The Real Music of Egypt:

Sayyid Darwish and His Artistic Heirs

April’s lecture was presented by ethnomusicologist Dr.Virginia Danielson, who is curator of the archive of World Music and RichardF. French librarian at the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library at Harvard University.She is an internationally recognized authority on the music of Egypt inthe 20th Century and Muslim devotional music, both of which are among herspecial areas of interest.  She is currently researching early creatorsof Egyptian popular music.

Dr. Danielson’s lecture was entitled, The Real Musicof Egypt: Sayyid Darwish and His Artistic Heirs. She opened her lectureby noting that she met her husband and Dr. Margaret Larkin while completingan ARCE fellowship in Egypt, so ARCE holds a special place in her heart.

When doing the research for her book on Umm Kulthum, Dr.Danielson became fascinated by the music of Sayyid Darwish, who was bornin 1896. He became the ”father” of Egyptian music almost immediately.

Influenced by Zakariyya Ahmad, Darwish and many othersworked in the same colloquial manner.  From their work emerged a streamof various effects that take on a populist, colloquial and highly localizedcharacter, which has been called a “cultural formation”.  This developmentaccounts for the variety of compo-sitional genre which Ahmed and othersworked in.

Dr. Danielson noted that Aaron Fox at Columbia Universityhas posed the question: “Is this a humology of Egyptian country music,a cultural formation that resulted from the work of Ahmed’s and Darwish’smusic? Country music in general, indexes and it is usually class based. So, is there country music in Egypt?  Fox - and Dr. Danielson - say,“Yes, maybe”.

The styles used in such colloquial music identify values,just as we see in the styles used in country music in the US. It valorizesrural and working class peoples, and conveys nostalgia for the rural andworking classes. Dr. Danielson explained that she has studied all sortsof musical forms from early in the century and observed that much of themusic fetishized the rural, village way of life. Particularly in the mizmartabla balidi, which is based on historic music using lots of drums andreed instruments, can this aspect be observed.  This is loud, excitingmusic that is played out-of-doors at festivals and other such events. Itis true sha’abi, or folk music. The musicians who perform this music proudlyannounce themselves as Sa’iidi’s and proclaim the towns and villages fromwhich they come, emphasizing their local accents and pronunciations.

This genre comes particularly from the songs of ZakariyyaAhmad, which are known for their closeness to the Sa’iidi. They characterizethe lives of the working class and concerns for the pressures of modernlife. The language used is very colloquial and where female voices areincluded, they are strong. Zakariyya was particularly proud of his Sa’iidiorigin.  He dressed in traditional galabeya and incorporated a qualityof Egyptianess, a sense of what it is really like to be a Cairene, forexample, in all his work.

Several distinctive melodic modes or “maqams” appear inSa’iidi music. Saba is a particularly distinc-tive mode that follows avery distinct compositional pattern. This pattern is well known and loved,and in fact can be found in both folk and courtly compo-sitions. It hasa very powerful localizing effect on Egyptian music. The melodies are verysimple and they stay in one melodic mode of short, 5-note phrases whichis familiar to every Egyptian listener. These songs often make use of thewords in a punctuational, rhythmic manner.

Another mode, the Huzam, is often used by neo-classicalcomposers. An excellent example is the song “Alone at Night” which wascomposed specifically for Umm Kulthum. The text is quite different. Itis very emotive and not conversational Arabic at all, yet it is still colloquial.Zakariyya Ahmad’s songs, contrasted with Sayyid Darwish’s songs, rely onsustaining long, complicated melodic phrases, which are not easily reproducedby amateurs. They’re the sort of song one can start but never finish dueto bogging down in the melody.

Dr. Danielson noted that the composition of lyrics provideda means for supporting the writing of poetry.  Zakariyya composedmusic for many venues; plays, religious purposes, for singers, etc. Boththe poetry and the music incorporate colloquial, sha’abi music and poeticalforms to create what might be called “country” music, using very punctuatedphrases in which the words are “bitten” off.

Where does this music come from, one might ask? Sayyid Darwish is routinely cited as the source of much of Egypt’s “country”music. He was born in Alexandria and at the age of 17 went to Cairo towork. He traveled to Syria to study musical forms and in 1921 establisheda theatrical troop, which performed his music. Unfortunately, Darwish,died just two years later in 1923, but his influence on Egyptian musicwas phenomenal. He immediately became an icon.

Darwish’s characters are local working people. His tunesare strophic and often easy to learn and sing. People can sing his songsjust as soon as they are heard. They extol workers and the values theybring from their rural homes to their work, perhaps in the city. His songs are accessible and people love to sing them. They use familiarmelodic modes, they are rhythmic and typically local - and identify theirsingers as such. They are marked forcefully as Egyptian songs.  Theyhave a local as well as a poetical flavor.

Darwish’s work broke with the past of “decorative” Arabicmusic. He returned the song to the people with a new music that drew itsqualities from social and folk music to create a wholly new kind of music.He composed classical as well as sha’abi/colloquial music. Some of hissongs use a genre that is centuries old, but carry the “country” origin.

Where are the women?  Few seem to be contributorsto this body of work, though women’s voices do appear in many songs. Whenwomen singers are featured they always have strong voice - perhaps, onemight say, even masculine voices.

So, is this the “country” music of Egypt?  It isnostalgic music, Dr. Danielson stated, yet it is not really “country” music.

Some questions:
Q.  What is a good source for Egyptian music?
A.  Rashid Sales in New York is most likely to havewhatever you’re looking for, if anyone does.

Q.  How aware are people of melodic mode and howastute is the listener?
A.   Some, who have schooled themselves, canrecognize modes.  Saba is very distinctive and can be easily recognized. Other modes are less easily recognized, even if one knows the technicalitiesof the compositions.

Q.  Is micro-tone characteristic only of Arabic music?
A.  No.  Many countries use it in their musicalforms. Blues music uses micro-tones, as does Indian music.  It isvery appealing to modern European composers.

Q.  Was this music initially learned just by rote,or was it written down?
A.  Much like American folk music, Arabic musicis learned by ear well before it is ever written down.  It did becomelucrative to know how to read music, so many learned.  Umm Kulthumwas a great believer in learning by ear, and only agreed to allow her musiciansto use musical annotation when the older musicians were replaced by youngmen who didn’t have the oral background so didn’t know the tunes. By ear, however, is historically the mode of transmission.

  • Nancy Corbin
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