Warda: The Algerian Rose’s legacy will live on

News of the death of one of the Arab world’s most moving singers, Warda, aka Warda al Jazairia (The Algerian Rose) brings to the fore her songs and voice that will live long beyond her

Published in Ahram Online

“Along with Lebanon’s Fayrouz and Egypt’s late Om Kalthoum, Warda was one of the legendary singers of the Arab world,” Al Jazeera reported hours after the news of Warda’s death broke out.

“The Diva has died,” commented hundreds of Twitter users in English, French, Arabic, Spanish with tweets from all across the Arab World.

Elissa, one of the most famous Lebanese singers, posted on Twitter: “Such a big loss to the Arab World, I’m truly so sad about the death of the great artist and the legend Warda. May her soul rest in peace!”

Posts from the younger generation point to Warda as “a voice that inspired and joined whole generations,” and see in her one of the rare common elements between them and their parents.

Warda was born in 1939 in France and raised in Parisian Latin Quarter (quartier Latin). Her Algerian father, Mohamed Fettouki, ran a small establishment that included a hotel and a bar-restaurant, while her mother was Lebanese from Beirut.

From an early age, Warda listened to the iconic singers: Om Kalthom, Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Abdel Halim Hafez and Asmahan in her father’s establishment and home. Their songs were the first that she ventured to sing. Later on, her repertoire incorporated original songs written for her by Warda’s mentor, Sadeq Thuraya, as well as compositions by Tunisian composer and poet, Mohamed Jamoussi (1910-1982).

As a teenager, in support to her father’s homeland, Warda would sing patriotic songs such as Ya Habibi Ya Mudjahid (Oh Friend, Oh Fighter), Beladi Ya Beladi (Oh My Country), among others.

When in 1958 the Algerian war erupted, police forces raided her father’s establishment and, according to sources, found arms and ammunition, allegedly for the National Liberation Front (FLN). Mohamed Fettouki was imprisoned and the family was forced to leave France. Warda moved to Lebanon, where, supported by her mother’s family, she continued singing in public.

Her career seemed to be on the rise and took off after she came to Egypt in 1960 to star in a musical film. In 1961, at the peak of Pan-Arabism, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt’s president invited Warda to join Watan Al-Akbar (My Great Homeland), a production by Mohamed Abdel Wahab dedicated to the “Arab fatherland.” The song was sung during nationalistic celebrations held at the Khedieval Opera House (Old Opera). Warda sung a passage dedicated to the Algerian struggle for independence, denouncing colonisation, in a ceremony adorned by many renowned singers of that time: Nagat Esseghira, Sabah, Shadia, Abdelhalim Hafez and Mohammed Kendil.

“My country, and the revolution against colonialism

If we all seek to sacrifice ourselves for you

Colonialism will come to an end

Not in Algeria or Oman…

The revolution will finish tyranny

Only triumph for the Arab people

My beloved nation.”  [lyrics of the song Watan Al-Akbar]

Following Algeria’s independence in 1962, Warda moved to her father’s country, where she married an officer and, abiding to her husband’s will, she put her career to the side. Warda had two children from this marriage: son Riyad and daughter Widad. Despite the fact that her husband banned her from performing, her call as a singer was stronger. She was heard again when Houari Boumediene, Algerian president asked Warda to sing during the tenth anniversary celebrations of the country’s independence.

Having performed a series of patriotic songs in public, Warda’s comeback was very powerful, marking a major shift in her personal and artistic life. Her marriage broke while her spirit as a singer was reborn and she decided to grow her talent in Egypt.

Soon, she married Baligh Hamdi (1932-1993), an Egyptian composer known for his collaborations with Om Kalthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez. At that time, Hamdi strongly contributed to Warda’s comeback. Though the marriage only lasted seven years, the artistic cooperation between the two continued after the divorce and, in Warda’s opinion, Baligh Hamdi gave her the most beautiful songs, such as Ismaaouni (Listen to Me), Ya Ahl Al-Hawaa (The Passionate People) and Eih Walla Eih (What Else Can I Say?).

Though Warda’s beginnings were marked by a number of appearances in patriotic celebrations, she soon proved to master passionate repertoire, speaking deeply into the Arab world’s sentimentality. Her unique style, passionate, yet soft timbre struck a chord with millions of listeners. They fell in love with Ahlan Ya Hobb (Hello Love), Ah Law Abeltak Men Zaman (If Only I Met You Long Before), Maa’oal Aheb Tany (Is it Possible that I’ll Love Again), among dozens of others.

Daniel Caux, a lecturer on Arabic music at the University of Vincennes describes Warda as a singer of a “specific emotional range, combining successfully strength and frailty: on the one side will-power, self assertion, even challenge; on the other side sweetness and a tenderness implying some kind of vulnerability.”

Caux goes on saying that “the paradox is that this vulnerability acts as a strength on the emotional level, since it moves and fascinates us. In turn, and sometimes simultaneously, her voice gaining strength sings out to the whole audience. In doing so she never overstrains her voice to the extreme but she sooner changes its texture. Becoming more diffuse, her voice widens subtly till it fills the whole space.”

Throughout her career, Warda’s repertoire included over 300 songs and she sold over 100 million albums in the Arab world and beyond, with Batwaness Bik (Happy with You) and Harramt Ahebbak (I Gave up Loving You) being the best-selling albums and the title songs becoming her everlasting hits.

She collaborated with great musicians such as Mohamed Abdel Wahab, Riyadh Sombati, Helmi Bakr, Sayed Makawi. Her best known songs include Khalik Hena (Stay Here), Awqati Btehlaw, Dandana, Fi Youm Ou Leila (In a Day or a Night), Laabat Al-Ayam, Kelmat Itab, Wahashtouni (I Missed You), Talata Ikhoua (Three Brothers), Andah Alik (Calling You), and many others.

Warda also starred in a number of Egyptian films and soap operas. Her most well-known soap opera is Rose Leaves and the top film was My Story with Time.

According to Daniel Caux: “It’s enough to listen to one of her records of that time to understand how people became increasingly infatuated with Warda. She seems to possess all the qualities necessary for an Arab singer: an engaging voice, perfect intonation and rhythm, an extraordinary command of nuances giving a many-sided singing, a never-ending inventiveness and an outstanding personality. Warda can’t be compared with any other contemporary singer, she surpasses them by far.”

Passionate and dedicated to art, nationalistic at heart and supporting the Arab cause, Warda’s principles might have occasionally angered a few, yet her consistency until the very end, raised the chapeaux of millions.

In 2009, Warda brought the ire of many Egyptians when she openly supported the Algerian football team in the wake of violent rioting in a World Cup against Egypt held in Sudan. The violent football match caused one of the major political crisis between Egypt and Algeria. Warda, who lived on an off in Egypt throughout her life, was anathemised, although others voiced their belief that, naturally the singer (like most people) would support her national team.

According to sources, a few months before her death, Warda wrote an open letter to a Qatari-based news channel, Al-Jazeera saying: “You have killed thousands of Libyans and you continue to mow-down a large number of innocent people in Syria…You swear you didn’t bear weapons, but I assure you that you have the most powerful weapon of mass destruction: the media. If you misuse the media, you will kill the son of Arabism.”

Warda’s health problems began a decade ago, when she had a liver transplant. The procedure forced her to retreat from the limelight. In a number of interviews since, she kept expressing her hope to return to her career as soon as her health permitted.

Warda died on 17 May 2012 in Cairo, Egypt, after suffering a cardiac arrest. She was 72. Her legacy will live forever.

On Friday afternoon, Warda’s body has been flown to Algeria in a private jet sent to Cairo by the Algerian president, Abdul Aziz Bouteflika. Her body is to be laid to rest in Al-Alia cemetery, east of Algiers on Saturday.