On 2 November 2021, the world lost a legendary singer at the age of 88 years. A Syrian who sang specifically the repertoire of his hometown of Aleppo and became popular worldwide in a rare occurrence due to his exceptional talent, charisma, perseverance, and specialization in a genre suiting his tenor voice and cultural background.
Born Sabahudine (or Sabah al-Din) Abu Qaws in 1933, when he committed to a career in the arts as a teenager, his family and teachers felt Abu Qaws did not have a musical ring to it. In honor of Fakhri al-Barudi, a Syrian national figure who also founded the conservatory of Damascus and was one of his earliest sponsors, he adopted the stage name Sabah Fakhri.
The son of a cleric, Fakhri grew up listening to and absorbing the religious chants of the Sufi traditions and studied reading the Quran with the proper pronunciation of classical Arabic. As a child he spent time in his mother’s women circles where traditional regional folk songs and mawawil (plural of mawwal), or vocal improvisations, were sung, typically passed on over generations. The Abu Qaws family quickly discovered that their young boy was repeating both the Quranic tajwid chanting and folk songs on his own with exceptional skill and beauty.
While most typical Arab families discouraged their children from pursuing singing in favor of “better” careers, the people of Aleppo were (and remain) different. Despite their reputation as shrewd business traders, they tended to be highly spiritual. Practically every household prided itself in having a member who was a clergyman, chanter, poet, singer, or musician, and viewed these as respectable pursuits that reflected a strong religious faith.
His parents enrolled him to apprentice under the city’s top music and language teachers while his father continued to supervise his religious education. For a short period, he even earned a small living as a child muazzin, the person who calls people to prayer from a mosque’s tower, a role that required a strong but beautiful and musical voice.
The next phase of his career – getting discovered at the national level – came when, in 1948, the country’s president Shukri al-Quwatli, and other politicians and intellectuals, visited Aleppo and attended a performance of the city’s signature musical genres. The teenage Sabah amazed the special audience who quickly encouraged the family to bring him to the capital to showcase his talent and take advantage of higher education opportunities.
Sabah Fakhri recounted later how his mother took him to Damascus where he received a warm reception from leaders and artists eager to hear him sing. He was offered opportunities that included pursuing musical education in Europe, especially Italy, moving to Cairo, the capital of Arab arts and music industry at the time as well as home of the star role models, and studying at the conservatory in Damascus. Fakhri al-Barudi encouraged him to pursue the rigorous two-year program at the conservatory and carry the torch of the Levant singing style. The offer, which he took, was sweetened by a part-time singing job at the national radio station. His mother also helped him make this choice since she could not imagine her young child away from the family for an extended period.
Fakhri completed his studies and returned to his hometown with education and fame. He pursued additional training in Aleppo but chose not to sing for a few years. It was commonly believed that a growing boy should not stress his vocal cords until he reaches maturity as a young man in order not to cause permanent damage to his voice.
When that time came, he entered the field of professional singing and a true star was born. He had built up a tremendous repertoire of qasa’id, muwashahat, qudud, adwar, mawawil, and other styles of singing. Qasa’id (plural of qasida) are the highest standard in Arab singing as they are in Arab poetry. They are written in the classical rhyming long-from that require tremendous skill to compose and sing. Very few artists today dare to sing in this genre.
Muwashahat are songs invented in the Andalusian period of Arab rule of Spain where many artists were either non-native Arabic speakers or not highly skilled in classical poetry so they mixed the classical language with local dialects and innovated with the rhymes to suit their abilities. With clever marketing, and knowing the Arabs’ pride in their poetry, these local artists called the new song form “decorated qasa’id.” Just like a well-dressed woman would wear a shawl, called awishah, as a colorful accessory or decoration, they accessorized the poem and made it a muwashah.
The analogy with the shawl or wishah stuck and took off spreading to the East and lasting for centuries. Even in the 20th century, renowned artists like Egypt’s Sayyid Darwish and Syria’s Omar al-Batsh composed and popularized new muwashahat that became part of Sabah Fakhri’s repertoire, such as the very popular Ya Shadi al-Alhan (O Reciter of Melodies).
Qudud is a style of songs where a melody of a religious chant (often called dhikr) is used with new secular lyrics, typically romantic, written “to fit” the song’s melody, or a secular song tailored into a new religious song. Tailoring a size to fit something is called making it “’ala qadduhu,” which is the root of the name. Qadd also means a person’s height or figure as in the popular Fakhri song Qadduka al-Mayyas (Your Swaying Figure).
Every country and region has its local qudud but Aleppo’s Qudud Halabiyya became the most popular thanks to artists like Sabri al-Mudallal, Omar al-Batsh, Muhammad Khairi, and others leading to Sabah Fakhri. Even the originally Iraqi folk song Fowq al-Nakhl (Above the Palm Trees) popularized by Nathem al-Ghazali then Sabah Fakhri started out as a religious qadd composed by Mulla Othman al-Muselli called Fowq at-’Arsh (Above the Throne).
Sabah Fakhri did not stop at proudly preserving heritage of traditional material (turath) but also composed many songs himself with superior quality intentionally suited to be respectful of the turath genres. Audiences tend not to know which of the songs performed in his concerts are traditional and which are new due to the flowing connectivity in song suits called waslat (plural of wasla) in the same musical mode.
Unlike his predecessors or peers, Fakhri succeeded beyond expectations primarily due to his stage charisma and unparalleled command of his masterful orchestra playing traditional acoustic instruments and a strong percussion section as well as a chorus of men. But the most important artistic reason for his success was his ability to engage his audiences in marathon-length concerts, often lasting until sunrise, with known refrains that make listeners sway in a trance-like state called tarab or musical ecstasy. He reaches the same ecstasy and often dances in signature moves and whirls on stage. Tarab is now intimately associated with Sabah Fakhri.
He toured the world for nearly six decades prior to his illness and retirement, popularizing his music and the Levant dialect in the process. His long career, numerous recordings, sold-out concerts, as well as his ability to explain his art in interviews have gained Sabah Fakhri tremendous respect and countless awards from many nations and organizations and helped him rise to positions such as a member of the Syrian parliament and head of the Musicians Union.
In the highest form of flattery, Sabah Fakhri has numerous imitators who sing in the style credited as “the school of Sabah Fakhri.” They carry his traditions even if they do not always match his vocal purity and strength, exceptional range and musicality. They have a role model who set the standard. Journalists and analysts often wonder about his “heir” and have not found one, as they have not found heirs in the past to Um Kulthum, Muhammad ’Abd al-Wahhab, Farid al-Atrash, ’Abd al-Halim Hafiz, Fairuz, Sabah, Wadi’ al-Safi, and others. A gathering of super artists like these is not likely to be seen again.
The second half of the 20th century is known as the Golden Age of Arab music. All the giant artists from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, and other countries rose in that period. With Fairuz’s retirement, Sabah Fakhri’s death marks the true end of the period of giants in Arab music. All of us are lucky to have witnessed it.
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