Renowned Lebanese composer Zaki Nassif, described as the founder of Lebanese folk music, passed away on Thursday at the age of 88. He is also credited for spreading traditional Arabic music around the world. 

Born in 1916 in the western Bekaa Valley village of Mashgara, Nassif studied composition at the American University of Beirut’s Musical Institute for three years until he was forced to halt his studies because of the second world war. 

He travelled to Russia to continue his studies in classical music and graduated with a diploma in musical sciences. Nassif was a "complete artist" who not only composed but sang, says music distributor Jean Marie Riashi. In line with his passion for folklore, he composed music for the dabke, traditional Arabic dance. 

"He created music in Lebanon and introduced the people to it," says Badiaa Sabra Haddad, who taught music at the Conservatoire Libanais (Lebanese Conservatory) for 55 years. "He is the god of Lebanese folklore music."

During her teaching years Haddad worked as a voice coach with many renowned artists, including Lebanese diva Fairuz. Nassif composed 35 original folklore pieces. "He did not copy music from others, the way Arabic music is created today," she laments.

Nassif hails from a generation of heavyweight composers including the Rahbani brothers, famous for their work with Fairuz. "You don’t find musicians like this today," says Haddad. 

Raising Lebanon

Nassif composed Lebanon will be Rebuilt, which became a patriotic anthem after the end of the country's devastating 1975-1990 civil war.

"His legacy will continue... It’s a shame he was never honoured in his life"

Said Mrad,
Lebanese DJ

His music deals mainly with traditional Lebanese life, evoking nostalgic images of a time when life was simple.

"If you close your eyes and hear a Zaki Nassif tune, you can see the grapevines in the village and feel the cool mountain evening," says Laila Dabaghi, a music instructor at the Lebanese American University (LAU).

His music is a reflection of Lebanese tradition, she adds. 

"If I’m teaching a tune in Arabic ... I’m likely to choose a Zaki Nassif piece," she says. His compositions were unique because he combined a formal music education with an ear for harmony, rhythm and lyrics, adds Dabaghi.

Western education

Nassif injected Russian influences into traditional Arabic music, making him a pioneer in merging Western and Eastern melodies.

Lebanese recall a slower life
when Nassif's music is heard 

Dabaghi points out that there is a current "awakening in the West to Arabic music. They are incorporating it into their music and studying it. But for a while, east was east and west was west".

He assisted in the launch of Lebanon's prestigious Baalbek International Festival, which attracts international eastern and western artists and performances, in 1955 before founding al-Anwar (The Lights) folk band. They performed in venues ranging from Cyprus to Vienna and Frankfurt.

Nassif wrote and composed songs for Lebanese artists famous across the Arab world and beyond, including Fairuz, Wadih Safi, Sabah as well as the dance troop Caracalla.

Among his best-selling compositions was an album of songs from poems by Lebanese poet Gibran Khalil Gibran performed by Fairuz.

His passing on will not effect traditional Arabic music, says Said Mrad, popular in nightclubs not only in Beirut but London and Paris for his dance version re-mix of Egyptian diva Umm Kalthoum’s Alf Laila was Layla (A Thousand and One Nights).

"His legacy will continue," after 60 years of involvement in the music industry, says Mrad. "It’s a shame he was never honoured in his life."