Tomorrow (Friday), singer Suzanne Mahdi will join some 20 other musicians at the Cairo Opera House to rehearse a concert marking the centenary of the death of Sayed Darwish – perhaps Egypt’s greatest ever composer – to be performed in both Cairo and Alexandria starting next week. His tunes and the words to them revolutionised Egyptian music in the early 20th century, and they have aged so well they live on in the hearts of Egyptians to this day.
“We are planning a set of around 20 songs including the iconic love and patriotic tunes that have been chanted again and again from the day he passed away in September 1923 to the present, including Ana haweit (I fell in love) and Aho dalli sar (This is the way it was),” Mahdi said. The event, he went on to explain, will include three performances by the Sayed Darwish singing ensemble, which will start at the Cairo Opera House and move onto Al-Ghouri theatre before it concludes at the Sayed Darwish Theatre (Alexandria Opera House).
“This is far less than he deserves; the memory of such a legendary figure who was rightly dubbed ‘the people’s artist’ merits something bigger including a re-launch of his operettas which had a remarkable impact on the making of Egyptian music since he first put them out in the first decade of the past century. He was an incredible musician and his mark can be found in the music of all his successors including such great names as Mohamed Abdel-Wahab and Sayed Mekkawy.”
Mahdi – the spouse of Mohamed Darwish, one of Sayed Darwish’s grandsons – says that, after a hundred years, the time has come for a project to put out high-quality editions of the gramophone recordings of his songs, collect and preserve his hand-composed music, the lyrics he was working on before the day he passed away, and to renovate his Cairo house, in Shurbra, north of the capital, especially in view of the collapse of his Alexandria house, in the neighbourhood of Kom El-Dekka, where he was born on 17 March 1892 and where he lived until he moved to Cairo in the 1920s.
Sayed Darwish was born into an extremely poor Alexandria family who sought to give him a push ahead by sending him to learn to recite the Quran, but it did not take long for him to move from recitation to singing, first along with fellow workers on construction sites and later on stages in Alexandria, Damascus, Beirut and Cairo. Over a little more than a decade Darwish fell in and out of love, was married and divorced, made money but stayed poor, and worked with the top songwriters of his time, including Badi’ Khairy and Bairam Al-Tunsi. His only obsession was finding inspiration for making music.
In the early years of World War I he was composing songs and musicals that were performed at both high-end and popular theatres and cafes in Cairo. Because of the way he seemed to break with tradition, his attempts at singing his own tunes were not initially well received, but in the hands of other performers his music caught on fast.
He was incredibly prolific, composing over 200 songs and 20 operettas in seven years. But according to the prominent Lebanese musician and music historian Victor Sahab, who just published, Sayed Darwish: Founder – a book on Darwish’s legacy – notwithstanding its quantity the quality of Darwish’s music marked an end and a beginning. He established the basis for a new style of music, freeing Egyptian tunes from their heavy Turkish legacy and subtly embracing elements of Western music.
Sahab concurs with the general view that Darwish was impressed and to some extent influenced by Italian opera despite his love of Egyptian melody. His genius was bringing the two together in an utterly original way, far from a pale imitation of the classical model but also nothing like the slow, Turkish-influenced tunes that were popular when he emerged on the scene. Towards the end of the 1910s, Darwish commissioned piano maker Emile Eryane to create a customised piano that he could use to compose Arabic music.
In his book, Sahab quotes Abdel-Wahab, perhaps Darwish’s greatest disciple, saying that it was Darwish who managed once and for all to spare Egyptian music the Turkish influence. He also refers to the great author Abbas Al-Akkad crediting Darwish with bringing “a sense of simplicity and livelihood” to Egyptian music.
When the first gramophone recordings were finding their way to Egypt, Darwish started putting out songs short enough to fit on them. He was among the first Egyptian musicians to use the then unusual sheet music. Sahab agrees with all this but he maintains that Darwish never fully broke with traditional music. His innovation is only one part of his brilliance, another being the ability to produce remarkable music by the standards of his time.
There is no doubt that Sayed Darwish pioneered songs that reflected the lives (and speech) of various social groups, especially blue collar workers. In this context Mahdi refers to Iman Al-Bahr Darwish, her husband’s half-brother, who revived those “exquisite volumes” when he started to sing them in the 1980s and they were well received by the young generation. But even now Generation Z are falling in love with Darwish. “Wherever we go and whatever we perform,” Mahdi says, “the songs of Sayed Darwish attract the audience of all different ages.”
That is why Arab music troupes always perform his work. “In the 1970s, Fayrouz [the greatest living Lebanese diva, and perhaps the greatest ever] performed several songs by Sayed Darwish and they were an immediate hit.” Imane Al-Bahr followed suit, and so did other singers who made their name in the 1980s and 1990s, keeping the connection alive.
According to Hassan Al-Sobki, spokesman for the Association of Friends of the Music of Sayed Darwish, the issue is rather that “at times not everyone knows that these are the songs of Sayed Darwish… especially when they are not the famous, iconic patriotic songs associated with the 1919 Revolution”.
Darwish was called “the people’s artist” because of his interest in blue collar people, not – as many believe today – because of the 1919 songs. In his book Sahab argues that, despite being inspired by the events of the revolution – the call to end British occupation, the exile of Saad Zaghloul, the revolution’s leader, and his anticipated return through the port in Alexandria – and making enduring songs as a result, Darwish never saw himself or behaved as a political leader or activist. In fact, as Al-Sobki points out, Darwish’s life ended on 15 September 1923, the day Saad Zaghloul arrived in Alexandria.
“I know most people believe he passed away on 10 September but this is due to an error in the registration of his death due to the political turmoil of the time,” Al-Sobki says. When Saad Zaghloul arrived in Alexandria and heard everyone chanting the famous song through which Darwish circumvented the British prohibition on public references to the leader – he set to music a fruit seller’s cry hawking an eponymous kind of date: balah zaghloul – the leader asked after the composer and was told he was being buried. Darwish was only 31.
The cause of death is variously said to be a cocaine overdose and a heart attack following disappointment in love – notably the love of the Alexandrian dancer Galila, one of his muses – but the Darwish family believes he was poisoned, whether by the Palace or the British. “They both hated him because his songs fomented anger against the occupation and the royal family allied to it,” Mahdi argues. Be that as it may, there is no doubt that King Fouad (who reigned in 1917-1936) truly hated Darwish, and so did his son Farouk, who was ousted by the 1952 Revolution.
According to Sahab, this is proven by the fact that there exists an edict by the director of the Fouad Music Institute, today’s Arab Music Institute, banning the music of Sayed Darwish. Still, Al-Sobki notes, despite the ban persisting, in 1947 it was the aristocrat Abdel-Meguid Badr Pasha, Farouk’s Minister of Trade and Finance, who called on musicians including the by now undisputed diva of Egyptian music Om Kolthoum and Abdel-Wahab, to launch the Association of Friends of the Music of Sayed Darwish.
According to music historian Mohamed Diab, who contributed to a special issue of the monthly Al-Hilal magazine commemorating the centenary this September, it was not until the 1952 Revolution that the work of Sayed Darwish was given a new lease on life, especially those songs that praised Egyptian patriotism.
In the past three years, while Egypt marked the centenary of the 1919 Revolution, several historians referred to the deliberate disconnect that the leaders of the 1952 Revolution had with the 1919 Revolution since, while both movement called for sought an end to the British occupation, which was ultimately secured in 1954, the leaders of 1919 were in favour something those of 1952 did not support: democracy.
Still, Al-Sobki noted that the 1952 regime, especially in its earlier years, paid attention to the music of Sayed Darwish as part of its attempt to inspire patriotism. In 1963, in collaboration with the Association, the Ministry of Culture published a book entitled Sayed Darwish: Artist of the People, featuring contributions from leading figures including Badi’ Khairy, who had worked repeatedly with Sayed Darwish, the great writer Tawfik Al-Hakim, who noted that Sayed Darwish was “innovative by definition and not by design”, and the poet Ma’moun Al-Shennawy, who wrote that the death of Sayed Darwish brought about the death of musical theatre in Egypt.
The 200-page volume also includes several portraits of Sayed Darwish by prominent 20th-century painters including Seif Wanly, Bahgat and Raga’i. It closes with a poem dedicated to Sayed Darwish by none other than Salah Jahine, one of the greatest vernacular poets of the 20th-century, who in the 1970s recalled the musical legacy of Sayed Darwish in the making of the popular film Amira hoby ana (Amira my love) starring the silver screen legend Souad Hosni.
Still, the family, the Associations and music historians all agree that, considering that he died before recording was easy or effective, more needs to be done to document and preserve his work. According to Khaled Azzab, the former director of heritage programmes at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, in 2003 and 2006 “the bibliotheca worked on putting together a book on the life of and music of Sayed Darwish and a set of CDs of songs he performed in own voice. We also have one of his ouds on display,” he added.
Azab says plans to buy the Kom Al-Dekka to renovate it and turn it into a museum fell through partly due to disagreements about selling it among family members. “It was unfortunate because the house was not saved and because Sayed Darwish deserved a museum in his hometown.” In 2005, under the auspices of then first lady Suzanne Mubarak, a book dedicated to Sayed Darwish was published as part of the Reading for All programme. To My Father is a 300-page volume by Hassan Darwish, the son of Sayed Darwis, giving historical context to the artist’s journey.
But with a budget of LE 2000 per year, Al-Sobki says the Association’s resources are far too limited for any ambitious documentation or restoration projects. Nor do the current headquarters, an apartment at a Cairo downtown building run by the Cairo Atelier that replaced the original headquarters at the old opera house, which burned down in 1971, allow for large-scale activities. “We are often asked about displaying the sheet music of Sayed Darwish and the books that were dedicated to his remarkable contribution. The issue is that we do not have the resources or the space to do this.”
According to Mahdi, the family does not have sufficient funds and door-to-door fundraising has not proved too successful: “We are hoping that while we mark the centenary of his passing we will draw attention to the need to find resources for the documentation and restoration of the work and the house of Sayed Darwish – before it is too late.”
* A version of this article appears in print in the 7 September, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly