Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
4 - 10 November 1999
Issue No. 454
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Sabah Fakhri

Sabah Fakhri:

Straight to the heart

Profile by Fayza Hassan

Perhaps there is music that speaks to the soul

Front Page

A few years ago, while visiting Aleppo with friends, we went to visit the Citadel of Salaheddin, a monument in which the inhabitants of this romantic city take great, and entirely justified, pride. Not unlike our own citadel, it appears as a steep stone structure, towering over the large avenue, lined with coffee shops and leafy trees, which leads up to the covered market. We climbed the winding stone-paved alley, intending to reach the top of the monolith, but half way through, my daughter and her friends stopped at a souvenir shop. Seconds later they bolted out excitedly, waving a leaflet and shouting that Sabah Fakhri was giving a concert at the Citadel that very evening, an opportunity not to be missed. I had never heard of Sabah Fakhri before, and, misled by the name, thought at first that he was in fact a woman. Fortunately, long experience with the sarcasm favoured by young adults warned me not to let on that I did not have a clue what the fuss was all about and I declared emphatically that I was prepared to kill, if need be, in order to attend the show.

We acquired the tickets and waited impatiently for the evening. When we arrived at 8.00pm sharp and reached the top of the Citadel, where the theatre was located, it looked deserted; a very few people - mainly young women and children - were sitting on the stone tiers of the large amphitheatre. I had finally gathered from the girls' chatter that Sabah Fakhri was a famous male singer, that Aleppo was his birthplace and the Citadel his favourite venue. During the following hour, families trickled in, at first slowly, many carrying picnic baskets; then they started to come in droves. Soon there was not the smallest space available and ushers were running around madly, checking tickets and setting extra chairs in every nook and cranny. This, I was led to understand, happened every time Fakhri gave a concert in his native town. He had never sung to less than a full house in Aleppo.

Our tickets entitled us to seats near the very top of the structure and, from our perch, I could hardly make out the small stage down below. It remained empty for quite some time, then the musicians began to arrive, bearing their traditional instruments. Since I am less than an expert on Arabic music, I was proud to recognise a qanoun, several ouds and a couple of tablas. The orchestra was composed of few members, and the sound equipment was nowhere to be seen. I resigned myself to not hearing as well as not seeing, all in the name of self-abnegation and being a good sport, and concentrated instead on my immediate neighbours, who were excitedly perusing the programme, shouting to friends at the other end of the row that two of their favourite songs were missing. Would he be singing Mal Al-Sham (The Fortune of Syria)? they asked each other. "Of course he will," said someone. "Sabah Fakhri sings Mal Al-Sham at every one of his concerts. It is his most famous song."

It was already 9.00pm by then, but the singer's tardiness did not seem to bother the spectators. They had unwrapped their provisions and were snacking happily. Abruptly, an ominous silence fell over the rowdy public. They must have sensed something that I didn't grasp. Sure enough, down there on the stage, a rather rotund man of somewhat diminutive stature had appeared from nowhere. He stared at the crowd for a while, then strolled slowly towards the musicians, with whom he unhurriedly exchanged a few words. They put away the bottles of water from which they had been sipping, regained their places and began adjusting their instruments. Finally the show seemed about to begin.

Sabah Fakhri, dressed in a dark suit and tie and looking more like a businessman than my idea of an adulated star, grabbed the old-fashioned microphone, unravelling its cord as he measured his steps around the stage; then, without warning, his voice soared towards the skies. It was strong and pure and very distinctive. There is no way one can ever confuse his voice with anyone else's after hearing him even once. It bestows on listeners one of these rare moments of grace during which they are confronted with perfection. The singer, at one with his musicians, was transubstantiated: they formed an uncorrupted composition, an entirely harmonious whole. This kind of music does not touch the intellect, but something far more primordial. It is as pure and nostalgic as the sound of the nay in the twilight, or a call to prayer at dawn.

The public, putting aside their half-eaten sandwiches, were gently swaying to the rhythm; the women, pinching the ends of their knotted scarves between two fingers, made graceful motions with their arms, repeating Ah, Ya Leil, Ya Leil and Aman, Aman almost secretly, lost in another world; the men and children - many in their mothers' arms - were dancing in the aisles. The songs came cascading up towards us, one after the other, at times flowing tenderly, at others picking up speed and rising higher and higher, with Fakhri barely stopping to take a breath. He seemed possessed. The concert lasted more than four hours, at the end of which the singer, as if in a trance, began to twirl to the music, faster and faster, not unlike a zikr performer, bringing the audience's enthusiasm to a paroxysm.

As we began to file out of the Citadel, I realised that I had clapped my hands and stomped my feet, nodded my head, hummed and screamed like everybody else. I felt exhausted, and observed that many of the children who had leapt about forcefully during the whole performance were now being carried away half-asleep, heads lolling on their parents' shoulders.

This was the first time I had heard Sabah Fakhri. His interpretation of Keid Al-Awazil (literally: the spite of those who want to keep us apart) had bowled me over. Many connoisseurs favour Lutfi Bushnaq's version over Fakhri's, but having heard the latter that night at the Citadel, I will always disagree.

Sabah Fakhri has performed several times in Cairo in the past few years but unfortunately I have never managed to attend any of his concerts. Last month, however, there was a rumour that he would be singing at the Cairo International Conference Centre (CICC). At the last minute, the concert was cancelled, without clear explanations. I was quite upset by the contretemps, especially since now I had an additional reason to want to hear him again. In anticipation of the concert, I had been listening to the recordings of his songs I had bought in Aleppo. One day, the cleaning woman came into the room as Sabah's voice floated out of the tape recorder and hovered somewhere near the ceiling, unadulterated by the poor quality of the recording. Although she stood at the door, I sensed that she was listening to the music and could see her body moving almost imperceptibly to the rhythm. "You are listening to real music," she told me admiringly, her eyes shining, "not like those wild screams I have to put up with when I ride the microbus. My children say this is the new fashion, but I hate it." I was rather impressed by this unexpected manifestation of musical appreciation and asked her if she had heard of the singer (whose tapes are not readily available in the popular music shops) or knew the song. "No," she said simply, "but his voice speaks to my heart."

A few weeks later, Fakhri came to Cairo on a short visit. I went to meet him at the hotel where he was still staying for a couple of hours before flying on to another assignment. He was dressed once more in a formal suit and tie, and welcomed us very formally. He struck me as someone who was not ready to let outsiders into his private territory. I was a little taken aback at first by his habit of talking about himself as if he were someone else, regularly referring to himself as "Sabah Fakhri". I knew that he was in Cairo with his wife, and we could hear her moving about in the bedroom of the suite, but she did not come out to join us. In the course of the conversation, Fakhri mentioned that he came from a very traditional background and I realised then that the presence of a gentleman, introduced as the head of the Sabah Fakhri Cairo Fan Club, was probably the reason why she did not make an appearance in the small anteroom where we were meeting her husband.

Since I knew that Fakhri was returning to Cairo in November to take part in the Arabic Music Festival at the Cairo Opera House, I was rather curious as to the reason of his early and unofficial visit. Visibly ill at ease on the small chair he had pulled from the corner to let us have the more comfortable sofa, he had not seemed in a very talkative mood. As soon as I mentioned his unpublicised presence, though, he smiled and began to open up. "It is the children," he said. "Do you know how many millions of children are starving in the world today? I am a good-will ambassador for the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), and travel the world over on fund-raising missions. I sing at special charity events and gala performances, the proceeds of which go to aid the children of famine-stricken areas, and I actively encourage Arab artists to give freely of their time and talent to the cause. Yesterday I attended the fund-raising function for which I came to Cairo: an auction organised by FAO that took place here at the hotel. I was able to contribute with my modest resources." Fakhri had donated a precious oud bearing his name to be auctioned off and I understood that it had been sold for several thousand pounds. "If we receive a God-given gift," he remarked quietly, "it is only right that we put it to use in the service of humanity." He returned several times to the topic of hungry children, which was obviously very much on his mind, in the course of our interview.

As a child, Fakhri himself was spared a life of hardship. He was born in Aleppo in 1933, to a well-to-do, very religious and conservative family, who doted on him and recognised his talent very early. When he was still in the cradle, he recounts, his maternal uncle heard him cry once and commented on the musical quality of his sobs. Soon his mother noticed that her son would only begin to wail wholeheartedly whenever her brother visited, and commented that the infant never stirred on other occasions. Receiving no satisfactory answer from her brother, she was intrigued, and followed him one day as he leaned over the crib. She saw him swiftly pinch the little sleeper, who awoke with a start and expressed his protests vociferously. "I was a very quiet baby," says Fakhri with a smile, "and my uncle had to resort to this artifice to hear me cry."

Like most people of their social milieu, the Fakhris lived in a hosh, a large apartment complex shared by several families, one family to a room, who all entertained friendly relationships with each other. The women sang as they washed the family's clothes, cooked the meals and did chores. They sang to put their young children to sleep, then sat singing together, sometimes accompanying themselves on the oud or the doff, when the dinner was ready and the men had not yet returned. As a little boy, Fakhri found his place in the women's circle and joined in the merrymaking. He soon learned the women's favourite tunes and fell in love with the voice of Umm Kulthoum, who has remained his favourite female singer throughout his life.

In his home there were musical instruments and a gramophone on which the family listened to the most famous Qur'an reciters and the traditional singers of the day. The reading of the Qur'an was at the centre of the small boy's life from the very beginning. Having a beautiful voice was a gift used first and foremost to perform a harmonious rendition of the verses of the Holy Book and from early childhood, Fakhri's voice seemed to have destined him to the performance of this sacred duty. There were never any questions as to what his future would be. It was acknowledged that he would have a musical career.

Fakhri mastered the difficult art of Qur'an reading when he was six, he says, and when the time came was enrolled first at the Academy of Arabic Music of Aleppo and later at the Academy of Damascus, from which he graduated in 1948, having studied the intricacies of traditional Arabic music including oud and qanoun playing, modes, rhythm, composition, musical theory, musical scales and the techniques of Qur'an reading. "I came out of the academy with a full musical education," he states firmly, implying that a solid formal background is the indispensable basis on which to develop one's musical talent.

Fakhri was born a year after the 1932 Congress of Arabic Music of Cairo, at a time when the genre was experiencing a vigorous revival. He is proud to have studied under masters like Ali Al-Darwish, Omar Al-Batsh, Magdi Al-Aqili, Aziz Ghannam, and Mohamed Ragab. He has performed in every Arab country and taken part in every Arabic Music Festival since he graduated. Among his Western experiences, he likes to dwell on the special festive event organised by UCLA in his honour, his recital at the Nobel Hall for Peace in Sweden and another event in Bonn, where he was invited to perform at the Beethoven Hall. When I mentioned the rather lengthy performance in Aleppo, Fakhri indicated that this had been a very "average" concert and pointed out that his name is enshrined in the Guinness Book of Records for his prowess in Caracas, where he sang for 10 hours without a pause.

Fakhri takes music seriously: his intransigence was the reason for the cancellation of the concert at the CICC. "The acoustics were all wrong," he explains. "This is a conference centre, not a concert hall, and there is a big difference. As you may have noticed, I do not use voice-enhancing equipment like other singers. What you hear is my voice and the music of traditional instruments, which has not changed over the years. My ouds are of the old-fashioned variety and, between you and me, I find the microphone unnecessary." He leans over suddenly and there is a twinkle in his eyes as if he were preparing to tell a good joke. "I was travelling on a plane with Madonna once," he whispers, "and do you know, she had five tons of voice-enhancing equipment, no less." He chuckles gleefully, then regains his formal composure: "Today, singers do not need to have a voice. All they require is state-of-the art electronic equipment."

His three sons have musical careers: the two older boys have followed in their father's footsteps, but surprisingly, the youngest has a rock and roll band. Isn't Fakhri upset about it? On the contrary, he says; his son makes excellent music. "Maybe I'll join him in concert one day."

photo: Randa Shaath

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