Following five months of absence from Alexandria, Said El-Artist finally returned to the Mediterranean city with a concert on Friday 9 September. Advertised as “Said El- Artist and his oriental percussion ensemble,” the concert – held at the historical Sayed Darwish Theatre (Alexandria Opera House) was sold out two weeks in advance, and the opera’s management actually added 70 seats to accommodate demand.
Throughout the four-hour evening, one of Egypt’s leading masters, Said El-Artist took the Alexandria audience by storm as he led 50 tabla (or darbouka) players – 45 women, 20 men – as well as an additional 15 on daf, duhulla (bass tabla), riq, finger cymbals and other percussion instruments. The stage also featured violin, qanoun, ney, accordion, keyboard, joining in for chosen pieces, as well as two clarinet soloists (Hoda Hosny and Ayman Al-Abyad), a mizmar player (Said Al-Husseini), and an accordion soloist (Farouk Mohamed Hassan).
In between the rhythmic and instrumental numbers, the concert included several well-known Egyptian songs from the repertoire of Um Kulthoum, Warda, Abdel-Halim Hafez, Ahmed Adaweya, Zekra and Nagat performed by Egyptian singers Rana Abu Soud, Mai Mustafa, Yara as well as Asmaa Lazra from Morocco and Hisham Al-Yamani, an eleven-year old singer from Yemen.
El-Artist’s compositions for percussion and his rhythmic arrangements of the known songs were the main attraction, of course. And what makes such an evening even more attractive is the presence of many generations on stage, starting with a four-year-old child and going up all the way to players in their forties and fifties. A large number of the participants were El-Artist’s own students, whom he teaches through courses organised by the Talents Development Centre (a body operating under the Cairo and Alexandria opera houses) as well as workshops at numerous other venues in both cities.
“I was happy to see the audience’s enthusiastic reception and, despite the length of the concert, everyone stayed until the end. We finished just before midnight,” El-Artist comments. In fact, each of El-Artist’s concerts gathers a large audience from all walks of life and generations, yet the one in Alexandria on 9 September was unique in its length, variety, and drawing power. Not only was it sold out but it generated a social media storm after it was over, with people sharing videos and photos and raving about a “unique night”.
It is El-Artist’s passion for the instrument, with which he fell in love as a boy and played for many decades across the Arab world and beyond, that enabled him to collaborate with such legends as Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Wadie Al-Safi, Amr Diab, Warda, Hakim, Samira Said, Mohamed Abdu, Shadia, Sabah, and many others, accompanying them on regional and international stages. He has also performed solo in Muscat, Oman, Osaka, Japan and elsewhere. In 2019, joined by his own troupe of professional musicians, he gave a memorable concert at Paris’ Hall de la Chanson, “a very important step in my career,” as he put it.
But training a new generation of percussionists remains arguably El-Artist’s greatest passion. They perform with him, join other ensembles or launch their own projects. “Today, I see many highly talented people who join my courses and perform with me on different stages. Some of them are ready to stand in front of the audience at a very early age,” he explains. The most advanced of those – Ahmed Amr (10), Reemas Hassan (9) and Elen Shehata (7) – have had a chance to perform solos to a large audience.
Awarded the title King of the Drum by the Ministry of Culture, through decades El-Artist has contributed significantly to the social repositioning and perception of the tabla. Although anchored in Arab-Egyptian culture for a long time and present in an overwhelming number of Oriental music compositions, from traditional to modern songs, until recently a large segment of the community frowned on tabla musicians as nightclub performers who support belly dancers.
Today, greater interest in the tabla and work done by El-Artist led to a change in approach, the proof of which is an obvious and rapid increase of young people willing to learn to play it, whether to give performances or just for fun; for many, the tabla has turned into the joy that it is.
“Tabla is my life; it is like my child. Tabla is ingrained in our culture and I am happy to see many people opening up to its beauty, learning about its history and performing in many venues,” El-Artist comments, emphasising how the tabla is an ambassador of Oriental music.
In an article published on these pages in 2020, Dina Darwish quotes El-Artist as saying, “I come from a family of artists. All my brothers play an instrument. I chose the tabla because it is almost the only instrument that is in direct contact with the heart, also by the way in which it is held, on the left side. I have dedicated 50 years of my life to it, to the point where my wife is jealous of it since I spend best moments of my life with my tabla.”
The passionate tabla player has a large number of compositions for tabla in his repertoire, with some of them collected in the album Spectacular Rhythms: Said El-Artist and his Ensemble, released in 2007 by the Hollywood Music Center. The concert featured several older and newer tracks composed by El-Artist such as Maganini, Ehna Shabab, Mokassarat, Da’at Al- Mawaheb, and – one of his latest compositions – Kharbasha. Throughout those compositions, El-Artist showcases the tabla’s adaptability as he mixes the traditional themes with modern percussive practices.
On the other hand, the musician develops his arrangement of rhythmic lines which he inserts into existing compositions from Egypt’s golden age, adorning them with a unique technique. The segments featuring El-Artist’s own compositions for tabla carried long and often complicated rhythmic patterns, many of which he teaches his students.
“Playing tabla is not only about knowing how to perform basic rhythms”: malfuf, maksum, baladi, masmoudi, etc.. “I like to go beyond the unison concepts of performance and interlace many components from different rhythmic patterns and then spread them across the percussion ensemble’s segments,” he comments, explaining the attractive rhythmic conversations thus achieved.
And since his concerts attract a large audience, he is able not only to provide enjoyment but also to spread the word about an extremely valuable musical culture. Indeed, in his hands, the tabla becomes a cultural vehicle and a power bonding people as they enjoy listening to it and often drum along on whatever is within reach.
Said El-Artist’s next concert will take place on 22 September at the Arab Music Institute, Cairo.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 15 September, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.