Zaki Nassif, one of Lebanon's most renowned composers, died on March 11 from a heart attack. He was 88. A pioneer in developing and spreading Lebanese folk music around the world, Zaki Nassif belonged to a depleted group of musicians and composers whose work will endure through the ages. He encapsulated the true spirit of his homeland not only through his folk music and songwriting, but also through his patriotic anthems. Zakki did not compose music for the sake of music, but to serve his country in the only way he could. Music, for him, was a means not an end itself - a means to facilitate a new outlook on life and, at the same time, to preserve the ideals and traditional values of our national music.
Zakki's accomplishments were many: he composed or sang more than 2,000 folk songs during his six-decade career; his lyrics were embraced by Lebanon's most celebrated singers, including Fairuz and Wadih al-Safi; and he was an outstanding musician not only as a composer but also as a singer.
But what is it that really made Zaki Nassif such a great composer and a great human being above all?
Was it his modesty?
Well, for all we know he was born into a modest home in 1916, in one of Lebanon's modest towns, Mashghara. And even though 1916 was not a modest year, given its mid-point position in the First World War, Zaki's childhood, from what he has told us, was a modest one, nurtured under "my mother's beautiful voice." His education was also modest - certainly not a great deal different from the average 'kid' in those days.
Perhaps Zaki's distinction lay in his music education?
Zaki related that he always had a special feeling for music. One day, in 1930, his neighbor, noticing this predisposition in the young boy, brought him an oud and turned him into an instant 'star' ... well at least among his peers and neighbors. Zaki was content, but not for long. His musical potential called out for more. It became irrepressible. The constant streams of encouragement he received at school concerts and other social functions only served to exacerbate this development. If anything, they convinced him to take up music as a profession rather than as a pastime hobby. And so Zaki joined the School of Music at the American University of Beirut in the mid-1930s to study music as it should be studied. His vocation in life was now on a roll: neither the war (World War II) nor his father's insistence on a business life for his could dissuade him from music. He kept at it until he obtained his music degree from Jesuit University in Beirut.
Then, there are those who point to Zaki's contribution to music.
They are not wrong. Zaki launched his show business career as a singer and composer for Radio-Orient and Radio Liban and then went on to become one of the 'keys' in the music industry of his country. He helped to develop the folkloric tradition of Lebanon as well as Bilad as-Sham, and was one of the founding organizers of the International Baalbek Festival in 1957. "Ayyam Elhassad", the program title of that year's festival, had Fairuz as the leading singer, Sabri Elsharif as the director, Mohamed Shamel and Mohee Salam as managers, Tawfeek Elbasha as the conductor, Nizar Meekati to assist Elsharif, Zaki Nassif for co-writing and composing and Marwan and Wadia Jarar for choreography. The festival was held for two days. Conducted by Elbasha, the program started with Zaki Nassif and some of his still famous songs including "Taloo Habaibna Taloo".
Zaki's celebrated turn to traditional folklore music was not inadvertent: "we realized that the major composers around the world achieved fame only after they turned to the folklore of their respective countries. It was this realization which induced us to take more interest in local Lebanese outback folklore. We also learned that it was Russian folklore which created Russian music and singing [not vice versa]. Folklore pumps spirit into music and singing."
After 1957, Zaki's music career went from strength to strength. He never looked back ... he didn't need to.
But if we really want to know why Zaki was such an outstanding musician and a great human being too we have to look no further than to Zaki himself:
"Many of those who worked in the artistic field used to be members of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party. Along with many others from my hometown, Mashghara, my brother included, I joined this party. I was in my forties, which means that my ideological affiliation was the result of a mature and conscious choice, not of youth tendencies. I affiliated to the national doctrine in the fifties when the doctrine was an object of widespread interest among the educated in the countryside and I remain faithful to it to this day. For national loyalty is not transient: it is a life-long commitment." (From an interview with Mohammad Abi Samra of An-Nahar. Reproduced at http://www.machghara.com/index.htm)
Zaki goes on to explain how this commitment influenced his music career:
"The revival of traditional folklore, the highland as well as outback, and its inculcation into the music and singing of the fifties was one of the distinctive features of the Syrian national doctrine and its diffusion among the artists and educated of the time. For one of the primary objectives of Syrian nationalism is to make manifest the importance of the land and nature. This became the central pre-occupation of all those who embraced this doctrine. Not land only, but also man in his interaction with the land and its nature. For man does not become a constructive and active member in his country, nation and society until he gains a feeling of the importance of the land and its spiritual and material value. Without this feeling man remains peripheral and lost." (ibid)
I rest my case.
Zaki Nassif was a model of intelligence, persistence, courage, delicacy, honour, decency, kindness, and much else. His affection enveloped you like a roar, like a cure - even when he became the one who was ill. You felt better every time you saw him. Or rather, you felt you could be better than you were, and you thought the world was a larger place than it had seemed before.
Zaki Nassif, welcome to the Hall of Fame of the nation.
May God rest your soul.
The Master is Dead