A sheikh, composer, and pioneer. This month Egypt celebrates the birthday of Zakaria Ahmed (1896-1961).
"The Sheikh of Composers," as he was often referred to, is a pillar of authentic oriental music. He is one of the pioneers whose music flourished in the Arabic music scene from the early 20th century to date. Ahmed composed 1,070 melodies, 56 operettas and 191 soundtracks to Egyptian films. Moreover, he discovered the iconic singer Om Kalthoum, and together with the great poet Beiram El-Tounsi they created the golden triangle that enriched the Egyptian and Arabic music scene with enchanting songs that live on to this day.
His melodies and songs were the background of my childhood. As one of his grandchildren, I remember how my great aunt would tell us myriad stories of his kindness and grace. How my mother’s eyes would tear up whenever she heard his voice on the radio, up until this day.
Brought up in a religious family to an Egyptian father from tribal origins in Fayoum and a mother of Turkish origin, Ahmed’s first encounter with music was through his mother’s old Turkish songs that she used to sing to him. As a child he received his education at the prestigious Al-Azhar institution.
Amidst the hallways of Al-Azhar he learnt the seven reading methods of the Quran, as well as inshad (religious hymns) and Sufi chants. He was taken by the grace of religious chanting, which became his passion thereafter. Consequently, he roamed the mulids (carnivals of faith) and zikr circles (Sufi chanting performances) to chant and learn. Soon he became a faithful student to the famous Sheikh Darwish Al-Hariri, one of the masters of the trade. Later he was married to El-Harir’s sister-in-law, Hanem.
For almost 18 years Ahmed was taken by inshad (religious singing) and composed some 32 tawashih (religious songs of praise) It wasn’t until 1923 that he composed his first non-religious taqtouqa (short catchy ditties) entitled Erkhi El-Setar Elli Fi Rehna (Put the Drapes Down).
It is safe to say that Ahmed was a pioneer in that realm, managing to develop the taqtouqa form and liberate it from its stagnant classical grounding, using different meters, granting each couplet a different tune where only the first and last verses would have similar tunes. The old taqtouqa form was built on repetition of a basic phrase and melody.
During the 1919 revolution, Ahmed's music career took a political twist. His turban hid leaflets of the resistance movement, which he helped spread in his mulid tours throughout the country. He also composed several patriotic songs among them, Qal Ya Saad Min Zayyak Za'im (Saad, Who Is As Great a Leader?), sung by Abdel-Salam El-Banna, and played at the beginning of all plays at the Majestic Theatre.
According to Isis Fathalla’s book Zakaria Ahmed: Volume I, Ahmed’s music career took off soon after that, where his music compositions were the accompaniment of most theatre troupes, and icons Naguib Al-Rehani and Ali Al-Kassar. He composed for numerous leading artists of the day, such as Naaima El -Masria, Monira El-Mahdeia, Abdel Latif Al-Banna and Saleh Abdel Hai.
Ahmed was the composer behind Egypt’s first musical film, entitled Onshoudat Al-Fouad (Song of the Heart) in 1932, staring famous singer Nadra. He even played a part in the film. Gradually his music carved its way into Egyptian cinema, amounting to some 191 tracks, featured in almost 40 films.
It was Ahmed who first discovered that young brilliant peasant girl whom he helped to flourish to become Egypt’s star of the East, Om Kalthoum. In 1931, Fathalla writes, Om Kalthoum first sang to the tunes of Zakaria Ahmed: Elli Habak Ya Hanah (Joy to He who Loves Thee), with lyrics by great poet Ahmed Ramy.
Through the years, Ahmed composed for numerous music stars, but the most memorable has always been his collaboration with Om Kalthoum and famous poet Beiram El-Tounsi. They were often referred to as the "golden trio" and together enriched the Arabic music scene and were its top stars for decades.
On a personal note, he was a ”loving, democratic father,” remembers his youngest daughter Tahani. His motto was simple: "Lying is as bad as stealing." Tahani recalls him repeating warning, adding that despite his busy schedule Ahmed always found time for his children. As a democratic father, he would address any misbehaviour on their end with rational conversation where they would get to explain their point of view. A rare parental approach in those days.
Having a religious background, and as a modern father, he was keen on teaching his children the best of both worlds. His daughters were French schooled while he made sure they memorised the Quran and would generously award them if they recited it correctly.
Ahmed’s house would open its doors monthly for an enlightening cultural salon where lots of artists and stars would join and fill the night with music, poetry and stories, often commencing with Sufi chants. Among the stars of such nights was Nobel Prize winning author Naguib Mahfouz, the great writers Tawfik Al-Hakim and Badi Khairy, prominent painter Salah Taher, as well as poetry pillar Beiram El-Tounsi, who was his best friend, Tahani remembered.
Despite all the fame and glamour, he remained his humble self.
Many times he missed premieres of his songs in order to play his music as a favour for an underprivileged acquaintance. He took the risk of hiding his best friend, poet El-Tounsi, when he was exiled in France having jumped ship.
One night he waltzed home in his white sharkskin suit, ruined thanks to basket of horseradish that he bought from a street vendor. Why did you buy the whole basket? Why not just give her extra money, my grandmother would protest. “Because she continues to sit in the cold with the infant," he would answer. He wanted to spare the child the cold, so he bought all her wares, distributing them among his neighbours as usual.
His music flourished throughout the Arab world. Om Kalthoum sang his songs for almost 20 years until the end of the 1940s. A legal dispute over a contract then kept them apart. But eight years later they reconciled, and Ahmed composed for her his last song, Howa Sahih El-Hawa Ghalab (Is it True that Passion is Dominant) in 1960. He died one year later.
In 1960, Ahmed was awarded a medal of honour. In 1964, his family received the state award and later a street in downtown Cairo was named after him.
He was known among his peers as modest, generous, witty and extremely honest, concludes Fathalla's book. To me, he was as genuine as his music, and that’s the secret of his brilliance.