Sayed Darwish (March 17, 1892 – September 15, 1923) was an Egyptian singer and composer who was considered the father of Egyptian popular music , one of Egypt’s greatest musicians, and its single greatest composer, who is still regarded as a noble and adored figure in Egyptian history. Darwish was born in Kôm el-Dikka, Alexandria, Egypt, on March 17, 1892. During his childhood his family could not afford to pay for his education, so he was sent to a religious school where he mastered the cantillating of the Quran. After graduating from the religious school and gaining the title Sheikh Sayyed Darwish, he studied for two years at al-Azhar, one of the most renowned religious universities in the world. He left his studies to devote his life to music composition and singing, then entered a music school where his music teacher, Sami Efendi, admired his talents and encouraged Darwish to press onward in the music field.
Darwish at that time was also trained to be a munshid (cantor). He worked as a bricklayer in order to support his family, and it so happened that the managers of a theatrical troupe, the Syrian Attalah Brothers, 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 start of the Great War, and won limited recognition by singing in the cafés and on various stages while he learned repertoire of the great composers of the 19th century, to which he added musical modes and Arabic poetic-form compositions of his own. In spite of the cleverness of his compositions, he wasn’t to find public acclaim, disadvantaged by his mediocre stage presence in comparison with such stars of his time as Sâlih ‘Abd al-Hayy or Zakî Murâd.
After too many failures in singing cafés, in 1918 he decided to follow the path of Shaykh Salama Higâzî, the pioneer of Arabic lyric theater, and launched into an operatic career. 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 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 comic operettas such as “kullaha yawmayn” (“All of 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 sought his help. He decided to start his own company, acting at last on stage in a lead part. His two creations (“Shahrazâd’ and “al-Barûka”, 1921) weren’t as successful as planned, and he was again forced to compose for other companies from 1922 until his premature death on September 15, 1923 in Alexandria, aged 31. The cause of his death is still unknown. Some say he died from cardiac arrest.
At the age of 30, Darwish was hailed as the father of the new Egyptian music and the hero of the renaissance of Arab music. Darwish believed that genuine art must be derived from people’s aspirations and feelings. In his music and songs, he truly expressed the yearnings and moods of the masses, as well as recording the events that took place during his lifetime. Darwîsh’s stage production is often clearly westernized: the traditional takht is replaced by a European ensemble, conducted by il Signore Casio, Darwish’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.
Even though Darwish became a master of the new theater music, he remained an authority on the old forms. He composed 10 dawr and 21 muwashshat which became classics in the world of Arab music. Darwish 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, blending Western instruments and harmony with classical Arab forms and Egyptian folklore, gained immense popularity due to their social and patriotic subjects. Besides composing 260 songs, he wrote 26 operettas, replacing the slow, repetitive, and ornamented old style of classical Arab music with a new light and expressive flair. Some of Darwish’s most popular works in this field were El Ashara’l Tayyiba, Shahrazad, and El-Barooka . These operettas, like Darwish’s other compositions, were strongly reminiscent of Egyptian folk music and gained great popularity due to their social and patriotic themes.
Darwish’s composition “Bilaadi! Bilaadi!” (My Country! My Country!), that became Egypt’s national anthem, and many of his other works are as popular today as when he was alive. Egypt’s first national anthem, Walla Zaman Ya Selahy, dated back to 1869 when a royal anthem was composed to honor the monarch. It is unclear how long this anthem was in use. Although the monarchy was deposed in 1952, the old anthem was used as part of the anthem of the United Arab Republic with Syria in 1958. For the new anthem, beginning Bilady, laki hubbi wa fu’adi (“My homeland, you have my love and my heart”), Darwish, in 1923, put music to words by Mohammad Younis-al Qadi which were adapted in 1892 from a famous speech by Mustafa Kamil. It was adopted unofficially in 1952 and officially in 1979. It is also sometimes known by the title “Hail, Gallant Troops.”
The following work by Sayed Darwish is contained in my collection:
Hail, Gallant Troops.