritage.

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© Bassam Lahoud

Zaki Nassif is an outstanding character. He marked our childhood with his beautiful, clear and evocative songs that are now part of our life and nostalgia of good old days. Prestige hosted the tenor of the Lebanese folklore at its premises in Ain Saade. The years have left their marks on the man. His memory betrays him: “I do not remember anything about my childhood in Mashgharah, my hometown. It is precisely in this beautiful site,  adjacent to the Litani, which was in time a meandering stream, that I saw the day, on August 7th, 1916 . My family left to Beirut, and it is in the capital, from the age of six, I started to learn music. At that time we had at home a gramophone and records imported from Egypt. I was impressed by the voice of Sheikh Salameh Héjazeh which was then in vogue and ” chanted ” poems and operas of which I still remember some bits. ” And Zaki, casual, hums in the old way worms of ” Majnun Layla “, stumbles over words and discovers how much his memory betrays him. Accustomed to these oversights,he continues by tracing the lines of his life in a fresh and penetrating voice: ” In 1930, I started to learn the oud accompanying songs of Umm Kulthum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab. It was only much later that I enrolled at the American University to learn the rules of the music and play the piano. Lebanon was preparing to democratic life after many years of oppression under the Ottoman yoke. The Second World War, which broke out later did not disturb much my studies. In fact, I followed night courses with Professor Bertrand Robillard, who also taught mathematics at the University of St. Joseph; and who taught me everything I had left to be acquired in the field of music. In 1953, I began to attend the station of the Middle East. Assi el Rahbani, his brother Mansour, Sabri el Cherif and Feyrouz had preceded me there. Then I began to write songs and set them into music. I dug gradually into the world of song, to finally achieve fame. ”

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© Archives Zaki Nassif

Abdel Wahab during his visit to the conservatory. Zaki Nassif, second from the left.

In which context do you compose your songs? That is to say, do you have a time conducive to inspiration? «Sometimes I write the words of a song at once, on an air already registered in my memory. But in truth, all moments are appropriate to develop a song. Wait! Twice, I happened to write songs with themes. The first time was during the troubles of 1958, which marked my life as a poet – composer. Touched by this painful event, I wrote the words and music of ” Aoudet el Askar ,” the return of the army. The second goes back to 1978. Ain el Remmaneh, where I lived, was under the domination of militias and irregular armies and suffered their abuse. Our building received its share of shells, and we managed to miraculously escape this hell to elect domicile at Saframarine twelve years. One day, thinking about the misfortune of Beirut, I decided to write poems to raise the morale of the population. Thus were born ” Mahma Yitjarrah Watanna ” and the famous ” Raje ‘ Raje ‘ yitaarnmar.” The story might have ended there, but fate decided otherwise. Four years later, Simon Asmar calls me; it was a Friday night. He wanted to receive me in his television program The guests of Saturday. “Choose a directory from six to seven songs,” he said,  ” including a ballad in a different dimension “; I read him on the phone ” Raje ‘ Raje ‘ Yitaammar.” “That’s it, he cried enthusiastic! This song should be ready for tomorrow, it will make a sensational effect. ”  “But the music is not ready yet,” I said. “So compose it tonight,” he concludes. Saturday night, at the studios of LBC, I was nervous for the first time in my life. I wrote the words that I had not yet stored on a blackboard, and when the time came, I sang a tune almost improvised. It was delirium. An ovation that dazzled me. Before singing in public, it is impossible to predict the extent of the success of a song.” What Zaki Nassif did not know yet is that this exceptional song would become, since this evening there, a sort of national anthem, a song that will be part of our heritage. ” Zaki Nassif, everyone loves you and admires your talent. What does the word celebrity mean to you? ” Shy, with shifty eyes, he answers in a low voice: ” Are you sure that everyone likes me? Anyway, I am grateful to all those who admire my art ” But Zaki Nassif is not only an author, composer, performer, he is mostly a walking encyclopedia of the Lebanese folklore and the history of Lebanon.  He shares his knowledge with such simplicity that his interlocutor feels ashamed not to have, too, such knowledge. He is a born charmer, childlike and pure face; what astonishes us is why he remained single.

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© Archives Zaki Nassif

Zaki Nassif along with the legendary singer Sabah.

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© Archives Zaki Nassif

Dinner organized by Said Freiha. We recognize from left to right ,Wadiha Jarrar , Nizar Mikati , Ms. Freiha . From right to left  Amal Hamadé and Marwan Jarrar .

“But is it possible that a very special woman did not upset your life, a woman to whom you have dedicated songs, wrote poems, a woman that you loved and who loved you? “ He tries to escape again, this question was definitely an embarrassing subject for him. “Love, he finally said, is a serious thing, I was in love like everyone else and like everyone else, I was loved. I never wanted to disclose my relationships for fear of damaging the image of my beloved. Let’s talk about something else, ” he suggested. And we talked about everything and nothing. We felt a great pleasure to listen to this modern troubadour, guardian of our artistic heritage, whose angelic face turns into landscapes where intertwine in a stunning clarity, Baalbeck, Beiteddine, Sidon, Tripoli and the Bekaa, mosaic of colors that always sleeps in the eyes of ” Uncle Zaki .” GHASSAN CHEDID