Sayyed Darwish: The Father Of Modern Arab Music

Habeeb Salloum

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 be a pity if you forget me altogether.


When my mother used to sing this song, titled "Zuruni Kulli Sana Marra ," in the 1930s and 1940s, I am sure that she had no idea that it was written by Sayyed Darwish, one of the most outstanding 20th-century Arab musicians. He committed his works to the pan-Arab struggle, greatly enriched Arab music and song, and, without destroying its character, evolved classical Arab music to fit into the modern age. Despite his short life, critics consider Sayyed Darwish one of the greatest pioneers of modern Arab melodies. For more than three quarters of a century, his tunes have been on the lips of millions of Arabs from the Atlantic to the Arabian Gulf. His light opera melodies and lyrics expressed the longing of the Arab people for freedom and played an essential role in rousing national feelings against the colonial powers that occupied almost all of the Arab lands at that time.

Sayyed Darwish was born on March 17, 1892, in the Kum al-Dikah district of Alexandria, Egypt. Because his family could not afford to pay for his education, he was sent to a religious school where he mastered the cantillating of the Koran. 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 left his studies to devote his life to music composition and singing, then entered a music school where his music teacher, Sami Effendi, admired his talents and encouraged Darwish to press onward in the music field.

During this period of his life, he worked as a bricklayer to support his family and, in his spare time, sang in local cafes. He also composed vocal music, but because he was an unknown, he attributed his works to a famous composer of the day.

One day, while singing to entertain his fellow workers, Sayyed Darwish caught the attention of some passers-by, the Syrian Attalah Brothers. With their troupe, they were performing in Egypt. They were so impressed with Darwish's voice that they invited him to join their troupe and return with them to sing in Syria.

During his stay in Syria, Darwish studied Arab classical music under Othman al-Mawsily, a master of historic Arab melodies. As a result, he was able to produce a number of pieces in the dawr and muwashshat styles; he had mastered the subtleties and rhythmic intricacies of these forms.

After returning to Egypt, he continued with his musical career and attained a notable reputation as a singer-composer. By 1912, his songs had become highly successful throughout the country. He formed his own troupe, which included 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 the theater. Thus began Sayyed Darwish's brilliant career as a composer for theatrical works. He became a celebrated composer and librettist of operettas with fame so widespread that, in 1921, he was able to form his own group of actors and actresses to perform his works.

Darwish believed that genuine art must be derived from people's aspirations and feelings. In his music and songs, he truly expressed the yearnings and moods of the masses, as well as recording the events that took place during his lifetime. He dealt with the aroused national feeling against the British occupiers, the passion of the people, and social justice, and he often criticized the negative aspects of Egyptian society.

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

In his musical plays, catchy music and popular themes were combined in an attractive way. To some extent, Darwish liberated Arab music from its classical style, modernizing it and opening the door for future development.

Besides composing 260 songs, he wrote 26 operettas, replacing the slow, repetitive, and ornamented old style of classical Arab music with 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, like Darwish's other compositions, were strongly reminiscent of Egyptian folk music and gained great popularity due to their social and patriotic themes.

Even though Darwish became a master of the new theater music, he remained an authority on the old forms. He composed 10 dawr and 21 muwashshat which became classics in the world of Arab music. His composition "Bilaadi! Bilaadi!" (My Country! My Country!), that became Egypt's national anthem, and many of his other works are as popular today as when he 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, as he died on September 15, 1923, at the age of 31 and now rests in the "Garden of the Immortals" in Alexandria.

Nevertheless, he is still very much alive in his works. His belief that music was not merely for entertainment but an expression of human aspiration imparted meaning to his work that has, through the years, left its imprint on millions upon millions. A legendary composer remembered in street names, statues, a commemorative stamp, and a feature film -- he dedicated 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 Haram ," I think of Sayyed Darwish and his immense contribution to Arab music. AJ


This essay appeared in Al Jadid magazine, Vol. 7, No. 36 (Summer 2001)

Copyright (c) 2001 by Al Jadid

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