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Sayyed Darwish - The Father Of Modern Arab Music

posted on: Nov 2, 2016

BY: Habeeb Salloum/Contributing Writer              

“Visit me once a year, it will be a pity if you forget me completely,

I fear that love would come in a glimpse and go,

I left you once my love, it will a pity if you forget me altogether.”

When in the 1930s and 1940s my mother used to sing this song titled Zuruni Kulli Sana Marra, I am sure that she had no idea that it was written by Sayyed Darwish – one of the most outstanding 20th century Arab musicians. Committing his works to the pan-Arab struggle, he greatly enriched Arab music and song and, without destroying its character, evolved classical Arab music to fit into the modern age. For more than three quarter of a century his tunes have been on the lips of millions of Arabs from the Atlantic to the Arabian Gulf.

In the Arab musical world of the past and present, he towers above all others – truly unequaled in both the historic and contemporary eras. Despite his short life, Sayyed Darwish, due to his exceptional achievement in the evolvement of Arab music, is considered to be one of the greatest pioneers of modern Arab melodies.

His light opera tunes and singing expressed the inspiration of the Arab people for freedom and played an essential role in rousing the national feeling against the colonial powers – at that time, occupying almost all the Arab lands. Without doubt, he is one of the eminently- gifted Arab musicians of the 20th century and a pioneer in Arab opera and popular singing.

Sayyed Darwish was born on 17 March 1892, in the Kum al-Dikah district of Alexandria, Egypt. Because his family was poor and could not afford to pay for his education, he was sent to a religious school where he mastered the of the Qur’an. Subsequently, after graduating from the religious school and gaining the title Sheikh Sayyed Darwish, he studied for two years at the al-Azhar, one of the most renowned religious universities in the world. He then left his studies to devote his life to music composition and singing. Later he entered a music school where his music teacher, Sami Effendi, admired his musical talents and encouraged him to press forward in the music field.

To make a living during this period of his life, he worked as a bricklayer to support his family and, in his spare time, sang in local cafes. At the same time, he composed vocal music. Being unknown, he gave credit for his works to a famous composer of the day.

One day while singing to entertain his fellow workers, Sayyed Darwish caught the attention of the passing-by Syrian Attalah Brothers who, with their troupe, were performing in Egypt. They were so impressed with his voice that they engaged him to join their troupe and go back with them to sing in Syria.

During his stay in that country, Darwish studied Arab classical music works at the hands of Othman al-Mawsily, a master of Arab historic melodies. As a result, in the ensuing years, he was able to produce a number of pieces in the dawr and muwashshahat styles – evidently mastering the subtleties and rhythmic intricacies of these forms.

After returning to Egypt, he continued with his musical career, attaining a notable reputation as a singer-composer. By 1912, his songs had become highly successful throughout the country. This encouraged him to form his own troupe that was to include the most illustrious Egyptian musicians and singers of the time.

However, the turning point in Darwish’s life came in 1917 when he moved to Cairo and met the famous Salama Higazy who introduced him to his theatre public. This opened for Sayyed Darwish what was to become a brilliant career as a composer for theatre works, leading him to become a celebrated playwright of operettas. His fame became so widespread that in 1921 he was able to form his group of actors and actresses to perform his works.

Darwish believed that genuine art must be derived from the people’s aspirations and feelings. In his music and songs, he truly expressed the yearning and mood of the masses, along with the events that took place during his time. In his works, he dealt with the rising national sentiment against the British occupiers, the passion of the people, social justice and often criticized the negative phenomena in Egyptian society.

His works, blending Western instruments and harmony with Arab classical musical forms and Egyptian folklore, gained immense popularity due to their social and patriotic subjects. Darwish’s close ties with the national leaders who were guiding the struggle against the British occupiers are reflected in the many nationalistic melodies that he produced. His music and songs knew no class distinction and were enjoyed by both the poor and the affluent.

In his musical plays, catchy music and popular themes are combined in an attractive way. To some extent, Darwish liberated Arab music from its classical style, modernizing it and putting it on a new path to development.

Besides composing 260 songs, he wrote 26 operettas, replacing the slow, repetitive and ornamented old style of classical Arab music by a new light and expressive flair. Some of Darwish’s most popular works in this field were: El Ashara’l Tayyiba, Shahrazad, and El-Barooka. These operettas, strongly reminiscent of Egyptian folk music, like Darwish’s other compositions, gained great popularity due to their social and patriotic themes.

Even though Darwish became a master of the new theatre music, he also remained an authority of the old forms. He composed 10 dawr and 21 muwashshahat that became classics in the world of Arab music. His composition Bilaadi! Bilaadi! (My Country! My Country!), which became Egypt’s national anthem and many other works are as well liked today as when Darwish was alive.

At the age of 30, Darwish was hailed as the father of the new Egyptian music and the hero of the renaissance of Arab music. However, he was not to enjoy his fame for long. He died on the 15 September 1923 at the age of 31 and now rests in the ‘Garden of the Immortals in Alexandria’.

Nevertheless, in his works he is still very much alive. His belief that music was not merely for entertainment, but also an expression of human aspiration, gave it meaning which has through the years left an imprint on millions upon millions. A legendary composer, remembered in street names, statues, a commemorative stamp and a feature film, he committed his melodies to the Egyptian and pan-Arab struggle and in the process enriched Arab music.

As for myself, every time that I think of my mother singing Zuruni Kulli Sana Marra, I think of Sayyed Darwish and his immense contribution to Arab music.