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May 29, 2016

Arabic Music in Canada: A Magical Encounter

Prof. Dr. Mohamed Elmasry

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I recently spent a delightful evening listening to live classical Arabic songs and instrumental music by the Canadian Arabic Orchestra and Choir. Those two hours at the Conrad Performing Arts Centre in downtown Kitchener felt like pure magic.

Whenever I visit Egypt, the country of my birth, I regularly attend Arabic music performances at the famous Cairo Opera House. But to listen to that same timeless music, played and sung here in Canada mostly by Arab Canadians, has left a sweetness in my senses that I can’t quite explain.

The Toronto-based Canadian Arabic Orchestra and Choir was founded in 2015 by Wafa al Zaghal and his wife, Jerusalem native Lamees Audeh, both of whom are talented on multiple instruments. Audeh earned a BSc in Public Administration in 1998 from the University of Jordan and went on to achieve an MA in Music Performance in 2000 from the University of Newcastle.

Now in its second full season, the non-profit CAO, an outgrowth of the smaller Canadian Arabic Ensemble, “has been connecting people of all cultures with traditional and innovative music based on Arabic traditions, as well as forging links between music of the East and West,” according to its Facebook page. From what I heard and saw in Kitchener, the group is fulfilling its artistic and cultural mandate at an outstanding and memorable level. 

The program featured 15 short Arabic songs called Mwashahat and Qudood. The term Mwashahat originated some 500 years ago in Arab Andalusia (southern Spain), while Qudood came from 18th-century Syria. Native Egyptians refer to these same short songs as Taqateek. They were meant to be easily memorized by ordinary people and addressed common themes such as love, nature, work, and liberation from tyranny.

One of my all-time favorite songs from that beautiful evening was a sad lament called Zouruni. Roughly translated the lyrics plead, “Visit me even once a year, it’s a sin to wipe me out of your life.” I remember that this poignant classic Egyptian love song was performed again some 50 years ago by Lebanese superstar Fyroz.

Sayyed Darwish, the gifted singer and composer who wrote Zouruni, was born in Alexandria in 1892 and died of a heart attack at the tragically young age of just 31 on September 15, 1923. He began his career as a Qur’anic reciter and retained the title of Sheikh throughout his professional life, often dressing in traditional Sheikh attire.

Darwish began studies at Egypt’s famed Al-Azhar religious university, but left after only two years to pursue his love of composing. He immersed himself not only in the music of his own culture, but also explored the repertoire of the greatest 19th-century composers from both east and west.

Unfortunately, he faced difficult challenges in being accepted by the established singers of his era and often had to work at odd jobs to support his family. His big break happened in Cairo when the manager of a theatrical troupe, the Syrian Attalah Brothers, overheard him singing and arranged for him to tour Syria. While there, Darwish was able to further his education in other styles of Arabic music. He returned to Egypt just before World War I and became the first Arab composer to create a grand opera in his native language – Al-Ashara-Altyba (The Kind Ten).

Darwish lived a humble life and despite his great creative talent, died in poverty. But his music has endured the test of time. Although his life was brief, he single-handedly became one of the greatest teachers of generations of composers, right up to our own day, including the renowned Mohammad Abdel Wahhab.

The CAO and Choir performed a number of other much-loved Darwish songs, including one that numerous Arab children know by heart, Telet-ya-mahla-noorha.  Its lyrics describe that “The sun has just risen, how beautiful its light is, and the rooster is calling cock-a-doodle-doo (wel-deek-bydin-kooko-kooko).” The 300 men, women and children in the audience happily sang along.

Another example of Darwish’s brilliant weaving of lyrics and melody was heard in Bilady-Bilady (O My Country). Originally inspired by a speech of the liberation hero Mustafa Kamil, who was imprisoned during the British occupation of Egypt, the song became such a widespread favorite that its melody is now used as the country’s national anthem. Egyptian children sing Bilady every day in school assembly and in any national celebration, crowds will spontaneously break into it.

It’s not surprising at all that Sayyed Darwish is credited with bringing Arabic music into the forefront of popular culture and that a full length movie about his life received widespread audience acclaim. Today singer Eman al-Bahr Darwish is following his grandfather footsteps.

In addition to such gems by Darwish, the evening also featured the work of other notable Arab composers, including Sabah Fakhry, and Abdul Wahhab.

Their names are well known and loved in the Arab world, but for many here in Kitchener-Waterloo their music was a rich new discovery.

We have the Canadian Arabic Orchestra and Choir to thank for raising local awareness and appreciation of these wonderful songs and their colorful history. I hope that these gifted singers and instrumentalists return to the Twin Cities … the sooner the better.

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On July 7, 2024 in Toronto, Canada, Dimitri Lascaris delivered a speech on the right to resist oppression.

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