NewsSayed Darwish, an icon symbolizing Progress, Modernity, and the shift from ‘Oriental music’
Sayed Darwish, born in Kom Al-Dikka on 17 March 1892, was canonized soon after his tragically early death on 15 September 1923 as one of the pioneers of Arabic music, a leader of the “cultural renaissance” that swept Egypt at the turn of the century, and the bard of the 1919 Revolution. His love of music and the material hardships he faced, writes Pascale Ghazaleh, are the two main themes that inform most of his hagiography, intertwining to make up the phenomenon that is Sayed Darwish. He worked as a bricklayer, among other things, after his father’s death, when he became his family’s sole breadwinner, and it is this direct experience of working-class life that makes his songs so powerful.
“In the modern Arab historiography of music,” writes Frederic Lagrange, “Sayed Darwish has become an icon symbolizing Progress, Modernity, and the shift from ‘Oriental music’, an elitist music made for Pashas and still bathing in the original Ottoman matrix, to ‘Egyptian music’, the first figuralist expression of a people’s soul and their nationalist demands.”
After a period spent working with popular troupes, starting in 1918, Darwish worked with Naguib Al-Rihani and Badi’ Khayri. The social and political conditions surrounding the 1919 Revolution contributed to the popularity of operettas produced by the trio, such as Al-‘Ashra Al-Tayyiba (The Ten of Diamonds, 1920), an adaptation of Blubeard with strong nationalistic overtones. He also worked for Al-Rihani’s rival, Ali El-Kassar, and collaborated with renowned singer and actress Munira El-Mahdiyya (1884-1965), for whom he composed comical operettas like Kullaha Yumayn (A Matter of Days, 1920). His own company, with which he took to the stage in a lead role, did not achieve the success he had anticipated with the 1921 creations Sheherazad and Al-Baruka (The Wig), and Darwish turned once more to collaborating with other troupes.
Darwish’s output was prolific, including 26 musicals as well as about 260 songs. Today, such songs as Salma Ya Salama, Zuruni Kull Sana Marra or Al-Hilwa Diy Qamit Ti’gin are sung throughout the Arab world and have been reorchestrated for Fayrouz and Sabah Fakhri. The words of Egypt’s national anthem were derived from one of Mustafa Kamel’s best-known speeches, which Sayed Darwish set to music. He prepared a song for Saad Zaghlul’s return from exile, but died before the nationalist leader’s arrival.
According to Philippe Vigreux (“Centralité de la musique égyptienne”, Egypte/Monde arabe 7, 1991, CEDEJ), Darwish also played a crucial role in the adoption of Western techniques in writing music and the increased use of Western instruments, considered more capable of expressing emotion.
Sayed Darwish was revered in his lifetime by those who sang his songs, and by those, in the Arab world and beyond, who continue to love them until today. His voice was perhaps not the paragon of technical virtuosity that was Sheikh Salama Higazi’s or Saleh Abdel-Hayy (the less indulgent have described it as “mediocre”), but it remains no less moving for all that. He was not much appreciated, however, by the musical establishment of his day. When the Sheikh died, writes Vigreux, one of the members of the Oriental Music Institute is rumoured to have proffered this remark: “Li qad mata al-hals fi’l-balad” (That’s the end of debauchery in this country). Darwish, however, was in good company: Um Kulthoum and Mohamed Abdel-Wahab were also targets of the Institute’s wrath. (This is an article from Al-Ahram)