Sayyid Darwîsh's life is one of those lightning trajectories in the history of music, the memory and the influence of which go much beyond the actual frame of a musical production. He was to die at the dawn of a striking career, almost ignored by the musical milieu in his lifetime and mythified after his death. The famous name of this Alexandrian singer and composer has too long occulted his predecessor-s school and, more ironically. his own learned production. In the modern Arab historiography of music. Sayyid Darwîsh has become an icon symbolizing Progress. Modernity, and the shift from "Oriental music", an elitist music made for Pachas and still bathing in the original ottoman matrix, to "Egyptian music", the first figuralist expression of a people-s soul and their nationalist demands. This analysis hardly conceals a biased reading of History, and only a return to the recordings of this turn of-the century master can allow a reconsideration of the true dimension of Sayyid Darwîsh's works, the works of an original and experimental artist.

Sayyid Darwîsh was born in the popular quarter of Kôm ed-dikka in Alexandria. Egypt, and trained in his youth to be a munshid (cantor). He used to work as a bricklayer in order to support his family, and his legend has it that the manager of a theatrical troupe overheard him singing for his fellows and hired him on the spot. While touring in Syria, he had the opportunity to gain a musical education, short of finding success. He returned to Egypt before the outburst of the Great War, and won limited recognition by singing in the cafés and on various stages the learned repertoire of the great composers of the XIXth Century, to which he added adwâr and muviashshahât of his own. In spite of the cleverness of his compositions, he wasn't to find public consecration, disadvantaged by his mediocre voice in comparison with such stars of his time as Sâlih 'Abd al-Hayy or Zakî Murâd.

1918 was a turning point in his life. After too many failures in singing cafés, he decided to follow the path of Shaykh Salama Higâzî. the pioneer of Arabic lyric theater (AAA 085) and launched in the adventure of the stage. He settled in Cairo and got acquainted with the main companies, particularly Nagîb al-Rîhanî's (1891-1949), for whom he composed seven operettas. This gifted comedian had invented, with the playwright and poet Badî' Khayrî, the laughable character of Kish Kish Bey, a rich provincial mayor squandering his fortune in Cairo with ill-reputed women... The apparition of social matters and the allusions to the political situation of colonial Egypt (the 1919 "revolution") were to boost the success of the trio's operettas, such as "al-'Ashara al-Tayyiba" (The Ten of Diamonds, 1920) a nationalistic adaptation of 'Blubeard". Sayyid Darvîsh also worked for Rihânî's rival troupe, 'Alî al-Kassâr's, and eventually collaborated with the Queen of Stages, singer and actress Munîra al-Mahdiyya (1884-1965), for whom he composed comical operettas such as "Kollaha yomên" (It will just take two days, 1920) and started an opera, "Cleopatra and Mark-Anthony", which was to be played in 1927 with Muhammad 'Abd al-Wahhâb in the leading role. In the early twenties, all the companies used to seek his help. He even decided to start his own company, acting at last on stage in a lead part . His two creations "Shahwazâd' and "al-Barûka", 1921) weren't as successful as planned, and he was forced to compose again for other companies from 1922 until his premature death on September 15th, 1923.

Darwîsh's stage production is often clearly westernized: the traditional takht is replaced by an European ensemble, conducted by il Signore Casio. Darwîsh's maestro. Most of his operetta tunes use musical modes compatible with the piano, even if some vocal sections use other intervals, and the singing techniques employed in those compositions reveal a fascination for Italian opera, naively imitated in a cascade of oriental melismas. The light ditties of the comical plays are, from d modern point of view, much more interesting than the great opera-style arias. A number of those light melodies originally composed for al-Rihânî or al-Kassâr are now part of the Egyptian folklore. Such songs as "Salma ya Salâma'', "Zurûni koll-e sana marra'' or EI helwa di qâmet te'gen" are known by all Middle- Easterners and have been sung by modern singers, as the Lebanese Fayrûz or Syrian Sabâh Fakhrî, in reorchestrated versions. Aside from this light production, Sayyid Darwîsh didn't neglect the learned repertoire, he composed about twenty muwashshahât, often played by modern conservatories and sung by Fayrûz. But his major contribution to the turn-of-the-century learned music is better understood through the ten adwâr (long metric composition in colloquial arabic) he composed until his death.

Whereas in the traditional aesthetics defined in the second part of the XIXth Century, the dôr was built as a semi-composition, a canvas upon which a creative interpreter had to develop a personal rendition, Sayyid Darwîsh was the first Egyptian composer to reduce drastically the extemporizing task left to the singer and the instrumental cast. Going much beyond a canvas, Sayyid Darwîsh's works are so rich and so full, so precisely built that an interpret shouldn't risk altering the fabric. Even the "ahât", this traditionally improvized section of sighs, were composed by Darwîsh in an interesting attempt of figuralism. Anecdotic arpeggios and chromaticism were for his contemporaries a token of modernism, but could be more severely judged nowadays.

Sayyid Darwîsh was personally recorded by three companies: Mechian, a small local record company founded by an Armenian immigrant, which engraved the Shaykh's voice between 1914 and 1920; Odeon, the German company, which recorded extensively his light theatrical repertoire in 1922; Baidaphon, which recorded three adwâr around 1922. His works sung by other voices are to be found on numerous records made by all the companies operating in the early XXth Century Egypt. This disk includes a selection of adwâr of the learned repertoire. Those very old recordings have been electronically cleaned in order to find a balance between minimum hearing comfort and the comprehension of the text. They are, however, archive documents and must be considered as such.

  1. Ana esheqt (j'ai aimé passionnément). Dôr en mode higâzkâr.
  2. Dayya t-e mustaqbal hayâti (j'ai gâché mon avenir). Dôr en mode bayyâti shûri.
  3. Awatfak ashhar men nâr (tes sentiments sont évidents). Dôr en mode nawâ athar.
  4. El-habib lel-hagr-e mayel (mon amant veut me quitter). Dôr en mode rast sâzkâr.
Frédéric Lagrange, October 1994

From: Shaykh Sayed Darwish [1892-1923] Artistes Arabes Associés AAA 096 Les Archives de la Musique Arabe - Shaykh Sayed Darwish

Contributed by Lars Fredriksson <>

al@mashriq 960118/960120