In the five years or more since the Nahr al-Barid incidents in 2008, the Lebanon’s second-largest city Tripoli has been associated with local wars and extremist attacks. In spite of this, since 2003 a group of 40 men and women have been representing and exporting the city’s cultural heritage, locally and globally under the name of the Fayha Choir.
In suburban areas, as in urban areas, everyone seems to be familiar with the Fayha Choir in Lebanon. This may be because the choir members descend from Tripoli in addition to other northern villages. They also come from all different educational, professional and religious backgrounds. Despite their differences, the choir members sing in beautiful harmony eliciting emotional responses at their live performances.
Barkev Taslakian, an Armenian Christian, founded the choir in 2003. He is also the conductor of the choir and integral to its success. Above all, he is known for his firmness among the choir members and the audience. However, all of the choir members unanimously agree that if he wasn’t so strict in the way he worked the choir would not have reached this level of success.
Fayha Choir has won many prizes, including at Warsaw International Choir Festival 2007, where Taslakian also received the first prize for conducting. However, the most recent prize awarded to Taslakian and the choir was at the International Music Council, Music Rights Award 2015 in Morocco, where the choir was nominated by the European Choral Association, Europa Cantat.
Taslakian acts as a sort of godfather for every member of this choir too. Although there are 40 members, Taslakian knows each one intimately. Ahmad al-Kheir, 24, says, “Being enrolled in many activities, especially sports and community work, my coaches always told me I had to be professional in order to succeed. However, I did not know what professionalism was until I worked with Taslakian. When I became a choir member I felt the satisfaction I was always looking for, and became only committed to singing.” Coming from electric engineering background, which he studied in a vocational institute, Kheir had no musical background before joining the choir. However, he was able to succeed in singing and is currently working as a teacher inside the choir for a little extra money and thus continuing to go on being a choir member.
On the other hand, Fatma Racha Shehade, 21, comes from a rich musical background and has been playing the piano since childhood. “It was my mother’s dream,” she says. However, Shehade was able to satisfy her passion for film directing, studying communication arts, with an emphasis on TV\film at the Lebanese American University, attaining a BA last summer. Shehade assure that Tripoli’s audiences are very different from any other audience. “You have to come and see it for yourself,” she says.
“We’re all different however we are a family”
Mohammad Mawas, 29, links the choirs success to the fact that Tripoli and other northern areas still adhere to Oriental music, and especially the cultural type of it. “Therefore, in Tripoli, you don’t only find good ears but also good talents; a big number of people sing correctly in this city.”
The voices of the choir members always fill Tripoli’s night with aria. In Tripoli, everyone can come and watch; the choir performs for free in public stages including Al-Safadi Foundation and Azm Cultural Center – Beit al-Fann. “At the very beginning, people did not value what we were presenting as the choir was a new thing they were introduced to, however the strict regulations that Taslakian implemented in every performance taught the people in Tripoli the manners of hearing a choir,” Shehade says. However, Kheir comes from a village where singing is considered as a hobby only. His parents said to him, “Sing with your friends but don’t think it is going to be what you do for living, son.” Despite this, currently singing is what he does for his passion, satisfaction and to earn a living.
The choir members are proud to be able to raise the profile of Tripoli in international festivals, as well as in Lebanon. “It is not only how the media presents it just like people who live in Tripoli,” says Kheir. Shehade is happy to “spread the Arabic heritage through singing, which is one of the initial missions of the choir.” Moreover, Mawas describes his enrollment in the choir as “a lifetime decision”. “Everyone in Tripoli experienced hard times, but I chose to serve my society instead of destroying it” he adds.
Tripoli might have got the nickname “Al-Fayha” from an adjective derived from the Arabic verb “faha” which means that something is beautifully scented. In Tripoli there are stories of the scents of soups and orange orchards. However, the adjective “fayha” alludes to another characteristic of Tripoli, which is the welcoming, open home. Time might have been able to dampen the lovely scents in Tripoli, but today, despite everything, Tripoli is spreading the Arabic heritage and music around the globe.