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 Richard F. French librarian at the Eda Kuhn Loeb Music Library at Harvard University. She is an internationally recognized authority on the music of Egypt in the 20th Century and Muslim devotional music, both of which are among her special areas of interest.  She is currently researching early creators of Egyptian popular music.

Dr. Danielson’s lecture was entitled, The Real Music of Egypt: Sayyid Darwish and His Artistic Heirs. She opened her lecture by noting that she met her husband and Dr. Margaret Larkin while completing an 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 born in 1896. He became the ”father” of Egyptian music almost immediately.

Influenced by Zakariyya Ahmad, Darwish and many others worked in the same colloquial manner.  From their work emerged a stream of various effects that take on a populist, colloquial and highly localized character, which has been called a “cultural formation”.  This development accounts for the variety of compo-sitional genre which Ahmed and others worked in.

Dr. Danielson noted that Aaron Fox at Columbia University has posed the question: “Is this a humology of Egyptian country music, a cultural formation that resulted from the work of Ahmed’s and Darwish’s music? 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 valorizes rural and working class peoples, and conveys nostalgia for the rural and working classes. Dr. Danielson explained that she has studied all sorts of musical forms from early in the century and observed that much of the music fetishized the rural, village way of life. Particularly in the mizmar tabla balidi, which is based on historic music using lots of drums and reed instruments, can this aspect be observed.  This is loud, exciting music that is played out-of-doors at festivals and other such events. It is true sha’abi, or folk music. The musicians who perform this music proudly announce themselves as Sa’iidi’s and proclaim the towns and villages from which they come, emphasizing their local accents and pronunciations.

This genre comes particularly from the songs of Zakariyya Ahmad, which are known for their closeness to the Sa’iidi. They characterize the lives of the working class and concerns for the pressures of modern life. The language used is very colloquial and where female voices are included, they are strong. Zakariyya was particularly proud of his Sa’iidi origin.  He dressed in traditional galabeya and incorporated a quality of Egyptianess, a sense of what it is really like to be a Cairene, for example, in all his work.

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

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

Dr. Danielson noted that the composition of lyrics provided a means for supporting the writing of poetry.  Zakariyya composed music for many venues; plays, religious purposes, for singers, etc. Both the poetry and the music incorporate colloquial, sha’abi music and poetical forms to create what might be called “country” music, using very punctuated phrases 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 to work. He traveled to Syria to study musical forms and in 1921 established a theatrical troop, which performed his music. Unfortunately, Darwish, died just two years later in 1923, but his influence on Egyptian music was phenomenal. He immediately became an icon.

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

Darwish’s work broke with the past of “decorative” Arabic music. He returned the song to the people with a new music that drew its qualities 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 his songs use a genre that is centuries old, but carry the “country” origin.

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

So, is this the “country” music of Egypt?  It is nostalgic 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 have whatever you’re looking for, if anyone does.

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

Q.  Is micro-tone characteristic only of Arabic music?
A.  No.  Many countries use it in their musical forms. Blues music uses micro-tones, as does Indian music.  It is very 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 music is learned by ear well before it is ever written down.  It did become lucrative to know how to read music, so many learned.  Umm Kulthum was a great believer in learning by ear, and only agreed to allow her musicians to use musical annotation when the older musicians were replaced by young men 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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