Abdu Daghir: Love, trees, the Nile and Egypt's soil
On making ouds and playing violins
Profile by Pierre Loza
A German journalist once described him as "a musician from the nation of the Qur'an, possessed by the spirits of classical greats such as Bach, Verdi and Mozart". Dressed, more often than not, in a galabiya and a woollen robe, Abdu Daghir is a simple man with a violin that has established him internationally as a soloist and composer. Illiterate in both written language and music, Daghir has broken the barriers of convention, playing, from a vast memory base, music that is distinctly Egyptian in its cultural identity.
Music lovers from all corners of the globe gather in his Hadayik Al-Qubba home to learn, play, record or just listen to his music. In his small, Arabesque-style living or, rather, music room, Oriental instruments are scattered alongside photographs of Daghir's career. A deeply pious man with liberal leanings, Daghir jams almost daily with anyone from violin students to post-doctoral musicians. The jam sessions usually last from dusk until the following morning, in time for Daghir to observe dawn prayer. The room is a musical shrine in which colours, languages and cultures melt together under an umbrella of unified belief. Within these walls there is a shared belief in Daghir's technique, amazing speed and raw musical talent.
Daghir hails from a musical family, proprietors of a number of music schools in the Gharbiya governorate. He was born in 1936 in the Egyptian Delta town of Damietta during one of his father's seasonal teaching tours. Ironically, his father was completely opposed to his having anything to do with music. "He didn't want me to be a musician, so I wouldn't suffer the way he did for music's sake. He wanted me to be in a stable job, like a lawyer for example, or a doctor," he says.
Lifting up his pyjama trousers Daghir exposes ancient welts on his shin caused by his father's wrath over his musical aspirations. Taking it lightly, he chuckles about being beaten for trying to play music. "My father was very tough. Everyone feared him. I used to run away from school to go and play music, then sleep at my uncles' or aunts' houses because I knew if I went home I'd get beaten."
Perhaps through eavesdropping on his father in his early childhood, Daghir taught himself to play the oud (Oriental lute) and then moved on to his true passion, the violin. As young as 11 he was performing with musical groups which travelled throughout Egypt playing at mawalid (local saints' festivals). Growing up with the awalim (performing troupes), he speaks with disapproval of how the Egyptian cinema has portrayed them -- as a morally corrupt group of vagrants.
"In the old days only talented and capable people would enter the arts, and the awalim were true artists who enriched people's lives," he says.
"Singers like Huda Sultaan, Mohamed Fawzi, Mohamed Qandeel and even the comedian Ismail Yassin came from the awalim."
Daghir maintains, however, that what most influenced him musically was his experience of Sufi religious music and with the mubtahilin (religious chanters devoted to the Prophet Mohamed).
Daghir recalled wearily how he was only able to sneak home when his father was not there.
"One day he came home and saw me sleeping, and this time he kicked my mother out with me." He pauses. "That was the reason he actually divorced her. I was 13 and forced to support my mother as well as myself."
At the time they were living in Tanta. Daghir remembers the town in the 1940s as a living music factory bubbling with culture, tolerance, and diversity.
"In those days people were beautiful; Jews, Christians, and Muslims were all living together in harmony. It was beautiful," he repeats. Tanta at the time was home to a large European community which organised church concerts and brought musicians from around the world to Egypt.
"As young as 13, I would get a special front row seat at such events because these people believed I had potential," he says.
At one of these church events Daghir had a musical experience that affected him intensely: he saw the Italian violinist David Osra perform. "When I heard him I thought he wasn't human and I asked a music instructor, Ahmed Ghoneim, if he was like the rest of us. He said, if you want to you can play even better than him. From that time on I challenged myself to reach that level of technique."
Starting his journey in Cairo in 1954, he worked as an assistant oud craftsman for a relative, Mohamed El-Hifnawi, father of the late Ahmed El-Hifnawi, a famous violinist of that era who performed in Umm Kulthoum's band. "At that time, I wasn't established in Cairo and I didn't have the heart to go asking for work in the musicians' café because in Tanta I had been a king," Daghir says.
By mere coincidence Daghir worked again as an oud craftsman in a music shop in front of the Tigara, a well known musicians' café on Mohamed Ali Street, Cairo's then musical hub.
"One night I took the violin and started playing my pieces and the whole café crossed the street to listen to me playing, and the shop was upside down with people. From that day on I started being sought after on the Cairo music scene."
The seal of Daghir's recognition as a violinist came in 1960 when he was approached by the composer Mohamed El- Asabgi to join Umm Kulthoum's troupe. Initially he refused to avoid competing with his relative Ahmed El-Hifnawi, but he finally consented after El-Hifnawi personally invited him to join the band. Daghir's entrance into Umm Kulthoum's entourage also marked an increase in the pay of all her musicians, because he simply asked for more money. "No one would dare talk to her about such a thing, and all the musicians thought I was crazy," Daghir says, recalling a rugged boldness he has not quite lost.
After seven years with Umm Kulthoum, Daghir pitched an idea to then Minister of Culture Tharwat Okasha: the creation of Egypt's first oriental band. The idea was to form a group dedicated to preserving Egyptian traditional musical heritage The band, Firqat Al-Musiqa Al-Arabiya, united Daghir with maestro and old friend Abdel-Halim Nuweira. The band performed a traditional musical repertoire at the Balloon Theatre until Nuweira died in 1972.
After Nuweira's death Daghir found himself alienated from the Culture Ministry's musical establishment. "I was told to go home because the band did not need a solo violinist. I left the band when I was 45 years old," he says bitterly.
His blunt character and sharp criticism of the government's domination over the arts has often singled him out as a musical outcast.
While receiving rave reviews, concert tours and wide acclaim in Europe, Daghir's performances in Egypt are much less frequent, giving him a much lesser degree of prominence in Egypt than abroad. "I am isolated by the media here because I say what I believe," he says. After leaving Firqat Al- Musiqa Al-Arabiya, Daghir abandoned his violin for 17 years, making a living as an oud craftsman.
"At that stage I had no hope in music. I didn't even touch the violin," he says.
Daghir's luck took a drastic turn in 1990 when prominent German oud player Roman Bunka came to Cairo in search of quality instruments. Directed to Mohamed Ali Street, Bunka was swarmed by vendors who offered him nothing but disappointment in the quality of Egyptian ouds. On the advice of a shop owner Bunka went to Daghir's house for the quality ouds he was looking for.
"When he began testing the oud I noticed that he was playing my stuff, but not the right way, so I told him he was playing it the wrong way," he recalled with a wide grin. In obvious disbelief, Bunka threw the oud into Daghir's lap and asked him to play it the right way.
"After his experience with the salesmen in Mohamed Ali Street, I think he thought all Egyptians were con artists. So I said OK, wait, and I took the violin and played with a bunch of my buddies that were around that night. After listening to me his face turned red with excitement and he started hugging me, he was so happy. He didn't want to leave."
It turned out that Bunka had heard Daghir's music in Germany a few years before his Cairo visit, without knowing its source. A German journalist who had recorded the music had sent it to a few music schools.
Bunka repeated the visit the following year, this time bringing with him a German documentary film director. On arrival the director set about making a documentary called The Oud, which included the life and work of Abdu Daghir. The film was a critical success, winning an award at the Chicago Film Festival and bringing Abdu Daghir his first invitation for a European tour. The 1992 tour to Holland, Austria and Germany took Daghir by complete surprise. He couldn't even fathom out why something so big would be organised for his sake.
"I thought it was probably some Arab sheikh throwing a party at his home who would fly a few entertainers over at his expense," he said.
On arrival Daghir did not know what to expect. "In Austria I walked inside this huge black auditorium and my photograph was everywhere. I was shaking with fear; I've never been honoured so much, not even in my own country," he said with a hint of cynicism. "After we had performed the first piece there was a ten-minute standing ovation; it was as if the theatre was raining with applause. I couldn't believe it: I thought that these people never listened to Arabic music, and yet they just would not let us get off stage." From 1992 onwards, Daghir became a regular performer at European concerts and music festivals, and has also held a number of workshops in some of Europe's most prestigious music schools, communicating his techniques vocally.
Daghir's life story has recently appeared in print. Entitled The Pearl Fishers, it was written by Egyptian novelist Khairi Shalabi. Daghir was, however, unhappy with parts of the story line, claiming that the author had made a number of exaggerations that had nothing to do with reality.
"He says that the woman I loved had a chauffeur. In those days you were lucky if you a had a donkey cart," he laughs.
Daghir derives much inspiration from his religious identity as a Muslim, regarding spiritual expression as a major component of his compositions.
"I believe that melodic intonation began with the Qur'an, because Qur'anic verses came to us in melodic form," he says. One of few artists to incorporate spirituality into musical form, Daghir relates his musical memory base to the tradition of Qur'anic memorisation. When asked about the importance of financial stability, material disregard seems to be the overriding aesthetic: "I have always lived a simple life. What would I do with money; own a building like the one I live in? I'd rather keep it as a thawaab (charity home) instead of butchering people for money."
At 68 Daghir is still inspired by "love, trees, the Nile and Egypt's soil". "All I wish is to see the next generation grow up cultured and raised properly. Everything comes with diligence; if you work diligently God will give you back what you put in. I am 68 and I am thankful for the ability to sit with my instrument for five, six, seven hours straight. That is my gift from God."