Monday,27 May, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)
Monday,27 May, 2019
Issue 1266, (15 - 21 October 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Melody and the human soul

This month’s Alexandria International Song Festival reminds audiences of the long and distinguished history of Arab song, writes Samir Sobhi

Abdel-Halim Hafez
Abdel-Halim Hafez
Al-Ahram Weekly

The 12th Alexandria International Song Festival, a tribute to an art form that never ceases to evolve, takes place from 15 to 23 October and features contestants from all over the Arab world. This year, the festival is dedicated to Lebanon and will host a seminar on Arab songs.

I recall a time when top academics in this country made it a part of their mission in life to promote the appreciation of music. Louis Awad (1915-1990), the first Egyptian chair of the English Department at Cairo University, formed a Gramophone Society to encourage students to listen to classical music. Hussein Fawzi (1900-1988), who served as head of the College of Science and president of Alexandria University, used to encourage his students to play an instrument.

It is hard to know how closely related our current music scene is to Egypt’s ancient traditions. But Anba Grigorios, who was once in charge of scientific research in the Coptic Church, told me that the melody of “Zein Al-Abidine,” a popular Egyptian folk song, is Coptic in origin, which is only a short step from calling it ancient Egyptian.

We know that the ancients used to sing and dance in their temples as part of their spiritual ceremonies, a custom that in today’s world can be seen in some Asian countries such as India. In ancient Egyptian wall paintings and papyri one can see instruments that survive to this day, either in folk music or in church ceremonies, such as the mizmar (flute), the cymbal, the tambourine and the triangular chime.

We see these instruments, used for religious ceremonies and secular entertainment, played by men and women in ancient attire and portrayed in colours that survive to this day on the walls of ancient temples.

We cannot, however, listen to this music. Researchers have speculated about what ancient music sounded like, but since the writing of music is mostly a recent art one cannot tell how much of the ancient music made it into contemporary folk and modern singing.

In Muslim tradition, Qur’anic reciters must have preserved some of the art of ancient Arabia. But once the art of reciting the Qur’an came to Egypt, it evolved into seven different methods of chanting that students of the art had to study. To this day, Egyptian reciters are the most sought after for religious and non-religious events across the world.

One might think back to the time of the first monotheist, the pharaoh Akhenaten, and wonder about the melodies that once reverberated in his temples. The lyrics of one of the songs from this time, “Akhenaten’s Hymn”, survive to this day. One may hope that these will be put to music in the near future, perhaps using what researchers believe to be the ancient Egyptian traditions.

Imagine a CD including “Akhenaten’s Hymn” with an Arabic and English translation on offer to visitors to this country. It would make an extraordinary impression on visitors, providing a link to the roots of monotheistic belief, as well as an echo of an earlier civilisation.

Great songs are not just about their melodies, however. An enduring tune must be associated with lyrics that speak to listeners, firing their imaginations and soothing their souls. This is what the early 20th-century Egyptian poet Ahmad Shawki (1868-1932), also known as the “Prince of Poets,” is mostly remembered for.

A prolific writer, Shawki was adored across the Arab world, but what brought him his fame was not just his poetry recitals, but the fact that many of his poems were turned into songs, especially by his friend and acolyte, the singer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab (1902-1991).

Shawki’s poems were regularly published in the press, and many of them were dedicated to the praise of the ruling Mohamed Ali dynasty. But Shawki also wrote vernacular lyrics that became popular songs. These include “Fil Leil Lamma Kheli” (In the Quiet of the Night), “Bolbol Hayran” (Songbird at a Loss), and “Al-Nil Nagashi” (Abyssinian Nile).

Decades later, television began to outperform radio as the entertainment of choice, but that didn’t stop great talents from reaching an even wider audience. The title songs of some of the top television shows were written by incomparable composers. “Bawwabat Al-Halawani”, for example, used a striking tune composed by Baligh Hamdi.

After the 1967 War, the Arab Music Ensemble brought some solace to the nation with a revival of some of the country’s 19th and early 20th-century pieces. The orchestra helped boost morale after the 1967 defeat.

In his 1968 book Aswat Wa-Alhan Arabiya (Arabic Voices and Melodies), the poet and journalist Kamal Al-Nagmi noted the changes that the invention of the microphone brought to the musical scene in Egypt. “May God bless Mounira Al-Mahdia, the sultana of singing,” he wrote. “She died hating the microphone, and before that she had lived for more than 30 years hating the microphone.”

Al-Mahdia (1885-1965) was one of the last singers to make her name before the microphone was invented, and she resented the ease with which the new invention allowed artists of lesser vocal prowess to make it to the top.

At first, the singers of the time thought the microphone was just a passing fad. This was the era when singers like Al-Mahdia, Um Kalthoum, Fathiya Ahmad, Nagat Ali, Saleh Abdel-Hay, Abdel-Latif Al-Banna and Mohamed Abdel-Wahab were all household names.

When a radio company brought a microphone to a concert by Um Kalthoum (1898-1975) in the Azbakiya Theatre, the diva was so incensed that she hurled it off the stage, thus frustrating the technicians who were trying to relay the concert live. She later reconciled herself to the microphone, and in later life her monthly concerts were relayed live from Cairo to the entire Arab world.

The singer Farid Al-Atrash (1917-1974) could not have competed with Saleh Abdel-Hay (1896-1962) had it not been for the microphone. Al-Atrash, who became an instant success in the early 1950s, could not match the vocal fortitude of earlier generations of crooners, but he was a brilliant composer and an exceptional performer nonetheless.

The microphone also brought fame to Qur’anic reciters in a manner that had eluded earlier generations. Mohamed Rif’at, arguably the greatest reciter of all time, did not have a powerful voice, but his sweet, melodious delivery earned him fame across the Muslim world.

Mohamed Abdel-Wahab also made it big before the microphone, but critics say that he wouldn’t have lasted long without it, for the new invention taxed his voice less and allowed him to sing in a whispering manner that the younger generations found alluring.

Abdel-Halim Hafez (1929-1977), who exploded on the music scene in the 1950s, achieved a popularity that mirrored that of Elvis in the US at the time. He also tended to sing by whispering, a style that would have been unthinkable a few decades earlier.

According to Al-Nagmi, the microphone so revolutionised the music world that singers who came onto the scene in the second half of the 20th century should have commissioned a statue in honour of its invention.

Another poet who left his mark on the music scene in Egypt was Sheikh Ibrahim Al-Dabbagh (1880-1946). He was a close friend of the crooner Salama Hegazi (1852-1917) and wrote some songs for him. He also wrote for Abdu Al-Hamuli, Mohamed Othman, Abdel-Hay Helmi, Mounira Al-Mahdia, Karima Al-Adliya and Fathiya Ahmed.

Al-Dabbagh wore a Syrian-style turban and his friends often called him the “Yafawi Sheikh,” or the sheikh from Jaffa in Palestine (now in Israel). Writing in the newspaper Al-Baghbaghan (The Parrot) in 1927, Al-Dabbagh reminded his readers that the great scholar Al-Ghazali (1057-1110) once said that music was a noble science as it created a “direct link” between melody and the human soul.

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