Abdul Wahab - The Father Of Modern Egyptian Song
BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer
From the 1930s to well into the 1970s, Muhammad Abdul Wahab was, to the vast majority of Arabic-speaking people, a giant in the world of Middle Eastern entertainment. Every Arab who could afford it, bought his records or tapes and listened for hours to his singing on radio and later, television. His captivating voice brought to their mind the glorious days of Arab culture – the time when Arabic music and song were the epitome of merriment.
His rendering in melody of the classical poetry from the Golden Age of the Arabs and that of their modern struggle against western colonialism inspired in his listeners a feeling of pride in their rich heritage.
I remember, in the 1950s, being bewitched with his voice as he sang these words of Ahmad Shawky, an Egyptian poet who became famous in the early part of this century:
“Greetings to the gentle breezes of River Barada,
Never-ending are the tears, O glorious Damascus.
The blood of our martyrs, France knows well,
And knows that it is truth and justice.”
These words would thrill and imbue me with an appreciation of Arab history and entertainment and, at the same time, gave me immense enjoyment.
The late Muhammad Abdul Wahab, modern Egypt’s best known singer/composer and actor, died of heart failure on May 3, 1991 after a musical career spanning 74 years. During these years, he rose from a humble beginning to become the star of Egyptian melodies and a legend in the world of modern Arabic music and song.
Dubbed the ‘musician of generations’, his music delighted for years people of all ages. During this long period which began in his teens, he composed for himself and other leading Arab singers over 1,800 romantic and patriotic songs. His compositions for the late Umm Kalthoum, the greatest Arab songstress in history, gave both artists great fame.
Abdul Wahab fell in love with music and acting as a child, joining a drama troupe at the age of seven. Later, he began to sing at religious festivals. However, his family had plans for him to study religion at Al-Azhar University, but he rebelled and continued pursuing his passion for music. He studied traditional Arab tunes at the Arab Music Club, now the institute of Arab Music, and followed this by becoming familiar with western music at the Bergrun School in Cairo.
In the years to come, his remarkable musical memory and fine baritone voice helped him achieve great popularity and influence many youths in the world of music and song. For decades his improvisation on the lute, compositions and singing captivated millions of Arabs and won him well-deserved renown.
Abdul Wahab’s early musical career coincided with the revival of Arabic music in the Middle East. Always thinking of new ways to enrich traditional song, he often combined the oriental quarter tone melodies with Western themes.
Representing a generation in transition, he is responsible for far-reaching changes to Arabic music and is credited by art critics for giving modern Arabic songs their current musical form. His superimposition of a mixture of western musical instruments on a foundation of Arabic melodies captured the hearts of millions and made him a much loved musical personality.
Besides his compositions and singing, he became a well-known actor. His first movie was produced in 1933. Until 1946 he starred in six other films which continue to be regularly screened on television throughout the Arab countries.
During the 1920s, Abdul Wahab became a close friend of the late well-known poet Ahmad Shawky and set that bard’s verses to music. A poet laureate of the Egyptian King Farouk, Shawky helped Abdul Wahab socially and he became a traditional star at royal parties. In the years that followed, his association with the opulent aided in his climb to stardom and earned him the title, ‘singer of princes’.
A soft-spoken, tall and bespectacled man, Abdul Wahab continued, in his songs, to exalt the wealthy until the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown in 1952. After the revolution which was led by young nationalist army officers, his view of life radically changed. His songs became more inspiring and patriotic – some of his finest works.
Among these were “The Eternal Nile”, “Damascus”, “Palestine”, the musical scores for Egypt’s national anthem and the national anthems of Oman and the United Arab Republic. His last song Min Gheir Ley (Without Asking Why), composed a few years before his death, is said to have salvaged the Egyptian song industry which had been in the doldrums.
Abdul Wahab’s singing was extremely popular in the Arab world and, during his lifetime, most Arab countries acclaimed him and his works with decorations. When be died at the age of 90, after a period of poor health, he was honoured by Egypt with a huge military funeral at the Rabia al-Adawiya Mosque in Cairo.
A six-horse carriage procession, carrying his coffin, was led by the Prime and Foreign Ministers, followed by the Ministers of Defence, Interior and Culture. The train also included Arab ambassadors and scores of well-known actors, musicians and singers, many openly weeping as they walked behind the coffin.
Soldiers and police, hooking arms, formed a human shield around the procession which was preceded by bearers of flower wreaths and the medals he had been awarded in his lifetime. Many of the people in the edging crowds had tears in their eyes as they rendered their last tribute to the father of modern Egyptian song.
The media coverage of the funeral was equal to that afforded a major world figure. After his death, the newspapers covered, for days, his works and the radio and television stations aired his songs and movies on a continuing basis – a fitting recognition for Egypt’s musical treasure.
With the passing away of Abdul Wahab, the Arab world lost the founder of contemporary Arabic music. For more than half a century his composing and singing – he was still writing when he died, appealing to both young and old, made him a beloved figure. This is best reflected by a banner, raised during the funeral procession which read: “Adieu to Egypt’s fourth pyramid.”