Resala Ala Nota Mosikya (Message on a Musical Note), by: Mona El-Bakry, (Cairo: Samaa Publishing House), 2019
Can you become obsessed with the story of someone you met once in an elevator when you were seven years old? Can you manage to gather all the details of his life to the point where those who knew him wonder if you were sitting with them when the events occurred? That is exactly what Mona El-Bakry did with composer Baligh Hamdy in her first novel “Message on a Musical Note.” It is a documentary novel that tries to cover the life of a musical genius, the one whose songs will remain eternal in our spirits and whose contributions will continue to be a landmark in Oriental music.
When seeing the amount of songs for various singers mentioned in the novel, and discovering in the end it was Baligh who composed all of them, the reader feels they have never listened to anyone else. Baligh composed music for 3,000 songs, wrote the words for about 100 of them, and collaborated with more than 100 singers in the Arab world. This makes him among the most prolific composers in music history.
The dedication, the passion and the admiration for Baligh Hamdy are obvious in the author’s novel. Gathering the details of his life, she read all she could find about him, listened to as many songs as she could of his, documented the circumstances and background for many of them, inserted in the novel, which adds to the beauty of the reading process. Revealing how numerous were the song types he composed (whether love, religious, patriotic, popular, folk, reviving ancient Egyptian heritage, or experimenting to fuse Western and Eastern music) is an amazing effort that puts a spotlight on the musical genius of the man.
The author showed Hamdy as an epic character worthy of Greek legend. A generous person, his home was always open for everyone to visit, sit, eat, or sleep. Money had no value for him, which made many of his entourage abuse his generosity. But he didn’t mind, or pay much attention to such a small matter. He was a kind of playboy, yet very shy. His shyness was seen as arrogance by many, especially journalists that he refused to give interviews to. When a tunes would jump into his mind, he forgot everything and lived his genius talent. This could last a few hours or a few weeks, before he returned back to earth.
His life rebounded between the bohemian, fame, and the suffering of an exile, into which he was forced in the mid-1980s to avoid a one year prison sentence based on preposterous accusations. His tragic death came from liver cancer. On his death bed he was heard screaming that he was innocent, had suffered injustice, and that he didn’t do anything to deserve what happened to him. The author describes that scene in a way that makes tears come to the reader’s eyes, particularly after knowing the value of “The Arab Mozart.” The writer tried her best to clear him of all the rumours that circulated around his lifestyle. She consigned the negative reputation that surrounded the legendary composer to several factors: between the jealousies of other composers, to singers literally begging him to cooperate with them in any song he chooses, to journalists who felt slighted in not being included in his circle, to his legendary success. His name on any song guaranteed its success and the fame of the singer. Finally, political reasons are revealed in the novel.
The novel title refers to the love story that existed between Baligh and Warda, the famous Algerian singer. Marrying her was his dream since he first laid eyes on her, and she loved him at the age of 18 when she heard Abdel Halim Hafez's song “Tekhoonouh,” or Betrayed, in the movie “El Wesada El-Khaleya” (The Empty Pillow) in 1957 in Damascus, Syria where she lived. She was still discovering her musical talent, but once she heard the song she became obsessed with the composer and swore to her friend that one day she will meet him, sing his music and maybe even marry him. As for Baligh, it was love at first sight. He had heard her in a few songs before she arrived to Cairo and then was asked to add music to a few songs in her movie, “Almaz and Abdo El-Hamouli." He never forgot the day he first saw her until the last day of his life.
The details of their love story are revealed in the novel. It was not an easy path; it took about 15 years since they fell in love with each other in 1958 until they actually got married in 1973. During that time of separation, Baligh send messages to Warda through his songs — love messages that were obvious to those who knew him and knew his story. Later she revealed that she understood the messages, but could not answer due to being married to someone else.
Baligh was close to the power circles, to President Sadat, to the crème de la crème of society, whether in Egypt or the Arab world. But he never discussed the details of these relations. He led a rich life and died with a broken heart, but until the end he maintained his dignity and did not turn on those who wronged him. He was simply bigger than that.
The writer’s style is attractive to the reader; it is one of those novel’s that you cannot put down, wishing that it does not end, wanting more information about “Egypt’s hope in music” as he was called by the famous poet Kamel El-Shenawi — a title later adopted by the media. If the book has flaws, they may include repeating certain ideas over and over, such Baligh’s love for Warda, his renovation of Oriental music, etc. Some may see such repetitions as a way to make the ideas stick in the reader’s mind. Others might see it as a weakness in the narration. But by all means, El-Bakry was able to revive the memory of one the icons of Egyptian music.