There is no one with Sayed Darwish’s stature in the history of Arab music. His music marked a watershed between Ottoman classical music, with all its craftsmanship, and the spirit of the modern. It led the way for lyricists on one hand and listeners on the other to catch up with 20th century music.
His successors over the last hundred years, such as Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Mohamed Fawzi, Baligh Hamdy and Ammar El-Sherei, were an extension of his output.
Darwish, who was dubbed “the people’s artist,” was born in Kom El-Dekka in Alexandria, on 17 March 1892.
He came of age when Egyptian society was in turmoil, and anger was fermenting against the British occupation; everything was ready for change.
Egypt was witnessing a renaissance movement at that time in the theatre and music, with comedy plays thriving in the hands of Naguib Al-Rihani and Ali Al-Kassar, and musicals in the hands of Sheikh Salama Hegazi (1852- 1917).
When Darwish emerged, he found the environment ready to receive a musical leap forward, with the encouragement of Al-Rihani. This leap liberated Arab music from its aristocratic past and removed the Ottoman craftsmanship from it. It thus became more capable of expression and of keeping up with the rhythm of the times.
Darwish died in 1923 aged just 31, but he lived through one of the most turbulent periods in Egypt’s modern history. Digesting all these developments, Darwish reflected them in his music.
He was born when Khedive Abbas Hilmi ascended the throne, during a state of political crisis and British interference.
His life ended on the eve of the return of the nationalist leader, Saad Zaghloul, from exile and the issuing of the 1923 constitution. Between the two dates, the influence of the British high commissioner increased, as did the presence of foreigners, especially Greeks, Italians and Levantines, and the number of bars, in Alexandria in particular.
The British decided to decrease the number of official schools and retain only the Quranic schools and the religious education represented in Al-Azhar.
In this milieu, the young boy received his basic education at a kuttab school, then he went on to an Azhar institute. At the same time, he made friends with many foreign expatriates in Alexandria and heard their music. This was reflected in many of his later compositions such as, El-Garsonat (“The Waiters”) and El-Arwam (“The Turks”).
Darwish then travelled to Syria and Lebanon with Amin Attallah Theatrical Troupe and was taught by the biggest names in music there, such as Saleh Al-Jaziyah, Ali Al-Darwish and Othman Al-Mosuli.
He was also influenced by the songs and rhythms of artisans, and was able to adapt them in songs like El-Helwa Di (“This Beautiful Girl”) and El-Qullel El-Qinawi (“The Qenawi Jugs”).
In 1914, the British declared Egypt a protectorate, deposed the khedive, and declared martial law. These events ignited Darwish’s nationalist fervour, and he reached his pinnacle in the songs he wrote and composed during the 1919 Revolution and its aftermath.
His masterpieces from that time include Ana Al-Masri (“I Am the Egyptian”), the music for Biladi Biladi (“My Country”), which became the national anthem, and Ouum Ya Masri (“Stand Up, Egyptian”), which instigated patriotic sentiments against the British occupation and combated sectarianism.
In addition, he adapted the songs of Badie Khairy, the famous playwright, so as to serve the nationalist cause.
This leads us to Darwish’s achievements as a reformer. In theatre, he improved the operetta genre, following Sheikh Salama Hegazi’s prominent role in this field. His operettas were El-Ashra El-Tayyeba, El-Barouka (“The Wig”) and Cleopatra wa Mark Anthony (“Cleopatra and Mark Anthony”) which his disciple Mohamed Abdel-Wahab completed.
He continued to make use of artisan songs, as in El-Arbagiyya (“The Carters”), El-Saqqyeen (“The Water-Carriers”) and El-Mommardeen (“The Nurses”), and was clever in using the dramatic effect in sung dialogues, as in the Devil’s song in El-Barouka. Musicals lacked these characteristics before he introduced them.
Perhaps Darwish didn’t make much reform of the musical genre of dawr as a singing form, but he must take the credit for his diverse musical scales and the introduction of some of them in a way that had not existed before.
His rhythms were relatively free from the monotony of these scales. He was also truly creative in his use of a variety of Arab musical genres. He focused on expression rather than the usual oriental decorative performance at the time, as well as using some new rhythms such as the march, for instance. According to experts on Sayed Darwish’s heritage, he wrote 31 plays, including 200 songs, other than his solos.
He used polyphony in some of his compositions, which was quite evident in his “The War Drums Are Beating’ in the Shahrazad (Scheherazade) operetta.
What’s surprising is that this great musical heritage and outstanding output was made in nearly six years, starting in 1917 when he decided to leave Alexandria for good and reside in Cairo, and until his sudden death on 10 September 1923.
It was as if this genius felt that his life would be very short, so he produced in a short period what others achieve in decades. Maybe this was what drove Abbas Al-Aqqad, one of the pillars of modern Egypt’s culture, to criticise the Egyptian government’s neglect and disregard of Sayed Darwish, both during his life and after his death, speaking two years after he passed away.
Al-Aqqad rightly described Darwish as the spearhead of an avant-garde school that Egyptian musical history had not seen before.