130 years since birth of iconic Egyptian singer, composer Sayed Darwish

Ashraf Gharib, Thursday 17 Mar 2022

Born on 17 March 1892, in his short life of unpreceded craftsmanship and musical talent, Sayed Darwish positioned himself as the most important Egyptian musician of his time, inspiring the generations that followed his footsteps or benefited from his legacy.

Sayed Darwish

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 was born when Khedive Abbas Hilmi ascended the throne, during a state of political crisis and British interference.

He received his basic education at a kuttab school, then he went on to an Al-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.

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.

According to experts on Sayed Darwish, he wrote 31 plays, including 200 songs, aside from 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.

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.

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