Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
21 - 27 October 1999
Issue No. 452
Published in Cairo by Al-Ahram established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

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A Diwan of contemporary life (308)

At the turn of the century, there was palpable concern over what was becoming of Arab music, particularly the extent by which invading foreign influences were damaging the art. Worry over the fate of the melody propelled the issue forward, creating what was soon to become a turning point in the revival of Arabic music: the Oriental Music Club, an amalgam of lovers of the fine arts dedicated to preserving the heritage of song. Surprisingly, despite this noble endeavour, the club provided ammunition for critics whose complaints ranged from the price of tickets to the site where the proposed complex would be built. From Al-Ahram, Dr Yunan Labib Rizq * traces the Arab world's high and low notes

Music to Arab ears

In 1901, when the famous 19th century Egyptian singer, Abduh El-Hamuli, died, Al-Hilal wrote: "If he had studied music in Europe and had abandoned singing for composition he would have spared us the grief over the loss of this craft amongst us. He would have helped relieve us of the task of making Arabic music an independent art form with its own set standards, thereby contributing to the preservation of Arabic songs in accordance with fixed rules of musical notation."

If these are curious sentiments for an article akin to an obituary, they nevertheless expressed the commonly held fear that, with the death of perhaps the most famous voice of the preceding century, the state of music was in peril. Later the same year, the magazine reiterated the danger more explicitly, writing: "It is no exaggeration to describe Arabic music today as pure chaos. It is in dire need of codification and regulation so as to render it commensurate to this age and contemporary needs. Arab music has become strongly affected by foreign influences with entire songs translated and converted into Arabic. In addition, many modern songs composed today have introduced new and unheard of styles. This is particularly the case in Egypt where different peoples of diverse languages and national origins have brought with them forms of music that conform with their native disposition. These are the causes of the corruption of Arabic music, or at least that have played a contributing role."

Undoubtedly the fear of Arabic music degenerating was behind the move, in the first decade of this century, to explore its history and foundations. By the second decade, this activity generated an interest in creating what was to become a landmark in the revival of Arabic music: the Oriental Music Club.

Many of the early 20th century studies on the history of Arabic music made their way into the Egyptian press. There was a general consensus among musical scholars that Arabic music reached its highest point of maturity in the Abbasid era. It was at this point that rules and standards for musical composition were established and "Arabic music established itself as an independent genre". One reason Arabic music flourished during this period was that it received the patronage of the Abbasid court. The celebrated caliph, Haroun Al-Rashid, according to one article, "brought musicians to the court creating a large assembly of musical talent. Among the most illustrious of court musicians was Ibrahim El-Mawsuli, to whom we owe credit for founding a system for the precise classification of Arabic songs. Before El-Mawsuli, singers could only distinguish between sedate, grave, moderate and light and they would use their fingertips to indicate the notes on a scale."

Not only did the Abbasid era give rise to a burgeoning musical form and style, but also brought into focus the art of musicology. One study that appeared in the Egyptian press listed some of the many early scholastic works on this art. The list included "a book on musical metre and a book on melody written by El-Khalil bin Ahmed El-Farahidi in the second century in the hijra calendar [eighth century AD]. In the third century [9th century AD], Ibn El-Awraa' composed a book of songs and Ishaq bin Ibrahim El-Mawsuli compiled a collection of his own works, a history of the songs composed by Caliph El-Wathiq as well as his El-Kitab El-Kibir lil-Aghani [The Large Book of Songs]. Also in this century, Yaqoub bin Ishaq El-Kindi authored six works on musical composition and the order of vocal ranges, and Ahmed bin Mohamed bin Marwan El-Sarkhadi composed six works on music. Then, the fourth century [10th century AD] brought Abul-Farag bin Hussein El-Asbahani, author of the famous Kitab Al-Aghani [Book of Songs], as well as Mohamed bin Zakariya El-Razi and Abu El-Nasr Mohamed bin Tarkhan El-Farabi, both of whom composed important works on the various branches of music."

Egyptian newspapers were also quick to laud the publication of several "meticulous" works on Arabic music. A major exponent of early 20th century Arabic musicology was Kamel El-Khalie who, in collaboration with Idris Bek Ragheb, produced Oriental Music in 1906. This work, writes an Al-Ahram review, "contains an invaluable introduction that discusses the nature of music and commonly held opinions about music. It also treats the physical properties of the vocal apparatus as described by natural scientists and the methods of measuring the voice, as well as the Arab and European musical scales and the ratios between their respective intervals." Al-Ahram was particularly impressed by the chapter on musical instruments. El-Khalie held that the oud was "unanimously considered the sultan of musical instruments". According to the author, "two outstanding oud performers of our times in Egypt are Ahmed Effendi El-Leithi and Mahmoud Effendi El-Gumrukshi. El-Leithi, in particular, is reputed for his versatility and the nimbleness of his strumming technique." Egyptians, he says, developed the practice of stringing the oud with five pairs of strings "so as to create a deeper and more resonating sound". He adds that many princes and leaders have taken up the oud "in order to entertain themselves and their guests". This, however, by no means detracted from their stature. Indeed, many caliphs had mastered the oud, such as Yazid bin Abdel-Malak, Muslima Abdel-Malak and Ibrahim bin El-Mahdi, "who was endowed with a beautiful voice and a masterful proficiency in this art".

The author of Oriental Music also devoted a lengthy portion to the qanun and other Arabic instruments. In addition, he compiled hundreds of muwashshahat, metrical songs, and presented biographies of numerous, famous oriental musicians, "complete with photographs and lists of their compositions".

Sheikh Darwish Mustafa El-Hariri
Mohamed Awad El-Arabi
Mustafa El-Aqqad
Mohamed El-Bahr
Anisa El-Masriya and Nabawiya
Given this intense enthusiasm for exploring the origins of Arabic music, it is not surprising to see the formation of the Oriental Music Club, later to be called the National Institute for Music. On hand to cover its opening in December 1913, Al-Ahram announced that "devotees of the fine arts, inspired by the need to revive the art of music in Egypt, have established a National Institute for Music and elected an 18-member board of directors". The names and titles of these members do indeed prove that they were drawn from the upper echelons of society. The board of directors of the new institute included three pashas (Hussein Wasef, Ahmed Shafiq and Farid Yazughli), four beks (Michel Lutfallah, Idris Ragheb, Mohamed Khurshid and Mustafa Rida), not to mention quite a few foreigners. As though the stature of these individuals alone was not sufficient to give the new institute the desired respectability, the khedive himself "lent his name to the support of the music institute", as Al-Ahram announced on 13 May 1914.

Shortly after the announcement, however, Egypt, along with the rest of the world, became embroiled in World War I. Shortly following the war, the country was swept into the turbulence of the mass uprising that has become known as the 1919 Revolution. There was thus a six-year hiatus before further news was heard about the new music institute. And when the news did arrive, it carried a new punch, undoubtedly influenced by the spirit that gave rise to the revolution. Thus, Mohamed Tawfiq Diab, writing in Al-Ahram on 5 May 1920, declared that "the revival of Arabic music is a sacred duty". Continuing in this vein, the well-known critic asserted, "We must develop an Egyptian oriental music. However, we do not want to stop where Abduh El-Hamuli left off. We must take our musical heritage forward with new forms that are consistent with our modern revival." At the same time, we learn from Diab's article that neither wartime circumstances nor the 1919 Revolution prevented the founders of the Oriental Music Club from promoting their nascent institute. "They continue to make their way from success to success. The many musicians who now count among the institute's members grace every national charity fête and, in so volunteering their services, the only reward they ask is the nation's support for the art of music. These selfless musicians do not seek wealth, luxury or fame; they are content in their dedication to their splendid art."

Al-Ahram, for its part, spearheaded the campaign to enjoin influential personalities to contribute to the construction of a home for the new club. The government had already granted a plot of land "in the finest location in the city". The new building would be situated within a spacious garden in which there would be an open-air auditorium "of the finest design". Moreover, the new premises "will provide our emerging youth and all Egyptians a pleasant habitat in which they can relax to the strains of music, contemplate the flowers and greenery and partake of refreshments". However, the newspaper is quick to add, "gambling will be strictly prohibited".

In the interval between the founding of the Oriental Music Club in 1913 and the resumption of press coverage of its activities, its director changed. Its first director, Hussein Wassef Pasha, was a devotee of Arabic music who was able to use his social standing to promote the new institute. His successor, Mustafa Bek Rida, was also socially eminent in addition to being a professional musician, a combination that was certain to give the music institute clear direction. It was thus Rida Bek who, toward the end of June 1920, launched a fund-raising drive for the new building. One logical activity toward this end was to host "splendid evening concerts featuring all the master musicians and vocalists".

Al-Ahram offers a detailed account of one such event which was attended by "a host of prominent figures, persons of high standing and devotees of music, foremost among whom was the chief chamberlain as the representative of His Royal Highness the Sultan". The concert opened with the royal anthem, followed by the Oriental Music Club's anthem, which was jointly composed and performed on string instruments by 20 of the club's members. "Then appearing on stage were the sons of Mahmoud Khayrat Effendi -- Abu Bakr, Omar, Othman and Ali -- who were accompanied by some members of the club in their performance of the Izzelddine march. The audience was delighted with their mastership of the violin, especially in view of their young age, and gave them a long and enthusiastic round of applause. There then followed a succession of musical pieces testifying to the superb talents of the club's director and its members. So impressed was the audience that it cried out for encores."

Casino Saint Stephano in Alexandria was the venue for a second fund-raising show several months later. Again, according to Al-Ahram, the evening was a great success. "The Oriental Music Club members gave virtuoso performances unlike any ever seen before. Their original compositions for solo and combined instruments were greatly moving."

The evenings hosted by the Oriental Music Club prompted considerable comment in the press, if only because they were quite unlike the traditional takht performances that had been prevalent until then. The takht was a small ensemble consisting of two to five instruments that would accompany a solo vocalist. One Al-Ahram reader, Hassan Hitta, reflected the general enthusiasm for the new-style concerts in a letter to the head of the Oriental Music Club. He was particularly impressed that the head of the institute, himself "condescended" to perform and was struck by the fact that when the audiences shouted out for encores they addressed him as "bek" instead of "osta", or master, the traditional term of address for a takht musician.

The charity drives also succeeded in generating publicity for the club's other activities, one of which was public lectures. On this subject Hitta was critical. After attending a lecture by Hassan Anwar, one of the club's members, he complained that the lecture was too technical and too far above the heads of a lay audience. On the other hand, he suggested that the club could render an important service to music lovers "by engaging teachers under the club's auspices to teach music appreciation to amateurs".

Responding to Hitta's letter, the head of the Oriental Music Club took the occasion to remind Al-Ahram about the purpose of the club's activities. The club's primary aim, he wrote, was "to keep alive the songs of our recent predecessors, for were it not for our efforts this heritage would become extinct and give way entirely to the vulgar music that has emerged of late." He then notifies readers that the club will be sponsoring "a grand concert" of traditional Arabic music in the Royal Opera House. The event is certainly one to look forward to, he writes, "for the members of the club, who come from the most distinguished families, will be vying to outdo one another in their musical and vocal artistry." Moreover, these members had not only volunteered their time to perform "out of their dedication to the revival of oriental music". They were also keen "to lend their support to constructing a home for the club, which, God willing, will become an institute for music that will protect amateurs and devotees of music from all pitfalls".

The event took place, as planned, on 24 March 1922. The most outstanding performances in the opinion of Al-Ahram, were the selection of pieces for the qanun played by the head of the music club, Mustafa Rida, and a dramatic musical piece arranged and composed by Abdallah Shadad Effendi. "The evening concluded in an atmosphere of contentment one rarely experiences in other concerts."

However, rather than putting to rest reservations about the club's activities, the Opera House concert increased further faultfinding, this time voiced by Fikri Abaza, a lawyer who had been a regular contributor to Al-Ahram for three years. Abaza admits, tongue firmly in cheek, that it was his intent to critique the concert, "but only in the lightest of tones, for I shall forego that weighty resonation that suits only their great excellencies the ministers." In fact, his "critique" had no bearing on the performances themselves. Rather, he felt, firstly, that the cost of admission was too high -- 100 piastres. Even so, he found the concert hall thoroughly packed, "which suggests that the government is still widely influential, having taking the pains to dispense tickets in the countryside". Yet, he adds, "lest the reader imagine that I paid 100 piastres to get in, I had better confess that God guided me to a village mayor with whom I entered into lengthy negotiations ending in a deal in which I paid a fraction of the original ticket."

Abaza's second criticism concerned the site the government granted for the construction of the music institute. He was shocked when he heard that the cost of the new building would come to LE2,400, an exorbitant sum by the standards of the time. One reason construction costs were so high, he believed, was that the land was located on what had formerly been the Ismailia canal, "which makes the government's gift a gimmick, as has been the case with its gifts in the past and will be in the future." He also found the choice of site distressful "because it is bordered to the south by the Ismailia Road tramway, to the north by the Protestant and Catholic churches, to the east by the defunct Supplies Authority and to the west by the Emergency Care Association". How, he asks acerbically, are the audiences expected to appreciate the mellifluous music offered in the club "if it is to be mingled with the wails of patients being rushed to the emergency care centre and church bells tolling the decease of a loved one? What kind of music can compete with screeching tramways from Abbasiya, Sakakini and Shobra to the left and the banging of the heavy church clock to the right? Imagine an audience preparing itself for a reverent closing number only to have their concentration abruptly snapped by the ding-a-ling of the tram alerting its passengers to the next stop."

Responding to Abaza on behalf of the Oriental Music Club was Sami Nur, who took issue with Abaza's complaint about the cost of admission to the Royal Opera House concert it sponsored. Ticket prices were actually very reasonable, Nur maintained, considering that the proceeds were to go to the philanthropic enterprise of constructing "an edifice dedicated to music that will lift our country's stature as a promoter of this fine art". As for the location of the premises, Nur confessed that it was not the government but the club's board of directors that chose the site, adding that "current circumstances made it impossible to select a better location". The Oriental Music Club member concluded by giving Abaza a taste of his own sarcasm. If we had to meet Abaza's ideal location for music appreciation, he suggested, "we would have to build the premises for the club in the middle of the Great Sahara or the Libyan Desert!"

In spite of -- or perhaps in part because of -- such semi-jocular interludes on the pages of the press, the edifice for the Oriental Music Club did become a reality. The concerts sponsored by the club generated widespread interest, not to mention considerable proceeds, and the press, too, was instrumental in drumming up support. There was also no small number of major benefactors of the likes of Ali Kamel Fahmi who contributed the staggering sum of LE450. The fact, too, that the project enjoyed the sponsorship of Sultan Fouad was guaranteed to ensure its completion.

Yet, this accomplishment would not prevent the emergence of another bone of contention in which the Oriental Music Club would play a role. The same nationalist sentiments that would give rise to a movement to revive traditional Arabic music and, consequently, the creation of the Institute for Arabic Music, also inspired the quest for a national anthem. True, Egypt did have a royal anthem, composed by Verdi no less. However, with all reverence due the great Italian composer, it was felt that Egypt needed an anthem that was more oriental in flavour and more Egyptian in spirit. It is, therefore, not surprising to find that, on 27 November 1920, Al-Ahram dedicated its front page to a study of the history of national anthems. According to the study, the concept of a national anthem emanated from the Orient, although scholars were at odds as to whether it was the ancient Pharaonic or the ancient Indus Valley culture that originated the idea. The article goes on to say that national anthems played an important role in the preservation of national identity. Greek and Bulgarian historians contend that the songs of their forefathers and the chants of legendary heroes held their country together against foreign incursion. The Romans may have occupied Gaul, "but the people of Gaul kept themselves strong through the revival of their war songs and the chant invoking the protection of their native gods". Nor did the writer omit mention of the fact that every Arab tribe had what amounted to its own anthem with which to identify.

A national committee was thus created to select a national anthem. Al-Ahram reports that 56 poets entered the competition sponsored by the committee. Following its deliberations, the panel decided that the entry that "best suited the purpose and met the highest poetic standards" was that submitted by the famous poet Ahmed Shawqi. Evidently, however, the judges felt that they should acknowledge the contribution of Mohamed El-Harawi, "the librarian of the Royal Library", and, therefore, awarded his entry second place. The Oriental Music Club was dissatisfied with both selections. It seems as though the general consensus of the club was that the anthem should strike a Pharaonic theme, and, accordingly, one of its members, Mansour Awwad, came forward with "The Ramses March". If this proposal gave rise to the comment in Al-Ahram that "our national anthem should be dignified in its own right, without the need for drums and trumpets and other such fanfare", it would also signal that the controversy over the national anthem would continue unresolved for some time.

Dr Yunan

* The author is a professor of history
and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.

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