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Said Darwish: In the service of music

17 March marks the birthday of Sheikh Said Darwish (1892-1923), "the People's Artist" as he is known in popular culture. Ahram Online celebrates his ongoing legacy

Amira Noshokaty , Wednesday 16 Mar 2016
Said Darwish
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"Music is a tender body whose conscience is the soul and whose heart is the intellect," explained Sayed Darwish in one of his published papers, referenced in the in book, For My Father, Sayed Darwish, written by his son, Hassan Darwish.

Ninety-three years after his death, the enchanting music of "the People's Artist" is still in fashion and his songs still reflect the status quo. The brilliance of Darwish is the fact that this music never grew into classics; they seem as young and vivid as their creator, who died at the age of 31.

Born and raised in Alexandria, the young Sayed Darwish was a practically born a musician. His passion developed as an infant, where he would rejoice and try to imitate nursery rhymes sung by his mother. After finishing two years in the traditional schools (Al-Kuttab) of Sidi Ahmed Al-Khaiash, where he learnt Quranic recitation, he continued his elementary studies at regular public schools where to his luck his teacher was a member of a music troupe of the renowned music icon Sheikh Salama Hegazi. Hence the teacher introduced Darwish to the world of chants and melodies. Subsequently, the young Darwish became the lead singer and coach of the student choir at school.

"As a child, he used to gather his friends afterschool, compile lots of empty boxes to make a platform and recite and imitate all the music gurus of that era, followed by applause and salutation of the talented child," reads the volume on Darwish of The Encyclopedia of Arabic Music Figures, by Isis Fathalla, Hassan Darwish and Mahmoud Kamel (Dar Al-Shorouk).

In 1905, Darwish joined a religious institute in Abul Abbas Mosque in Alexandria where he was popular as a reciter of the Quran due to his music talent. When his father passed away the following year, Darwish had to try to support his family and siblings as a Quran reciter and religious chanter.

However, his passion for music led him to towards academic studies where he joined what was known as the "Free College", where he studied the Oriental musical scale. Due to financial difficulties, Darwish took up different jobs: he was a singer as part of a troupe by night; then he worked as a builder, where he would sing the time away. It is said his songs were so inspirational that it encouraged fellow builders to build faster. When the construction owner found out Darwish's impact, he made him chief instructor of builders whose main job was to sing. Thereafter, he headed the first workers' singing troupe.

Such a way of life marked his musical career and grounded the immortality of his ouevre. Referred to as "the People's Artist," Darwish was not merely composing folk songs — he was in his own right a folk song.

"I believe that he is deeply rooted in people's existence, with his unique music composition and group singing methodology," explained composer and oud player Hazem Shahine.

Shahine added that Darwish's brilliance, aside from his great talent, is the fact that he composed very short songs as well as picked different themes than typical love songs. His songs were about people from all walks of life, whom he truly respected and hence earned their trust. Songs on everyday heros such as builders, horsemen and water-sellers remain among his most inspirational masterpieces.

"What makes him so unique is the fact that he was greatly influenced by previous music icons. But when he created music, he made a new style of music that does not resemble any of those that proceeded him," Shahine told Ahram Online, adding that Darwish's work echoed the cosmopolitan culture of Egypt at the time, where music had several forms, from religious tunes (Christian and Muslim Sufi chants), to Greek, Italian and classical.

However, technically speaking, he created el lazma (a music introduction to songs that matches the rhyme and music meter of the song). "He used to sign next to his name, khadem al mosiqa (music attendant, or in the service of music) and the people received his music with the same dedication, respect and passion. "That's why they memorised his songs. Only 50 songs are recorded in his voice, but we knew the rest of his legacy from the common people who recited it," Shahine stated. 

sayed darwish 1
How he used to sign next to his name, In the service of Music . Courtesy from the book by Hassan Darwish: For My Father



One of the benchmarks in his music career was when Selim and Amin Atta Alla, musicians who asked him to join their troupe in a tour in the Levant, Iraq, Anadol and Turkey between 1909-1912, reads the abovementioned encyclopaedia. Such exposure glazed Darwish's talent and granted him unique opportunities to meet and learn from the music icons of the time, such as  Sheikh Ali Darwish and Othman El-Mawsely. When he returned to Egypt his music became very popular and he was often singing in Alexandrian cafes, where he subsequently fell in love with his muse, Galila.

However, his family disapproved of this relationship and he listened to them for a while, giving up his art and working in the furniture market with his inlaws until he could no longer endure to be away from his love and his music. He returned once more to his artist's life and composed two of his most famous songs as a reflection on his personal life: 'In whose belief do you suppress and judge your passion,' and 'I left my family behind and people ought to be kind to me, since I became a stranger.'

It wasn't until 1917 when guru music Sheikh Salama Hegazi himself introduced Dawish properly in Cairo, where he played a great part of the musical boom in the city's theatres. Darwish started theatrical music composition with the George Abyad theatre troupe, where he composed Alhawari and Fairouz Shah plays, then joining Naguib El-Rehani and composing one of the most famous musicals of the time, Keshkesh Beih.

In August 1923, Darwish signed a contract with Emil Erian, the inventor of the Oriental piano (a piano that is adjusted to play the Oriental musical scale with all its variations) to establish a company that would document Darwish's popular oral songs, make musical arrangements of them, and call them "the people's songs." Unfortunately he passed away 40 days later and was not present to see the impact of two of his masterpieces played on the occasion of the return of Saad Zaghloul from exile on 17 September 1923. One of these songs is today's Egyptian national anthem: Beladi Beladi.

sayed darwish
The Oriental Piano as invented by Emil Erian. Courtesy of Hassan Darwish's book: For My Father

Darwish lived a short yet enchanting life where he created over 427 musical compositions, aside from his musicals. Today, and for many years to come, Said Darwish's music lives on to inspire and remind future generations of the importance of being genuine and free.

Happy birthday!

Some Rare songs by Sayed Darwish, courtesy of Misrfone

El-Habib lel hagr mail

Ya Halawet Om Ismail, ByHayat Sabri and Sayed Darwish

Walahi Testahel ya qalbi by Sayed Darwish

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