Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 August 2003
Issue No. 651
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Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (507)

Plaintive strains

Dr Yunan The Oriental Music Conference of 1932 spurred serious discussions of Oriental music on the pages of Al-Ahram. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* reviews the debates

The Oriental Music Conference, held in Cairo from 28 March to 3 April 1932, proved occasion for music enthusiasts of all shades to write to the press on the history, current state and future of this art. The first to contribute to the debate on the pages of Al-Ahram was an expert on musical composition, Rizqallah Shehata, reputed for his seminal Plaintive Strains in Arab and Western Music. His article appeared several months before the conference began and offered an insightful and stimulating survey of the history of music.

Citing the Western musicologist Noland Smith, Shehata argued that Western music had its origins in Egypt. Credit for this went to the Greeks who borrowed the rules and principles of music from the Ancient Egyptians and developed them into a fine art, "because they regarded it as the cornerstone of their rites of worship and the first pillar in glorifying their gods".


Click to view caption
Three female musicians playing the harp, the lute and a wind instrument at the funeral banquet of Nakht, a scribe and astronomer in the reigns of Tuthmosis IV and Amenophis II. The 1932 music conference spurred discussions on the Ancient Egyptian origins of music
The Persians, too, adopted the art of music from the Greeks and developed it further. Indeed, it was from Persian that many of the Arabic terms used in Oriental music, such as the various modes girka, sika and higaz, came. However, Shehata frowned on continuing in this tradition and advised, instead, looking to Western music as "the only way to elevate Egyptian music so that it can attain its natural grandeur and prestige". He explained that "Oriental [i.e. Egyptian] music is a beautiful maiden, but dressed in tattered rags, covered in filth and so ill as to be at risk of death. Those who love Egyptian music and fear for its health must cast away that shabby garb and dress it in a new glimmering gown appropriate to our contemporary era and the demands it places on us for advancement, thereby enabling our music to embrace all hearts with lofty lyrics and heavenly melodies."

The forthcoming conference also inspired Mahmoud El-Hanafi to translate into Arabic a study on Oriental music in Egypt, compiled in 1930 by Dr Zachs for the Ministry of Education. The study categorised Egyptian music into the religious: Qur'anic recitation, the call to prayer, dervish music and Coptic liturgical chants; and secular: folk songs, worker and boatmen chants, tribal music, police and military music, coffeehouse and theatre music, and concert music. In the opinion of the German musicologist, Egyptian music is deeply ingrained in the Egyptian soul. Therefore, "we must be extremely cautious not to neglect it in a blind rush to embrace other music that would be incomprehensible here." In the interests of preserving Egypt's musical heritage, Zachs proposed creating a national archive of popular songs which would collect music that had not been registered on phonograph, "such as the songs sung by the elderly, troubadour narratives, worker chants, calls to prayer, Sufi music, village tabla and reed flute troupes, and Bedouin, Nubian and Sudanese tribal music".

While he translated Zachs's article El-Hanafi was in Germany preparing his doctoral thesis. He thus had the good fortune to be able to join the Society for Oriental Music Research, formed in 1931 and headed by Dr Johannes Wolfe, professor of music at the University of Berlin and director of the music department in the National Library. The first activity of the society was to translate a treatise on music by the famous ancient Arab philosopher Al- Kindi, a photograph of whose manuscript had been made available to the society by the London Library. The society then published another musical treatise, with commentary, by Ibn Sina.

Most of those who wrote to Al-Ahram urged restoring Egyptian music to its authentic roots, rather than drawing on other traditions. Expressing this point of view was the newspaper's editorial of 17 March 1932, whose title exhorted "Make our music Egyptian first, before international". Music was originally of two sorts, the article pointed out, either vocal or instrumental; "if Egypt, India and China rivalled one another in the invention of musical instruments, historians nevertheless point to the fact that the first person known to have sung to the accompaniment of musical instruments was Mariam the sister of Moses, after the Hebrews had crossed the Red Sea and arrived safely to the promised land." Historians, therefore, assumed that the instruments the Hebrews used in their music, such as the rababa, zither, reed flute, cymbal and tambourine, were the same as the instruments depicted in Pharaonic reliefs. However, it went on, the Hebrews were not the only people to have adopted their music from the Ancient Egyptians: "The principles of music were also transmitted from Egypt to the land of the Greeks, who, beginning in the sixth century BC, developed music into a fine art and a science. As for the Romans, they took their music directly from Egypt, but did not develop it into an art and science until they conquered Greece."

Turning to contemporary Egyptian music, the music familiar to Al-Ahram readers in the 1930s, the newspaper indicated that it was taken from the Turks who, in turn, took their music from Greece and Persia. This, however, did not mean that Egyptians had not injected "an element of the Egyptian spirit", or that some indigenous music, such as Upper Egyptian ballads, Coptic chants and Sufi refrains were devoid of the makings of art. Unfortunately, however, "no one has given thought to transmitting this music," and, "the same applies to Arabian music, a little of which has been preserved among the Bedouins and which has its particular performers and instruments." The reason for this neglect, Al-Ahram explained, was "because people have trained their sights to the West, whose music they seek to borrow from and emulate".

At this juncture, Archbishop Kirolos Rizq intervened with a study on "shortcomings in Arabic music". The clergyman observed, firstly, that Arabic music was lagging far behind the other arts: "Unlike Western music, which is progressing constantly, Oriental music has barely developed since the last century." Oriental music also lacked harmony, "an important component of the art", unlike Western music in which the techniques of harmony had attained an astounding degree of sophistication. "Certainly, harmony is more capable of arousing passion than vocal perfection or mere orchestrated numbers, and it is better able to enhance and exploit these elements."

Arabic music further lacked a system of notation, "enabling performers to play or sing any composition without having to listen to it played by others". Notation also made it possible for students of music to spare considerable time as they progressed in the art and it preserved the compositions of outstanding composers after their death. On the other hand, Rizq cautioned, using Western notation as it stood would eventually efface the difference between it and Oriental music and cause the former to lose its qualitative independence.

It is perhaps not surprising that the archbishop expressed his disapproval of the crudeness of many popular songs of his time and appealed for lyrics "that a virgin can sing in the sanctity of her home" and that treated "religious, moral and patriotic subjects". He adds, "The most salient flaw of our music today is that it is generally limited to love songs and the use of hackneyed tunes and expressions."

Undoubtedly, the interest such articles expressed helped fire the enthusiasm of the conference organisers, whose preliminary preparations were covered in Al-Ahram of 18 March 1932. The Ministry of Education, which was hosting the conference, first created a nine-member planning committee, which included the minister of education along with such public figures as Naguib El-Hilali Bek and Dr Mahmoud El-Hanafi, and such literary and intellectual figures as Ahmed Shawqi, Ragheb Muftah, Sifr Ali, Mohamed Kamel Haggag, Mahmoud Ali Fadli and Naguib Nahhas. There were then a number of technical committees, which contained the most famous musicians of the time, notably Ibrahim Khalil, Gamil Uweis, Sheikh Hassan El-Mamluk, Dawoud Husni, Sami El- Shawa and Kamel El-Khula'i. Last but not least was the young and talented Mohamed Abdel-Wahhab (b. 1910) whose repute would later outshine all musical luminaries who had preceded him.

More important than the members' names, however, were the types of committees formed, which illustrated the concerns of the Ministry of Education. There were seven, the first being the "musical modes" committee, which would be dealing with compositional components. One of its tasks would be to conduct a survey on the types of modes in use in Egypt, and to analyse and classify these in terms of tonal elements and genre. A second was to analyse and classify the commonly used rhythms, each of which would be depicted in notated form.

The "musical scales" committee would be charged with regulating the seven intervals in the basic scale and, then, setting the 24 tonal values that make up the Arabic music scale. Similar taxonomical and analytical functions were assigned to the "instruments" committee, which was to compile a list of the instruments used in Arabic music in Egypt and to determine the degree to which each of these instruments was suitable to meeting musical objectives. Simultaneously, this committee would explore the potential of Oriental instruments that were not used in Egypt, as well as the suitability of Western instruments to the production of Oriental music. In the event that some Western instruments proved superior, the committee would determine what technical innovations had allowed them to excel over their Arabic counterparts.

Naturally, of particular concern to the Ministry of Education was the "musical education" committee, charged with a survey of all Oriental and Western musical organisations in Egypt, and the numbers and backgrounds of students who received musical instruction in public and private schools. The committee would also seek to respond to a number of questions regarding methods for producing qualified music instructors and ways of monitoring the standards of instruction in the various schools and organisations that offer music instruction.

Two other committees would be of considerable importance to musicologists: the "historical" committee, which was to compile lists of manuscripts and other primary resource materials, and the "phonographic recording" committee, which would identify compositions of particular note and derive a system for cataloguing recording archives. Finally, there was a committee to handle miscellaneous issues.

As preparations progressed, readers branched off into various areas of discussion on Oriental music. Hussein El-Harawi, for example, voiced his surprise and dismay that a musician of the status of Abduh El-Hamouli had made no recordings of his music in his own voice. Mohamed Abdel-Gawwad El-Asma'i stepped forward to respond, "in the service of truth", as he put it. "So many of prominent friends in the fields of literature and the arts had advised him to register his songs on phonographic records that he could only submit in the end," wrote El-Asma'i who then cited the following article from Misbah Al-Sharq of 8 March 1901:

"Word of the famous musician's project has fallen as water on parched mouths. As of today, he has freed himself to fulfilling the long and widely aired demand to record his songs on phonograph. For those eager to learn of his progress in this endeavour, but for whom it is difficult to contact him at his home at Abbasiya, it will be possible to acquire information at the store of Tawfiq Kahil, the specialist in phonographs and their accessories, on Al-Club Al- Khediwi Street in Ezbekiya."

But El-Asma'i offered more incontrovertible evidence: he, personally, owned several of those recordings, among which were "My king, I'm your slave", "What he would do for your love" and "Your cruelty taught me patience." He went on to say that several years earlier, Gramophone Company approached the family of the late Saleh Thabet Pasha, who had owned the entire El-Hamouli collection, in the hope of purchasing the original records. The family refused to sell, "which is why we never hear any of El-Hamouli's recordings today".

As the conference was to be held in the main hall of the Oriental Music Institute, located on Queen Nazli Street, Husni El- Shantanawi provided his fellow Al-Ahram readers with a brief history of that institution. He relates that when Mustafa Reda Bek, who founded the institute, wanted to take oud lessons he initially sought out Ahmed El-Leithi. "Soon afterwards, however, he transferred one of El-Leithi's friends, a man who produced such exquisite sounds on the qanoun [a large zither-like instrument] that he decided to take up this instrument instead. After purchasing one, he began lessons firstly with Sheikh Mohamed Ibrahim and then Mohamed El-Aqqad. Eventually, there coalesced in his home a group of music lovers who pursued their collective passion in that congenial setting until 1911, when Mustafa Reda's aunt died suddenly."

Unable to continue their hobby in Reda's home, the group moved to the home of Sheikh Abul-Ela, although eventually "they found that this was too much of an imposition on their colleague. Fortunately," El-Asma'i continues, "they learned that Gramophone was leasing a room in the Muayyad Building and the company's director agreed to allow them to use this room when it was free. This rented room was the kernel of that elegant building that today overlooks Queen Nazli Street."

And it was in this building that, on the morning of Monday, 28 March 1932, the inaugural ceremonies of the Oriental Music Conference took place. Al-Ahram's reporter noted a large attendance of non-Egyptians, with French and Germans making up the majority of European participants. Of the Arabs, there was a sizeable representation from the capitals of the Maghreb -- Rabat, Algiers and Tripoli -- and from Iraq.

Over the coming week, Al-Ahram kept close track of the conference proceedings, although one suspects that many of the details in its reports would have been too technical for its general readership. It also followed the various recreational activities that the conference organisers had arranged, a high point undoubtedly being the boat outing on the Nile during which the famous Sami El-Shawa performed. Perhaps the speech delivered by Minister of Education Helmi Eissa during the conference's closing ceremonies offers the best overview of what the conference committees had accomplished.

"The phonographic committee," the minister said, had "recorded a great number of Arabic songs that had never previously been broadcast, and had laid down the foundations and rules for the recording process in the future." The modes committee had identified and analysed the modes and rhythms used in Egypt and compared them to those used in other Arab countries, while the musical scales committee had "conducted meticulous research on the intervals between the notes in the scales used in Egypt, as well as the possibility of tempering the scale in Arabic music".

The education committee, readers learned, submitted a report containing "the essential principles of Arab music instruction and acquisition, and the instruments and means towards these ends." The committee also reviewed compositions submitted by young Egyptian composers and "advised them to avoid certain pitfalls so as to render their music purely Arabic, free from the influences of Western music".

Finally, the instruments committee, according to Helmi Eissa, had met its objectives. In particular, it had identified all the instruments used throughout the Arab world and selected those that should be added to those used in Egypt "in order to enhance the power of an ensemble's production". Having noted the developments in Western instruments, the committee also recommended technical improvements that should be made to Oriental musical instruments.

Of course, no closing ceremony of a musical conference would be complete without a gala concert. Certainly this was also the opinion of the conference organisers, who had booked the Royal Opera House for the occasion. As was the custom on such occasions, the ceremony included a dedication by a famous poet. This one was written and recited by Egypt's "Prince of Poets" Ahmed Shawqi. The programme was as diverse as it was extensive, opening with the Aqqad Troupe playing select pieces. This was followed by national Oriental music ensembles from Iraq, then Tunisia ("whose performers sang to the accompaniment of Tunisia's unique national instruments"), Morocco ("the members of which ensemble were seated on carpets, as is the custom in their country, and sang 'Were it not for you I would not be stricken with love'") and Syria ("which performed a piece in the nahawand mode and whose principle singer, Saleh Effendi Mahbak, sang the 'Ode to dark eyes'").

After a brief intermission, the curtain raised to reveal none other than the famous Umm Kulthoum, who sang "I would sacrifice all if he stays true to love." There then followed excerpts of two plays: the fourth act of Majnun Layla, "with Layla played by the famous Fatma Rushdi her mad lover by the eminent Hussein Riad", and the second act of Cambiz, King of Persia, "performed by Youssef Wahbi and Amina Rizq".

The ceremonies concluded, it was time for participants to return to their hotels, pack their bags and head back to their countries, which is not to say that the conference had not left in its wake a heightened interest in Oriental music and musicology. Exchanges on a number of relevant issues continued to appear in Al-Ahram, some of which were not without a trace of humour. We have for example the question put to the newspaper's readers as regards the spelling of the Arabic word for music -- musiqa: does it end in an alif or alif maqsura? One reader, a certain Mohamed Rida, volunteered an answer. Having consulted the works by Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Sina and Al-Farabi on the subject, he discovered these mediaeval Arab historians all spelled musiqa with an alif maqsura.

More importantly, the conference had given fresh impetus to music instruction in Egyptian schools. Although Helmi Eissa's conservative views on many issues, especially female education, had earned him the nickname "The Minister of Tradition"; Al-Ahram reports that he appointed a number of Egyptian female teachers to offer music instruction in elementary schools for girls. Perhaps this move was inspired by yet another news item reporting that scientists had concluded that music instruction was beneficial to health. The article did not mention what types of music had such salubrious effects, although one doubts very much that they would include much of the raucous popular music that one would think shortens rather than prolongs one's lifespan.

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

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