Across the history of Arab art in the 20th century, you won’t find a name that enjoyed such wide artistic and life experience as the one enjoyed by the composer and singer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab.
This man remained for almost 75 years, since his emergence at the beginnings of the 20th century until his death in 1991, the most important figure in the field of music and singing and whose fame outshone all his peers, including the Dame of Arab singing, Um Kalthoum. Although she was in constant rivalry with Abdel-Wahab, the length of Abdel-Wahab’s artistic experience as well as the diversity of his contributions settled the competition in his favour even before his death and by a number of years.
It is certain that the composer and singer was born 13 March, but a famous dispute raged over the year of his birth. He himself wrote down in his passport that he was born in the 1930s while he kept saying that he was born in 1913. As a matter of fact, neither is correct.
There is more than one incident that points to the fact that he was born in 1901 or 1902. For example, the stage and cinema director Fouad El-Gazayerly knew Abdel-Wahab in 1909 while watching his father Fawzi El-Gazayerly’s theatrical company, and he was eight years old.
The Prince of Poets, Ahmed Shawqi, asked Cairo’s governor to protect the childhood of a boy by stopping him from singing on stage. That boy was Abdel-Wahab who used to perform in Abdel-Rahman Rushdi’s company in 1914.
In addition, Abdel-Wahab was taught for a while at the hands of the People’s Artist, Sayyed Darwish, and succeeded him in composing the operetta “Cleopatra” after Darwish’s death in 1923. Consequently, it is impossible that Abdel-Wahab was born in 1913 but rather in or close to 1901.
When the great poet Ahmed Shawqi returned from his compulsory residence in Spain in 1917 he decided to take Abdel-Wahab under his wing and became his mentor culturally, artistically and educationally, in order to make him a successful figure in the field of music. He even took him on his European tours.
Thus, the young singer’s culture and perceptions broadened and his voice became mature until he was named “The Princes’ Singer” in the early 1930s, especially as his voice began to be heard on traditional records at the time.
However, Abdel-Wahab needed to widen his popularity and transcend the stage of the singer of the elite to be the singer of the public. This was achieved through his cinematic debut as a singer and actor in “The White Rose” (December 1933) directed by Mohamed Karim.
Although “The White Rose” was preceded by a number of musical films, the first of which was “The Heart’s Chant” (April 1932) directed by Mario Volpe and starring the songstress Nadra and the composer Sheikh Zakariyya Ahmad, many cinema critics and historians consider Abdel-Wahab as the actual pioneer of Egyptian musical film.
Nahla Al-Qudsi and Mohamed Abdel-Wahab (Photo: Ahram)
This was due to his popularity and the push that he gave to this genre when he entered the world of cinema, and also for the qualitative leap that continued until his last film, “I am not Angel” (1946), directed also by Mohamed Karim. For between his first and last films Abdel-Wahab made five films, all of which were directed by his favourite director, Mohamed Karim: “Tears of Love” (1935), “Long Live Love” (1938), “A Happy Day” (1938), “Love is Forbidden” (1942) and “A Bullet in the Heart” (1944).
Despite the fact that he didn’t show in his seven films any noticeable acting skills, his fans didn’t desire more than seeing him singing on the silver screen. This what Abdel-Wahab did, drawn to the simplicity of the dramatic characters that he chose to act in his films — characters that didn’t require a professional acting performance. Most of these roles revolved around being an ordinary employee or an aristocrat facing certain difficulties in life.
His cinematic experience allowed him to get rid of his exaggerated ecstatic performance and also contributed to reducing the time of the song and diversifying its ideas according to the variety of dramatic situations in films. Consequently, his songs’ tempo was accelerated and attracted the younger generation of listeners at the time, classifying Abdel-Wahab as one of the renovators in Arab music, side by side with composers Mohamed El-Qasabgi and Mohamed Fawzi.
Due to their pioneering character, those seven films created the opportunity of presenting singing forms on the silver screen which weren’t known before in Egyptian cinema, such as duets.
Abdel-Wahab was keen that his female co-stars have beautiful voices, such as Nagat Ali in “Tears of Love”, Leila Mourad in “Long Live Love”, Ragaa Abdou in “Love is Forbidden”, Raqya Ibrahim in “A Bullet in the Heart”, Nour Al-Houda in “I am not Angel”, while in the only film in which his female co-star couldn’t sing, namely “A Happy Day”, Abdel-Wahab got the songstress Asmahan in order to present with him another singing form which is the film operetta “Mad about Laila” from an eponymous play by his mentor Ahmed Shawqi, beside a solo song “What a Lovely Life, a Peasant’s Life.”
Abdel-Wahab’s connection with cinema didn’t cease after he stopped acting following his last film “I am not Angel” (1946). He made several contributions, diversified in other forms. He appeared twice on the silver screen with his real name, first in “The Flirtation of Girls" (1949) directed by Anwar Wagdi, and second in “Extreme Joy” (1963) by Mohamed Salem.
His cinematic contributions were present in a number of production companies the most durable was “Sawt El-Fen” which continued to work until a few years ago. Through these companies, Abdel-Wahab succeeded in producing dozens of important films and introducing a number of stars, such as Leila Mourad, Faten Hamama, Naima Akef, Abdel-Halim Hafez, Souad Hosni and his nephew Saad Abdel-Wahab.
He was the composer of more than 50 film songs, including those of renowned singers like Abdel-Halim Hafez, Leila Mourad, Shadia, Sabah, Faiza Ahmed, Nagat, Warda and Adel Maamoun. His compositions have even served non-traditional voices such as Fouad Al-Mohandes, Mahmoud Shokoko and Ismail Yassin.
As for singing away from cinema, Abdel-Wahab was its first champion in the first half of the 20th century. He was considered as having a distinguished style in romantic, patriotic and religious songs and was very competent in singing poems. That was before devoting his talent to composing since the mid-1950s, including for headline singers topped by Umm Kulthum, with whom he collaborated for the first time in “You are My Life” in 1964, followed by more than 10 compositions that were considered her most famous songs in her final years.
Due to this broad and very rich artistic experience, Abdel-Wahab received many types of honors never before bestowed on an artist. He was the first composer to receive the State Merit Award during President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s rule, and the first composer to receive an honorary doctorate from Academy of Arts during the rule of President Anwar El-Sadat, who also gave him the rank of Major General.
A number of Arab monarchs and presidents awarded him decorations and medals, such as the late King Hussein of Jordan, the late Tunisian President Al-Habib Bourguiba, and Sultan Qaboos of Oman.
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