Al-Ahram Weekly Online   15 - 21 March 2007
Issue No. 836
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Secrets of endurance

Born a century ago on this day, Sayed Darwish continues to stir that purely Egyptian passion: Rania Khallaf celebrates the master's legacy

Sayed Darwish

During his short but turbulent life, Sayed Darwish (1893-1923), the founder of modern Arabic music, produced 22 operettas, 50 taktoukas, 17 muashahhs, and more than 200 plays. A rebellious spirit who died of an overdose of cocaine, he broke with the norms of the then-predominating classical forms of music and songs derived from Turkish culture. His songs were for, and about, ordinary people; many of them, like "Rise, Egyptian", expressed the spirit of 1919 Revolution, led by the great nationalist Saad Zaghloul.

A comprehensive website on Darwish's life and work was launched last year to commemorate the day of his departure. The idea of the web site was first adopted by Afaf Masha'al, a fan. With the technical help provided to her by Hassan El-Bahr, the older grandson of Darwish, the site is arguably the most comprehensive and technically developed on Darwish.

Darwish's singular achievement is that he produced so much groundbreaking music in just 15 years. Ironically the Alexandria Opera House, known as the Sayed Darwish Theater, though renovated last year at a cost of LE 25 million, hardly ever presents his music; nor do most musical institutes include his work on their curricula.

It was rather through individual initiative that a composer whose work largely defines national consciousness should be so neglected. One such endeavour was the founding of a band named Alexandrella, made up of young people who perform the work of Darwish and Sheikh Imam Eissa -- the left-wing oppositional composer associated with the Student Movement and vernacular poet Ahmed Fouad Negm. Their work on Darwish confirmed his enduring power and the public's passion for him as "the people's artist". Alexandrella perform mostly at Al-Sawi Cultural Wheel and the Geneina Theatre, while the Sayed Darwish Choir, another such initiative, performs in Alexandria.

"I have been in love with Darwish's music since I was a teenager," explains Masha'al, an enthusiastic middle-aged woman. "I believe Darwish is still the number one artist in the hearts of all Egyptians. My daughter's membership in the Alexandria- based Sayed Darwish Ensemble brought to my attention just how many of his songs are unknown. So I decided to surf the net and find out about them. There are 25 websites on Darwish, but none offers much more than very basic information. It was then that I decided to talk to Hassan El-Bahr about a comprehensive website. El-Bahr provided me with all the original material I needed, including archives, studies and very rare personal photos. Still, I knew nothing about setting up a website, but I decided to start from the scratch and study web authoring so I could do it all myself."

She spent nearly 18 months collecting the material, and it paid off, with an astounding range of information covering Darwish's life, travels, musical notation, lyrics, references and coworkers like Ali El-Kassar, Munira El-Mahdiya and Badie' Khairy.

It distresses Masha'al that the Ministry of Culture persists in ignoring Darwish: "At least a festival bearing his name could be held annually in Kom Al-Dekka." But she is hopeful that the website will be sponsored by the Ministry of Culture or the Opera House. "I am very sorry that his music is not even available on CDs or cassettes -- so many young people know nothing about Darwish's musical heritage." She promised, in addition, that a revival of the Sayed Darwish Friends Society is due.

Masha'al's site is

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