Documenting the history of Sheikh Zakaria Ahmed

Mahmoud El-Wardani, Monday 13 Jun 2011

Sheikh Zakaria Ahmed, the composer and musician who shaped much of Egypt's Arabic musical heritage, is finally commemorated in a historical volume

It's rare for the Egyptian reader to find the type of book that involves detailed and accurate documentation, researching and nailing down the chosen topic, like what Isis Fath-Allah has done in this very important book. The book reflects on the life of one of the most important and most influential Egyptian musicians: Zakaria Ahmed.

It is probably the first time that such effort has been undertaken in documentation, collection, research and proofing to complete such an encyclopedic work for an important figure in Arab music. The project, led by the Center for Documentation of Heritage, aims to protect the heritage of this music "and to keep up with the progression utilizing modern technologies, multimedia and information systems," as noted in the introduction by the center.

This book is the fifth one in the center's project to complete the "Encyclopedia of Arabic Music Figures", following four successful volumes about Om Kolthum, Salama Hegazy, Sayed Darwish and Mohamed Abdel-Wahab. There's also a plan to setup a database for Arabic music, including all the documented works for leaders and figures of music from the middle of the 19th century till the end of the 20th.

In addition to the documented database of music (cassettes, records, books), there is also the research published about Zakaria Ahmed in Arabic, wherever it was conducted. This effort required a team of specialized researchers in various fields, and work through libraries in different organizations such as the national archives, the institute for Arabic music, the national radio, opera house and the organisation for composers.

Throughout nearly 900 pages in two volumes, the author exposes the achievements of this great man, famous as the Sheikh of Egyptian composers. The first section of the book includes the Sheikh's biography, or at least its headlines, and seems to be the least researched part of the book despite being the only easy-read section for the non-specialized reader.

The biography indicates that Zakaria Ahmed was born in the popular neighborhood Al-Hussein, in Old Cairo, on 6 January 1896. His father belonged to the Marzaban tribe from the bedouins of the Fayoum desert, and his mother was Turkish, and from her Ahmed gained his love for singing and his emotionally expressive voice.

While Zakaria Ahmed's father was training him to become a religious scholar, teaching him the Koran at Al-Azhar, and religious sciences before even joining the Khalil Agha school, Ahmed himself was overcome by his love for music and singing, so he was introduced to a religious singing master, Sheikh Ismail Sokkar. It is out of luck that the Sokkar discovered his talent and encouraged him to join his choir, which allowed him to memorize many famous old songs and religious poems. He continued learning through joining Sheikh Sayed Moussa then Sheikh Aly Mahmoud's background choirs as well, both being leaders of singing during the early twentieth century.

For the next 18 years, Sheikh Zakaria Ahmed worked in reading Koran, and singing and composing religious songs, especially after his extended apprenticeships. Yet in 1923, he started composing non-religious songs, first some small songs, sung by Mounira El-Mahdeya, Saleh Abdel-Hay, Naeima El-Sagheer, Abdel-Latif El-Banna and others. Next year he co-composed parts of the musical "Fortune Country", among others, then started composing musicals alone. Musical historians regard him as a continuation of Sayed Darwish for his social critique.

Yet his biggest contribution remains uncovering the talent of Om Kalthoum as a young child, and not settling at that, but caring for her education from when she started religious chants and until her first "taktouka" (song with few words but extended music and vocals) in 1931, titled "The one who loved you is fortunate". In this regard, the author uncovers that a significant number of the Om Kalthoum songs composed by Sheikh Zakaria Ahmed in their earlier days are unfortunately lost.

At the end of the 1940s, they argued about money, a big argument that reached the courts, and they stopped cooperating for 10 years until they reconciled in 1960, and Om Kalthoum sang one of the most important Eastern songs "It's true that Love overtakes."

On another front, Zakaria Ahmed's contributions are numerous: he composed the music for the first Egyptian musical movie, as well as renewed a lot in the "taktouka" musical structures, and introduced the 'sung story' for the first time and the spoken sentences as part of a song. All this in addition to his own musical performance despite his rough voice.

Just before he passed away on 15 February 1961, he earned the "State honorary prize" in 1961 for his creations in music, as well as his solo singing.

The rest of the book is dedicated to musical experts. The second volume includes a list of all his musical compositions, sorted alphabetically, which is a guide to the details of each one of these works in the third section of the book, where all his works are described in detail in sub-sections according to the musical form.

Although the first section is rather brief and only highlights major incidences in Ahmed's life, the historical documenting effort is quite evident in the rest of the book. However, the book lacks any bibliography of all the books, articles or research related to Zakaria Ahmed, which would otherwise make it a complete encyclopedia about the great composer.

Zakaria Ahmed by Isis Fath-Allah, Cairo: Dar Al-Shorouk with the Center for Documentation of Heritage, 2011. pp. 884.

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