Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble: Sayyed Darweesh

Sheikh Sayed Darweesh (1892-1923) Xauen Music presents "The Songs of Sheikh Sayyed Darweesh" featuring a return performance on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage by the Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble, with guest vocalists Youssef Kassab and Rozann Khoury, part of a nationwide tour to celebrate the release of the CCOE's new CD The Songs of Sayyed Darweesh: Soul of a People.

Sheikh Sayyed Darweesh is widely acknowledged as "the father of modern Arab music"; his songs and style have enchanted the Arab world since the early 20th century. He was the spokesman for a developing Egyptian identity at a key transitional time in history, the quest for independence. Darweesh was well-known for his witty, original, and humorous personality and for his tireless work. He was a singer, actor, and composer. He composed a repertoire of hundreds of songs spanning a wide range of genres during his seven-year career, cut short by his death at the age of thirty-one. His song legacy includes "Il Helwa Di", "Zarouni Kulli Senna", "Ahoo Da Li Sar", "Salma Ya Salama", "Anna Hawait", "Ya Shadil Il-Han" and many others.

The Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble's national tour aims to recreate the ambience of Darweesh's era and immerse audiences in music and ideas that are relevant today. The acoustic ensemble is composed of Oriental instruments such as qanun, 'ud (lute), riqq (Arab tambourine), and Western classical instruments such as violin and cello, as well as male and female vocals.

Dr. Abdullah Bazaraa will introduce the ensemble.

Program Notes:
Please find at the end of this performance entry, below.

Performers: * Kinan Abou-Afach has also performed on the Millennium Stage with Hewar.

Schedule: National Tour

CLICK HERE to listen to the Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble's second performance from the Kennedy Center's Video Archive.


Arab Radio & Television (ART)'s Downstairs Cafe - broadcasts: USA on DISH April 6 at 20:00 EST, April 7 at 23:30 EST, and April 8 at 14:00 EST; Middle East on ART EIN Open Channel on April 2; also ART Europe, Asia, Australia, Latin America

The World Radio (MP3 Audio)
Weekend America NPR (Real)
KUOW 94.9 FM NPR Seattle (Real)

The Washington Post
New York Times (Print)
New York News Day (Print)
Harvard Crimson (Print)
Long Beach Press-Telegram (Print)
Seattle Press-Intelligencer (Print)
Seattle Times
Los Angeles City Beat
Arab American News

World Music Central
Harvard Box Office
Metropolitan Performing Arts Center
Levantine Cultural Center
Washington Morocco Club
Friends of Morocco
World Music Central
The Arabist
Shems Arab American Life
New York Belly Dance Social Club
Arabic MeetUp
Cafe Aman

Previous Performances:
Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble - August 31, 2005

Publications (CDs):
The Songs of Sayyed Darweesh: Soul of a People (2006) [Audio Clips]

Official website: Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble

Thanks to: Egyptian Cultural & Educational Bureau, the US-Egypt Friendship Society, and Al-Hewar Center

Performance Notes:

Sayyed Darweesh
(March 17th 1892- August 15th 1923)

Sheykh Sayyed Darweesh is, without a doubt, one of modern Egypt's, and perhaps the Arab world's most influential composers. His contribution to Egyptian music not only created a bridge from the 19th to the 20th century but also connected the music of the Near East to that of the West. An early pioneer in the domain of world music Darwish's musical output was local but his musical vision was cosmopolitan.

Despite his early death at the age of thirty one, Sayyed Darweesh left behind a prodigious legacy of thirty musicals, eleven adwar (long song forms with complex melodies and multiple sections) and over one hundred and fifty songs. Darweesh, whose life was cut short at the age of thirty-one, composed almost all of this music in the last seven years of his life! In addition to his legacy, Sayyed Darweesh's music exerted an unmistakable, and indelible influence on the most important generation of Egyptian composers that followed: Muhammad Abdel-Wahab, Riyad Al-Sunbati, Zakaria Ahmed and Muhammad Al-Qasbgi. All of whom had a major role in defining Arabic music in the 20th century, and on.

His music was Egyptian in content and context. It was imbued with a strong sense of Egyptian nationalism that flourished as the Ottoman yolk was being shed from the Arab world during the first world war. Darwish was steeped in the tradition of 19th century Arabic music and, having studied to be muqri, a reader of the Qur'an, he was well versed in Qura'nic chant.

At the same time he embraced the modern, and the other. He loved Italian opera and admired Verdi greatly. Yet, ever aware of the rich heritage around him, Darweesh also learned Christian hymns from the Syrian Orthodox church, which he once referred to as Godly opera.

Born into a poor family in the Eastern port city of Alexandria, Sayyed Darweesh was a late addition to the family. At least one of his three sisters had already married at the time of his birth. At the age of seven Darweesh's father died and it was this time that he was sent by his mother to study the Qur'an with the local kuttab, or the religion teacher. As was the case with so many other musicians, the training in tajwid, the chanting of the Qur'an, was to be the foundation of his musical knowledge. Although tajwid, is never considered to be a musical act, it nonetheless adheres to the principles of Arabic music and teaches the most important aspects of Arabic singing: phrasing and breathing, the intricacies of maqam, or Arabic scale system, proper pronunciation and enunciation, and the inner rhythm of the Arabic language.

After his training with the local kuttab, Sayyed Darweesh enrolled in the school of a certain Sami Effendi. It was here that Darwish was exposed to the ecstatic singing of anashid, or religious songs, and rousing political discussions. The seeds of nationalistic fervor were planted in the young Darwish at this time. It was also at this time that he decided to remove the ‘amama and the quftan (the clothing of the religious man) and to dedicate his life to music.

His first break came when he was heard singing in a coffee shop by the brother of a local musician who led a musical troupe. Legend has it that Darweesh was hired on the spot to join the group on a tour of Syria in 1909. Ultimately, the tour was a financial failure and was cut short. Despite this setback, Darweesh learned a great deal of new music in his travels and was inspired to compose. Upon his return to Egypt Darweesh returned to Alexandria where he began composing music for the theater.

His earliest musical theater production dates to February 26th, 1917. The production in one of Cairo's casino-theaters was a financial failure but the Lebanese musicologist Victor Sahab wrote The appearance of Sayyed Darweesh on the stage of Cairo [marked] the beginning of 20th century Arabic music. The following musical Fayruz Shah of 1918, was also a flop but it would be his last failure. From that point on Darweesh would become one of the most in demand composers of his time, at times causing biding wars between theaters vying for his services.

Sheykh Sayyed's musical legacy is a complex one to fathom in that it appealed to the masses yet was sophisticated and complex in its own right. His music was imbued with a nationalistic pride. The idea of Egyptian music was central to his work.

Furthermore, Darweesh's music is often described as the voice of the people. Indeed many of his songs reflected and bemoaned the situation of the working class. Sayed Darweesh composed songs about waiters, shoe shine boys, horse carriage drivers, factory workers, lottery ticket vendors and other icons of the working class. His music also dealt with the problems of the day. One song described the impending end of the water carrier tradition when an English company introduced plumbing in the Egypt. He connected with the people because he was one of them.

Despite his humble origins, Darweesh was on the cutting edge of Arab music. He was the first Arab composer to use Western musical techniques such as harmony and counterpoint. Both of which were completely foreign to Arabic music. His openness to new musical ideas, and instruments was one of Sayyed Darweesh's greatest achievements. He began using the piano in his music. He called for cellos and other instruments that expanded the traditional Arabic ensemble, the takht, thereby expanding the color palette of the next generation of Arab composers. He used musical notation often and had a grasp of orchestration. He embraced, and even identified with European music. When some one commented that his hair resembled Verdi's Sayyed Darweesh replied I am Egypt's Verdi!

Shortly before his untimely death, Darweesh had planned on traveling to Italy to study opera. Despite his admiration for the West and its and music, and his predilection for sophisticated musical techniques Darweesh did not rise above, and out of reach of his audience. He gave people what they wanted: lyrics that mattered to them, and unforgettable melodies.

It has been argued that Darwish's strong melodic sense gave extra potency to the lyrical content of his songs. This gave his politically themed music teeth.

This was a fact that was not lost on the regime of king Faruq, which, at one point, banned the re-printing of Darwish's records. His music was often critical of the British occupation or of the corrupt Egyptian monarchy of the post-Ottoman period. Like many Egyptians who were active in the revolution of 1919, Sheykh Sayyed felt betrayed by the British occupiers and directed his anger directly at the British appointed king Faruq. Yet Darwish also called the modern Egyptian to action. In Bint Al Yom (Today's Girl) he tells the women of Egypt to wake up¬Ö you speak seven languages and are as smart and talented as your European counterpart. You've had enough sleep. In this very same song he calls for voting rights for women. In Salma Ya Salama he tells the would be emigrant to forget Europe, forget America, Egypt is the place to be. The lyrics are energized by a sense of pride in Egyptian history and a can do optimism that resembles that of early 20th century America.

Grounding Darweesh's forward-looking musical and political ideas were his deep roots in Arabic music.

His contribution to the classical Arabic musical repertory is so vast that even seasoned musicians are often surprised to discover that a piece thought to be qadim, meaning old and implying anonymity, is actually one of Darweesh's. He began setting to music poems, called muwashshahaat, that were written by Arab poets in Andalusian Spain. These songs entered the existing repertory of muwashshahaat songs and have become veritable war horses of this classical music repertoire.

Despite his popularity Darwish lived hand to mouth most of his life and with little money in his pocket.

His brilliance, on the other hand, was recognized by his peers in his time. Shortly after Darweesh's death a news paper printed an open letter by Badi' Kheyri which stated [We've lost] a genius in the prime of his youth who was the most powerful musician and composer known to the Arab theater in it's most recent renaissance¬Ö he was the first to find a connection¬Ö between Eastern and Western music. Today, Darweesh's legacy is something of an institution in Egypt. His music is taught at conservatories, his face has appeared on stamps, and in the late 1970's Egypt adopted a nationalistic song that Darweesh composed as it's national anthem.

Riyad Al-Sunbati (1906-1981) had a personal relationship with Sayyed Darweesh. The elder Darweesh recognized the young Riyad's talent and encouraged him. Darweesh's informal mentorship with Riyad left an indelible mark on the young musician. The young Sunbati was mesmerized by Darweesh, and he wished to discover what his life was like. This curiosity led to a sobering realization of the reality of a life in art. Upon a visit to Alexandria the young Riad accompanied his father to hear Sayed Darweesh perform in a theater. Due to low attendance the theater delayed the start of the show for an hour in hopes that a larger audience would form. Riyad and his father waited patiently but, eventually, an audience of three people had to be turned away and the show cancelled. The total proceeds of 30 cents had to be returned to the patrons. Darweesh was devastated and left the theater in a state of deep depression with Riyad and his father at his side. Riyad witnessed the effect of this failure on Darweesh. Driven to tears, Darweesh drowned his sorrows in wine while the elder Sunbati did what he could to assuage his sullen friend. It was at this point that the prescient Sunbati realized that For the artist, the Bohemian life is the quick road to his demise. Despite this somber realization Sunbati pursued a career in music and succeeded to make his lasting mark on Arabic music. The inspiration he found in Darweesh's music fueled his desire to push forward and to overcome the fear of failure.

Muhammad Al-Qasabgi (1892-1966) is most closely linked to Sayyed Darweesh by age. The two were born less than a month apart, Al-Qasabgi being the younger of the two. The two were influenced by the same social and artistic conditions of their time and, like Darweesh, Al-Qasabgi looked to the West for new musical ideas. Without a doubt, Darweesh's experiments with fusing Eastern and Western music influenced and encouraged Al-Qasabgi. Al-Qasabgi's work had an influence on other composers and musicians that was almost as powerful as that of Darweesh's. Where the two men differ greatly is in their status as stars. Darweesh's practical canonization and fame overshadowed his music for many years while Al-Qasabgi's prolific output of over 360 songs has long overshadowed his image as an important public figure. Many people know Al-Qasabgi's songs but few, it seems, know that he composed them.

Muhammad Abdel-Wahab (1902-1991) who is remembered as the Arab composer and singer, was a star of both the stage and screen, and a self proclaimed modernist. His musical output is staggering, over 250 songs, 55 instrumental works and dozens of films. His importance is partially due to the fact that he outlived all his colleagues, and rivals by at least ten years. Darwish's influence on Abdel-Wahab's was formidable. Remembering his first encounter with Darwish's music Abdel-Wahab said I ran away when I heard Sayyed Darweesh. I wanted to [crawl out of] my own skin. I discovered that the artist who has within him the seed of development has the potential to create from the old something new. In 1921 the young Abdel-Wahab filled in for a sick Darwish in one of his musical theater productions and also continued his leading role in a production of Darwish's last musical after his death in 1923. Contemplating the balance of the modern with the traditional in Darwish's music Abdel-Wahab said His compositions are truly modern, but they are close to the heart and rooted: they have a father and a mother.

Kareem Roustom, February 2006

February 20, 2006 (Monday) 6:00 p.m. on the Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage

* co-produced and co-marketed by David Chambers

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