Fourty-three years have passed since the death of the great musician Farid Al-Atrash on 26 December 1974, and his music is still thriving, bearing witness to the high stature that he enjoys among the Oriental-music geniuses of the twentieth century.
There are various sources providing different dates for Al-Atrash's birth, and as such it is difficut to point to the correct one. However, in his memoirs, Al-Atrash said that he was born in winter, with snow covering the mountains where his family lived. There are sources that point to the year 1917, but is this correct? Based on numerous documents, we assume that Al-Atrash's birth took place between 1909 and 1911, for his younger sister Amal Al-Atrash, widely-known as Asmahan, was born between 1915 and 1917.
Farid Al-Atrash was the scion of the Al-Atrash family who ruled the Jabal Al-Druze (Druze Mountain) area in Syria from the capital of Al-Suweida during WWI. Due to the Druze’s revolution, led by Sultan Al-Atrash, against the French at the time, the family was obliged to escape to Beirut first, then to Cairo, where they arrived in 1923. The Egyptian national leader Saad Zaghloul, who headed the government at the time, ordered that they enter the country on his personal authority, although they didn’t carry any identity papers.
The life of the family – headed by mother Alia Al-Munzir and the three siblings Fouad, Farid and Amal – had taken a turn for the worse.
Through his mother, who possessed a beautiful voice, Farid Al-Atrash was enchanted with music and singing. He learned operatic singing and church hymns in the Collège De La Salle in the heart of Cairo. He then joined the Arab Music Institute, learning to play the oud from the great composer Riyad Al-Sunbati. At the same time, he was working in a clothes store, so as to help his family.
At this period, Al-Atrash began to frequent the cabarets on Emad El-Din Street, Egypt’s most famous centre for performance artistes. At first, he worked as a singer in Marie Mansour’s cabaret. Then he got a big break, working at the company of Badia Masabni, the most famous artiste at the time. He performed there, as well as singing on local radio channels, which were widespread in Egypt before the setting-up of Egyptian Radio in 31 May 1934.
The well-known musician Medhat Assem, Egyptian Radio’s music supervisor, accepted Al-Atrash as an official singer at the radio station. He also gave him the song Ya Reitni Tir (I wish I’ve been a Bird), which was composed by the Palestinian composer Yahya Al-Lababidy and became one of Al-Atrash’s early famous songs.
Although Al-Atrash had achieved a decent measure of success in the world of singing through the Egyptian Radio and making records, he aspired to significant popular fame and a clear acknowledgement of his presence on the Egyptian arts scene.
This was accomplished with his cinematic debut in The Triumph of Youth (1941), along with his sister Asmahan and Anwar Wagdi, a film that was directed by Ahmed Badrakhan.
Following the success of his first film, the doors of cinema were thrown open wide, to the extent that between 1941 and 1975 – the year of his death – he made 31 films, including 18 he produced for himself.
The first film he produced for himself was Lifetime Sweetheart (1947) directed by Barakat. Starting with this film, Egyptian cinema came to know one of its most famous and most successful artistic couples: that is Farid Al-Atrash and the belly dancer Samia Gamal. Their collaboration resulted in six films between 1947 and 1952, all of which were landmarks in Egyptian musical cinema.
They included Lady Ghost (1949) directed by Barakat, The Last Lie (1950) by Ahmed Badrkhan, Come Over and Say Hello (1951) by Helmy Rafla, and Don’t Tell Anybody (1952) by Barakat. These films coincided with the tempestuous love affair between the two big stars. However, their relationship was broken due to Al-Atrash’s outright refusal of marriage as a matter of principal. Consequently, their artistic partnership was terminated.
Although he didn’t display superb acting abilities in his films, it was Al-Atrash’s good fortune that he emerged at a time when musical comedies dominated the tastes of the Egyptian cinema at the end of WWII. As a result, he appeared in light roles that didn’t require special acting talent, with the possible exception of his role in Exit from Heaven (1967) adapted from a novel by Tawfiq Al-Hakim and directed by Mahmoud Zulfikar.
In spite of this, credit must go to Al-Atrash for the advancement of operettas in films, displaying his keenness to present a big show that combines singing, acting and dramatic situations within films. These include: the Four Seasons operetta in Lady Ghost, the Magic Carpet operetta in The Last Lie, Prince Charming operetta in The Melody of My Love (1953) directed by Ahmed Badrkhan.
In addition, Al-Atrash always wanted to present singing dialogues in participation with the singing female leads in his films. The most famous of these was Ya Salam ala Hobby we Hobbek (Oh For Our Love) in You are my Love (1957) directed by Youssef Chahine, where the songstress Shadia sang along with him.
They were so deeply in love at the time that Al-Atrash was about to abandon his previous convictions regarding marriage, only failing to marry at the last moment due to his ongoing health problems.
As much as the melodies of Farid Al-Atrash were characterised by a weepy nature emanating from his own personal and temperamental constitution, he diversified them among musical genres. For instance, he presented the tango in the song Ya Zahratan fi Khayaly (O Flower of my Imagination) in Lady Ghost, which was arranged in a number of countries, especially Russia and France, and his song Albi we Moftahu (My Heart and its Key) with its westernised character from A Letter from an Unknown Woman (1962) directed by Salah Abu-Seif.
The same goes for a number of lyrics, such as ’Ish Anta (May you survive), La wa ’Ayneika (By your Eyes), and ’Odtt ya youma Mawlidi (You’re Back, My Birthday).
Al-Atrash’s musical compositions weren’t confined to his voice; he also composed some of the best songs of other singers, including: Sabah, Shadia, Warda, Soad Mohamed, Muharram Fouad, Wadih El-Safi and Nour Al-Hoda.
Perhaps the two exceptions were Umm Kulthum, whose collaboration with him in his famous song El-Rabie’ (The Spring) foundered, and Abdel-Halim Hafez, for whom collaborative singing projects were hampered by recurring creative disputes.
Since the 1950s, Al-Atrash suffered from heart problems, which ultimately led to his death in Beirut, where he resided in his final years, on 26 December 1974. However, as he requested in his will, he was buried in Cairo.
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