Al-Ahram Weekly Online   20 - 26 March 2003
Issue No. 630
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Strains of East and West

Twelve years after his death a museum was opened to commemorate the life of prominent composer and singer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab. Nevine El-Aref revisits his life and times


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Abdel-Wahab at a young age singing with his oud; a film advertisement with Leila Murad; a scene from the film A Happy Day with Faten Hamama; Abdel-Wahab's portrait with his tarboosh and oud; his personal objects on display in the museum; his awards and photos with Arab presidents and a laugh with Umm Kulthoum
Mohamed Abdel-Wahab enjoyed widespread popularity in the 1920s and 1930s. Adored by his fans as the "20th-century singer and composer" and a "composer for all generations", he has been canonised along with artistic giants such as Umm Kulthoum, Farid El-Atrash and Abdel-Halim Hafez. His was a historic encounter between East and West; he was the first composer to synthesise the two strains in his music. While he began his career with traditional melodies, Western influences became evident in his later music. He catered to the changing tastes of his time as they evolved from the rule of Khedive Ismail, who provided the basis for a Westernised Egyptian elite in government, education and literature. He wrote more than 1,000 songs, of which he sang hundreds, and was a star of the silver screen.

Born in Bab El-Sha'riya in Cairo in 1910, Abdel-Wahab showed talent early on. He made his first recording at the age of 13. Ahmed Shawqi, the "prince of poets", was one of his admirers. Shawqi introduced him to the aristocracy of the time as well as people who could help develop his talent.

Shawqi himself wrote many songs that Abdel-Wahab sang. One was Fil-Leil Lama Kheli (The Lonely Night), which became an instant success and was sung before King Farouk at the opening of the Arab Music Institute in 1929. It is in this institute that the memorabilia of Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, one of Egypt's music icons, is displayed. The institute was where he sang some of his most famous and memorable songs and where his memory lives on.

In 1926, Abdel-Wahab helped compose the musical score of "The Goose Consul Operetta", based on a theme of Naguib El-Rehani. It was a great success, and he was subsequently invited to complete Sayed Darwish's musical score based on "Anthony and Cleopatra".

During his time, Egyptian society tended to be divided between the elite and popular cultures, and Abdel-Wahab's first film, The White Rose, appears to belong to the former category. However, while seemingly unabashedly Western, it was clearly of modern Egyptian inspiration in coupling the revolutionary trend of the time with authentic traditions. Abdel-Wahab played the part of Galal Effendi, an aristocratic son who had fallen on hard times.

In his later films, Abdel-Wahab introduced female singers such as Leila Murad. He reached an audience wider than ever before and many of his protégés became stars like himself. He also began to feature large orchestras with mixtures of Western instruments such as the guitar, bass, accordion and, later, the organ and synthesiser, as heard in the belly-dance classic Leilet Hobb (Night of Love), composed by Abdel- Wahab and sung by Umm Kulthoum. He employed new rhythmic formulas, including the tango, mambo, samba and rumba, as well as the Arabic oriental rhythms maqsoum and baladi, in his compositions.

While Abdel-Wahab seldom appeared in public, his popularity grew. His fame was not limited to the Arab world. His music also appealed to Western audiences. In 1991 -- at the age of 81 -- Abdel-Wahab surprised the Arab world when he sang his new composition, Men Gheir leih (Without why). The record sold two million copies.

When the popular singer died in 1991, he was mourned by his devotees and was honoured officially. Four years after his death, Culture Minister Farouk Hosni decided that a small museum should be established for him in the building of the Arab Music Institute, where he had often performed.

Samir Farag, the head of Cairo Opera House, said that before developing the Abdel-Wahab Museum, the building -- which includes a theatre, a museum for musical instruments, a library and instruction and rehearsal halls -- was renovated by the Opera House over a period of seven years at a cost of LE7 million. The theatre has been equipped with new chairs, a new wooden floor, a wider stage and cutting-edge sound and lighting systems. Security and alarm systems complete with TV circuits have also been installed.

"The institute is an artistic and cultural minaret," said Hosni, who explained that restorers were careful to maintain the unique architectural features of the building. Oriental musical instruments such as nay (oriental flute), tabla (drum), oud, and qannun, as well as the harp, xylophone and piano, are on display. In the library, a rare collection of historical, musical and scientific books and a number of important manuscripts are on display. Among the manuscripts are one by the Arab philosopher Al-Farabi and another by the renowned composer and singer Sayed Darwish.

The museum is comprised of a large hall divided into sections devoted to different aspects of Mohamed Abdel- Wahab's life. His favoured oud, with which he played so many memorable songs, is in a showcase along with his organ. His personal musical scores are also on display, as are his eye-glasses and his tarboosh (fez).

In the section of the museum exhibiting Abdel-Wahab's bedroom, his robe and slippers, suits and Qur'an can be seen. He reputedly read verses from the Holy Book before retiring each night.

One showcase is dedicated to the personal photographs of the much-loved singer and composer, ranging from childhood portraits and family pictures to others with presidents and kings of the Arab world. Many of the photographs were provided by Al-Ahram.

Abdel-Wahab was married twice. He had five children with his first wife, whom he married when he was very young and subsequently divorced. His second wife was Nahla Al-Qudsi, a Jordanian socialite who provided the museum with most of the items in the collection. Photographs of Abdel-Wahab with his children, three girls and two boys, show him to have been a loving father. His original contracts with radio producers are also on display. Many of them are from 1934.

The museum also features a collection of awards and medals that Abdel-Wahab received from the late presidents Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar El-Sadat. There are also tapes of Abdel-Wahab's radio serials and some of his radio interviews, which visitors can listen to inside the audio visual hall devoted to his works.

The Mohamed Abdel-Wahab museum opened last May, by Mrs Suzanne Mubarak on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of his death. Viewing his possessions in the Arabic Music Institute might initially appear to be a somewhat sterile experience. After all, Abdel- Wahab brought love and romance to the world and his memorabilia are immobile and lifeless. Yet, when you hear his melodies and long guitar solos, his spirit is revived. Abdel-Wahab's timeless composition style has become standard in the repertoire of every oriental dancer, and its charm and mystical beauty resonate until today.

Practical information:

The Arabic Music Institute with its exquisite early 20th-century Islamic architecture is located at 22 Ramses Street just before Al-Tawfiqiya.

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