Al Jadid, Vol. 4, No. 22 (1998)Remembering Farid al-Atrash: A Contender in the Age of Giants
By Sami Asmar*
The leading family that spearheaded the rebellion against the French in Syria's Druze Mountain after World War I was a family that produced two of the most renowned Arab artists of this century. Farid and his sister Amal, along with their brother Fou'ad, belonged to the religious minority clan of their parents, Princess Alia and Prince Fahd al-Atrash.
The Atrash children were raised under the watchful eyes of their parents, who moved frequently between the major cities of the Levant in their political struggle against the French. Princess Alia had lost two of her five children to disease at a young age and became highly concerned about the safety of the surviving ones. Her fears were compounded when Farid almost died in a drowning accident in Beirut while playing with another child on a small boat, provoking his mother to lock him indoors when he was not in school.
Due to the potential of French reprisal against his family, the Durze leader was compelled to send his family seeking refuge in Egypt. Leaving her husband and wealth behind, the princess disguised herself and her children by taking a fake family name. kusa, Arabic for zucchini, was the odd choice of names that brought Farid ridicule in the new school in Egypt, a French school, ironically, which waived the tuition of the "poor child."
In the midst of this economically difficult life, Farid's musical interest grew as he listened to his mother sing and play the oud [lute] at home. At his insistence, he was permitted to train with the school's Christian choir. The instructor, however, was not impressed with Farid's inability to express feelings, despite his nice voice, and advised him to cry so that the listeners would feel the pain expressed in the chants. As his fans know, this advice worked, and remained a theme that lasted through his career, and clearly earned him the label of the "sad singer."
Al Wasat magazine describes a story about Farid's love of music as a child, in which he admired a singer in a coffee shop, but could never afford to buy a cup of tea there to listen to him. He would frequently stand outside the shop to enjoy the music, until an observant shop employee became displeased that the teenager was not paying for the show, and surprised him by pouring a bucket of cold water on him. Farid walked the streets of Cairo hoping his clothes would dry, but later returned home and slept in his wet clothes to avoid his mother's angry reaction. He woke up with a fever that could have been much worse had he not wrapped himself in newspapers to stay warm. He later commented in a radio interview that the use of those newspapers was his first positive experience with the print media.
The former princess eventually sang in clubs to support her children, and allowed Farid to sing in school events. That led him, as he developed his talent, to perform in a university concert honoring the Syrian rebellion, a performance that got the attention of the art community but revealed his true identity as a member of the Atrash clan, causing his dismissal from the French school. He graduated from another school and was admitted, with another tuition waiver, to a music conservatory, and from there he became an apprentice of the renowned composer Riyad as-Sunbaty. The hard-working young man was highly recommended by Sunbaty, and sang in privately owned Egyptian radio stations in the 1930's. When the stations were ordered closed and a national radio station was established, Farid was hired as an oud player in its orchestra, and later as a singer. His sister's talent as a singer was also discovered, and she was given a catchy, yet classy, art name, Asmahan. Several film makers attempted to showcase the curious brother-sister phenomenon in a film, and after several offers, the two singers starred in a successful movie in 1941, but only after Farid's demands to compose all the music himself were reluctantly met by a risk-taking producer.
The quick success of the handsome young star changed his lifestyle; he enjoyed the city nightlife, love affairs, and horse race gambling. Farid soon found himself in debt and abandoned by his disapproving mother. This difficult phase of his life was made worse by the drowning death of Asmahan, an accident that is yet to be fully explained as it remains the subject of interest for conspiracy theorists. Farid, however, found comfort in a relationship with the dancer Samia Gamal, for whom he was motivated to risk all he owned, and managed to borrow to produce a movie co-starring with her in 1947. The unexpected large financial reward of this enterprise placed Farid in the wealthy class, practically overnight. Five films later, the unmarried couple broke up in a bitter fight. Farid proceeded to work with other film stars in numerous successful movies in almost all of which he had the romantic lead role of a sad singer--even repeatedly picking the name Wahid, meaning lonely for his character. Apparently not able to function well without a girlfriend and refusing to get married (claiming that marriage kills art) he broke the hearts of many of his co-stars. Farid loved being in love, a pre-requisite for a romantic singer. People found his leading ladies more memorable than the plots, and they clearly remembered his beautiful songs for a long time. His classic songs include "Ar-Rabi'" [Spring] and "Awell Hamsah" [First Whisper], and the timeless tunes "Lahnil Khulud," "Tutah," and "Raqsitil Gamal," the latter two being dance pieces. His "lighter" songs like "Nura Nura," "Hallet Layali," and "Gamil Gamal" remain at an incredible height in popularity to this day. Farid showed a nationalistic side in his song "Busatir Reeh" [Flying Carpet], a conceptual tour sampling the musical styles of the Arab world, a well-accepted theme. It is also rumored that, in anticipation of an independent Palestine, he composed a national anthem that has not been located in his archives.
One of the more interesting real-life love stories involved a member of the royalty. Shortly before the Egyptian revolution, Farid befriended the king's wife. The playboy king was uncomfortable sharing the spotlight with another celebrity but soon found himself forced out of the country. After getting divorced from the exiled king, the wife returned to Egypt where a stormy love affair with al-Atrash was the buzz of the tabloids. Her family, however, rejected Farid for their daughter, partly due to political reasons in the revolutionary environment of the nation. This loss led Farid into long period of depression not unfamiliar to the sad singer, and started health problems that worsened from then until his death.
Later in his life, however, big spender and bon vivant Farid, who made homes in both Cairo and Beirut, re-considered his position on marriage and proposed to the Egyptian singer Shadia, and to a Lebanese artist, but changed his mind at the last minute each time. He feared that his health would fail and he would leave a young widow behind. He probably even played that scenario in one or more of his romance movies and sang about it. In 1974, Farid died in Beirut at an estimated age of 60, with one more film yet unfinished. He had not fulfilled one of his dreams of composing a song for Umm Kulthum. It was reported that his clan refused to bury him on the Druze Mountain but the public statement by his brother Fou'ad stressed Farid's wish to be buried in Cairo, where his sister died.
Farid al-Atrash is known to Arab musicians as the best oud player of his time-- the king of oud. He is known to singers as a man so talented that he is often unashamedly imitated; his voice and sad style were so unique that they could be clearly imitated. Composers knew Farid (a name that means unique in Arabic) as a competent competitor and a contender for leadership in that domain. These accomplishments were particularly impressive since he broke into the art world during the age of established giants like Mohammad Abdul Wahab and Umm Kulthum, and in an era of new technology like recording and film that were re-shaping the field. In an effort to create a niche, Farid adopted from flamenco and tango in his compositions, the former having a common maqam [Kurd] with Arabic music; the latter was the fashionable style in Europe at the time. He attempted what he called "operatic" works with elegance and sophistication--an elitist attitude dominant in his circles.
Arab musicologists, however, were not always in agreement on Farid's place in Arabic music. For example, in his book "The Seven Greats of Modern Arabic Music," Victor Sahab lists Sayyid Darwish, Mohamed al-Qasabgi, Zakariyya Ahmad, Mohamed Abdulwahab, Umm Kulthum, Riyad as-Sunbati, and Asmahan as his carefully thought-out selection. Anticipating objections that Farid al-Atrash was not considered in the top seven, the author claimed that these seven had changed the "state" of modern Arabic music. Several others made important contributions but did not fit the criterion of having developed a musical concept. Sahab, however, gives tremendous credit to Farid in the chapter on Asmahan, the only non-native Egyptian on his list, for his role as a composer, and declares that Asmahan sang more songs composed by her brother than any other composer. Farid's compositions for his sister included her trademark waltz song "Layalil Unss" about nightlife in Vienna from the film "Gharam Wantiqam" [Love and Revenge]. Farid and his sister were reportedly not on speaking terms when he taught her that tune, as they never outgrew their teenage habits of constant arguments.
Along with the deserved admiration of Farid, the book's author points out little known technical weaknesses. He uses Asmahan's song "Rigi'ti lak" [I've come back to you] to illustrate Farid's brilliant use of the oud and maqamat [theory of scale and modal structure] but points out how Asmahan's voice almost got out of tune in the low octave of maqam Kurd. This was because the composer neglected her individual vocal range when he composed the song, whereas a composer is supposed to raise or lower the scale by one or more tones to accommodate the singer's capabilities at the extreme ends of the scale. Abdul Wahab admired Asmahan's voice and gladly composed for her; he also admired Farid's oud playing and gave both of them advice as they frequented his house. He, however, reportedly commented that neither one had met his standards in enunciation (particularly the Arabic ha and r sounds) because they had not received training in the Quranic chanting (tajweed) that he and Umm Kulthum had.
Farid al-Atrash has clearly left his touch on Arabic music in a profound way. Oud students swear by him and don't hesitate to imitate his improvisational style--the ultimate flattery. Vocal teachers point out his ability to sing away from the beat, yet starting and ending a phrase on the beat, as an incredible skill that adds to the tarab [ecstasy] of the audience. With the tendency to re-evaluate our culture as we near the end of the century, Farid stands out as a giant who is yet to be replaced. Farid even sensed his own greatness in a historical context but consciously refused to comment on it since his work could speak for itself. These days, with the explosion of the short songs that lack musical depth, people often reminisce about the old days when Arabic music was so rich and artists moved their audiences with emotions. The first such artist to be mentioned is inevitably Farid al-Atrash, the sad lover who captured the Arabs' imagination.
*Sami Asmar is a scientist by training and a founding member of the Kan Zaman Ensemble. He also writes on Arabic music.