In May, Lebanese singer Wael Kfoury performed at Saudi Arabia’s Jeddah Festival. Men and women from across the Arab world excitedly flocked to see him perform live. They were rewarded with two hours filled with songs of love delivered in his clear, distinctive voice.
Known as the Arab music scene’s “king of romance,” Kfoury is on top once more. His latest song, “Set El Kel” – an affectionate nickname for a woman – received rave reviews and has gone viral on YouTube, both in Israel and the Arab world (it has gotten nearly 15 million views since its release in late July). Like many of his previous hits, the current ballad deals with women. His flirtations with them – not only musically – has seen his career flourish for over 30 years.
Kfoury was born in 1974 as Michel Émile Kfoury in the central Lebanese city of Zahlé, where he still lives today. His father, the Lebanese folk singer Émile Kfoury, taught him the traditional mawwal genre and instilled a love of music in him.
Kfoury deepened his study of music at age 18 at a private university in the city of Jounieh, north of Beirut. In the same year, he won the TV music contest “Studio El Fan.”
“Your voice is something we only hear once every 30 years,” one of the show’s judges – the composer and musician Romeo Lahoud – told him, in a moment that was etched into the memory of countless viewers.
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In 1994, on his debut album that became popular throughout the Arab world, Kfoury began to formulate what would become his signature sound: romantic lyrics, expressing affection and longing. His songs reflect the feelings of a man who loves to love, who longs for a woman, with references to “my life,” and “angel” – and the recurring motifs of “eyes,” “light,” “soul,” and “moon” that serve as a metaphor for the object of his affection.
The song “Layel W Raad” (“Night and Thunder”), in which he flirts with his lover and asks her to stay the night with him because of the cold, wind and rain, is still popular among young Arabs – who frequently request it at weddings and at his concerts, even though almost 30 years have passed since it was released.
“Little by little, since he broke out in the 1990s, Kfoury managed to develop his own unique melodic style,” says Emad Dalal, oud player, conductor and lecturer at Safed Academic College in northern Israel. “He sounds more modern, and this is reflected by the introduction of piano and romantic lyrics.”
Starting in the mid-2010s, Kfoury also began incorporating Western instruments such as the clarinet into his music. “His songs became more complex musically over the years, using the higher registers in his voice. That’s what made him unique compared to other popular singers,” Dalal notes.
This uniqueness made him one of the most successful singers in the Arab world, whose fortune was estimated by the Al-Quds Al-Arabi newspaper to be around $16 million.
Soldier of love
Kfoury was beloved even when he was wearing a uniform. He enlisted in the Lebanese military at the end of 1994, served for three years, and dedicated several songs from his first album to the soldiers and the Lebanese army, including “Bokra Rayeh Aal Jaish” (“Tomorrow I Go to the Army”) and “Maktoobek Malyan Dmoa’” (“Your Letter is Soaked in Tears”), in which he addresses his mother before his enlistment.
Kfoury makes no secret of his sympathy for the Lebanese army and ensures that he performs in front of the soldiers every year. “The Lebanese public appreciates him to this day for his decision to join the army – especially in the critical period after the civil war,” explains Haifa musician and DJ Rabih Jamal. “Military service had a national meaning then. It gave Kfoury an important social prestige among the Lebanese.”
He also has a high-profile fan in the Israeli army. The military’s Arabic-language spokesman, Lt. Col. Avichay Adraee, quoted one of Kfoury’s songs and included it as part of an information video addressed to the Arab world about training activities in the northern region of Mount Meron in the winter of 2020.
In the video, which Adraee uploaded to his official Twitter account, soldiers were seen training in difficult conditions with a song by Kfoury playing in the background. In 2019, he also posted a greeting for Kfoury’s birthday, quoting from his song “Tomorrow I Go to the Army “ and sent him a direct message criticizing his support of the Lebanese army.
That’s it, we’re done
While in his work Kfoury sings about everlasting love and his longing for a soulmate, he has not achieved this in his personal life. On the contrary. Kfoury is rarely interviewed in the media, but after his divorce from the model Angela Bishara about two years ago, he was interviewed on television and stated that “marriage is the most failed institution in the world.”
According to Kfoury, people only get married because “a person wants to establish himself, to start a family. And for that he has to sacrifice, as I have sacrificed and still continue to sacrifice.”
When asked about love, he surprised everyone with the honesty of his response: “Why? Who loves whom these days? Everyone lies. Even married couples. Everyone lies. Do you want me to tell the truth, or should I avoid it? Everything is open and shattered. That’s it, we’re done. You can take off the masks and the makeup. Why should anyone hide the truth?”
The interview caused a stir in the media and among his fans. In the Arab-Palestinian newspaper Donia Al-Watan, for instance, an article was published condemning Kfoury’s claims. He was described in it as “a reckless man and a selfish artist who does not consider his ex-wife’s feelings even a little.”
The Saudi Al Arabiya, meanwhile, complained that his words contradicted his image as the king of romance. It concluded that “Kfoury’s claims in the interview reflect the gap between his life as a musician and his personal life.”
On the other hand, music critic Jamil Daher rode to his defense on Al Arabiya: “He has one of the most beautiful voices in the Arab world and his personal love life does not have to align with the themes in his songs. Just as an actor plays the role of a criminal but isn’t an actual criminal, so the expectation on Kfoury to sing the praises of love in an interview is just unfair,” he said.
Things got even worse for Kfoury after Bishara claimed in an interview that he had physically abused her. Things came to a head when recordings of the conversations between Kfoury and Bishara’s lawyer were leaked. In them, the lawyer was heard speaking to Kfoury in a derogatory manner, cursing him and his family. Those words sparked outrage among the residents of Zahlé, who took to the streets and hung banners in support of the singer. For his part, Kfoury kept his silence until the situation had calmed down and the divorce was quietly finalized.
Since the divorce, Kfoury’s name has also been linked with various female Lebanese singers, including Nawal El Zoghbi and Maya Diab. The most prominent is the singer Elissa, who was his best friend for years, though their relationship deteriorated after he married Bishara in 2011. In interviews during those years, Elissa was asked more than once what happened to their friendship and she elegantly evaded it, answering that Kfoury was still “very close to my heart, and I love him.”
Since the divorce and the rekindling of their own friendship, the Arab media has been abuzz over the question of whether the two are having an affair. Kfoury and Elissa have neither confirmed nor denied the rumors, but have appeared together dozens of times at public events, and recently even performed together on stage.
Despite the recurring storms in his private life, one thing is certain: Kfoury has managed to maintain his image as the king of romance in the Arab music world, never deviating from the style he first developed in the ’90s. There is one noticeable change, though: In his latest music video, Kfoury is, unusually, seen standing alone without any prominent female presence around him.
Despite the scandals that have enveloped him in recent years, Kfoury’s image has not really been harmed. On the contrary. It is clear that, to a certain degree, his image has become more nuanced, a level of complexity added. And for many young people, who devotedly listen to his songs just as much as their parents do, it seems that Kfoury touched on a social taboo and identified the paradoxes intertwined in marriage.
Furthermore, he gave his fans the opportunity to reflect and talk about it. The vulnerability he expressed to the Arab public has actually made him even more admired – the model of a new Arab masculinity that is not afraid to talk about love, and even about being hurt by it.