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the Philosopher of Arab Music"
By Elie Chalala
On November 17, 2012, Al-Hayat featured an a peculiarly illuminating article written by Mohammad al-Sawi, about the Egyptian composer Riyad al-Sunbati (1906-1981), which should be of considerable interest to lovers of classical Arab music. Under the title "Riyad al-Sunbati: Philosopher of Arab Music," al-Sawi credits the musical compositions of al-Sunbati with a seminal classicism in both traditional and modern currents of the history of Arab music in the 20th century. The author recalls a time when al-Sunbati once occupied a special place in the imagination of the Egyptian middle class, as a bastion of "authenticity," a bulwark against “unhealthy emotionalism." For some time al-Sunbati was the only composer for Oum Kulthoum, and as al-Sawi writes, he complained about working with the Egyptian diva, mainly due to the many liberties she took with his compositions. There was even a midnight incident in which al-Sunbati, at his witts end, left in anger, telling her to "go ahead and compose it yourself." Nevertheless, the two remained respectful and appreciative of each other. Al-Sunbati wrote some of the real classics for Oum Kulthoum, including one of my favorites, "Al Atlal" (The Ruins). The success of "Al Atlal" had almost convinced the two giants to retire, al-Sawi says, and why not? for "Al Atlal" is considered a musical treasure, the most important Arab song of the 20th century. Al-Sunbati was honored by a great many, including president Nasser and Sadat as well as the UNESCO.