Remembering Qasabgi: Master of Masters

Akram Rayess, Saturday 19 Dec 2015

As SACERAU celebrates 70 years since its establishment this week, Ahram Online commemorates some of the 16 music and poetry pillars to be honored by SACERAU on Monday 21 December


As the Society of Authors, Composers and Publishers of the Arabic Republic of Egypt (SACERAU) celebrates 70 years since its establishment this week, Ahram Online commemorates some of the 16 music and poetry pillars to be honoured by SACERAU on Monday 21 December.

We start with El-Qasabgi, the Master of Masters.

Mohamed El-Qasabgi (1892-1966), born on 15 April in the Abdeen district in Cairo, was greatly influenced by his father who was a Munshid (Sufi Chanter) reciter of Quran and an independent music composer/teacher who played oud. He learned the music metre and how to play oud before his father sent him to Al-Azhar to study science, logic, fiqh, the Arabic language and Quran chanting (Tajweed).

After completing his Al-Azhar studies, he joined the Higher Institute of Teachers to be an educator in 1914. However, his passion for music prevailed and he quit teaching to focus on music composition, starting off as a musician with the Al-Aqadd Takht music troupe. The Akkad Takht boasted music stars of the time such as Sheikh Youssef El-Manyalawi and Sheikh Abu El-Eila Mohammed, who sang to the tunes of famous music composers such as Abdou Al-Hamouli, Ibrahim El-Qabani and Dawood Hosney. However, Qasabgi's first song was commissioned by Bidafoun records and was titled Malish Malik fi el Qalb Gheirak (There is no one in my heart but you), and the enchanting musical journey begins.

His style

El-Qasabgi started a unique school of music composition, singing and oud playing. He managed to create a balanced canvas that had the authenticity of oriental music side by side with Western music techniques in the first quarter of the 20th century. Hence, he was a pioneer who sailed oriental music into a new horizon.  


El-Qasabgi always paid attention to music composition while developing a new vocabulary that is based on a creative, compatible and balanced syntheses of harmony and the core elements of Arabic music, though less open to improvisation. The instrumental introductions in his songs acquired a novel role in paving the way towards the emotions and meaning conveyed by the lyrics, thus becoming by themselves expressive vehicles. This was further demonstrated in the innovations he set forth to the musical monologue in terms of form, content and singing; starting from the landmark song for Um Kulthoum En kont asameh w ansa elli hasalli (If only I would forgive and forget, 1928) that set record breaking sales at the time.

The Master of Masters

In parallel to his creative compositions, El-Qasabgi was also a grand professor of oriental music and the oud instrument at the Arabic Music Institute.  Many of his students later became music icons of the time such as Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Riad El-Sonbati, Om Kalthoum, Asmahan, and Farid El-Atrash, to name a few. Abdel-Wahab admits that El-Qasabgi was a pioneer in mastering a scientifically well-grounded usage of harmony and polyphony in his works. 


Even El-Sonbati was influenced by el-qasabgi's style in composing his early songs. Moreover, el-qasabgi's influence knew borders, with his impact reaching artists in other arab countries such as Zaki Nasif, Tawfik Basha in Lebanon and Mustafa Hilal in Syria. According to victor sahabs book, the great seven," the fact that a music institute in Istanbul is named after el-Qasabgi is a recognition of his great impact on music."

His work

El-Qasabgi is considered among the pioneers of Arab music composers of the 20th century , where he has worked with music icons and pillars of three different generations such as Monira El-Mahdeia, Zaki Murad, Nai'ma El-Masria, Fathia Ahmed, Karem Mahmoud, Om Kalthoum, Asmahan, Saleh Abdel Hai, Hoda Sultan,  Soaad Mohamed, Nazik, Laila Murad and Shahrazad.

He composed some 360 songs, as stated by Mahmoud Kamel in his book titled Mohamed El-Qasabgi Biography and Music, published by the Egyptian Ministry of Culture in 1971. However, his songs was more famous than he himself was; a rather unusual status that could be related to his reserved personality, that some relate to the fact that he never sang his own songs, unlike his peers Said Darwish and Zakaria Ahmed.

However, his songs are classic Arabic music gems. Who can forget songs such as  Raq El-Habib (The Beloved's tenderness) by Om Kalthoum, Ya Toyour (O Birds) by Asmahan, Emta hateeraf emta (When will you know, when?) by Asmahan, or Ya Sabah El-Kheir (Good morning) by Om Kalthoum, and Ana Albi Dalili (My heart is my guide) by Laila Murad in 1948, an inspirational  song that lived to the year 2000 and even beyond, as composer Mohamed Fawzi  predictied. Moreover, his instrumental piece “Zikrayati” is an essential constituent of study curricula at music conservatories across Arab countries.

During his early years, El-Qasabgi recorded  a series of unique Oud Taqaseem. However his interest in musical theatre lead him to co compose some 35 songs from five plays for The Monira El-Mahdia theatre troupe as well as El-Rehani theatre troupe: El-Mazloma (The innocent, 1926), Haram El-Mofatesh (The wife of the inspector, 1926), Hayat El-Nofous (Precious life, 1928), Kid El-Nisaa (Women’s cunningness, 1928), and Negmet El Sobh (The Morning Star, 1929). Moreover, he composed 91 songs for 38 films between the years 1932 and 1957.

As for his works with the star of the orient, Om Kalthoum, he composed over 65 songs, with lyrics mainly written by Ahmed Rami, the master of romantic songs.

The first of these was Al Eih Helf Maykalemnish (He swore he won’t speak to me, 1924), and that was right after he listened to one of Om Kalthoum’s concerts in Babkot Bask Teatro. Since then, they worked together for two decades in which he created some of his best tunes. Unfortunately, their collaboration came to an abrupt end after he composed music for her film Fatma in 1948. Since then, he managed her music troupe, gradually becoming one of the musicians in the group until he passed away.

As a tribute to such a great figure, Om Kalthoum set an empty seat on stage in his honour.

Compiled by Akram Rayess

Akram Rayess is a researcher in Ethnomusicology with interest in cultural development, music of the Levant, music theatre and documentation. He is a founding member of the Foundation for Arab Music Archiving and Research (AMAR) and a steering committee member of the Modern Heritage Observatory (MoHO).


Mohamed El-Qasabgi, His Biography and Works, book by Mahmoud Kamel, publisher Egyptian Ministry of Culture, 1971.
The Great Seven of Contemporary Arabic Music, book by Victor Sahab, publisher Dar El Elm Lelmalayeen, 1987.
Music in Syria, Biographies and History, book by Samim El-Sharif, publisher Syrian Ministry of Culture, 2011.
Arab Music Archiving and Research Foundation (AMAR).

Mohamed El-Qasabgi, his Biography and Works, book by Mahmoud Kamel, publisher Egyptian Ministry of Culture, 1971.

The Great Seven of Contemporary Arabic Music, book by Victor Sahab, publisher Dar El Elm Lelmalayeen, 1988.

Arab Music Archiving and Research Foundation (AMAR).


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