Celebrating Sayyed Darwish: Egypt’s revolutionary singer

Alexandria–“That’s a major success,” said poet Hamdy Zidan, describing the large audience who came to the ceremony commemorating the 129th anniversary of legendary Egyptian singer Sayyed Darwish.

Anyone could see the changing atmosphere in the working class area of Kom al Dikka in Alexandria, where Darwish was born and lived. For a couple of days — on 24 and 25 March — the normally quiet neighborhood wasn’t quiet anymore, with the beat of music drawing groups of people toward a small stage set up in a narrow street.

Darwish, who was born on 17 March, 1892, in Alexandria, is considered a leading voice in revolutionizing Arab music and a pioneer of the musical renaissance of the whole region. To celebrate Darwish, Eskenderella for Culture and Arts, an NGO aimed at supporting cultural life in the coastal city, designed a two-day program during which a variety of bands played their interpretations of the legend’s music.

“We organize this festival annually to celebrate the legacy of Darwish, which is not only musical but also historical and national,” said Zidan. This year, following the 25 January Revolution, Darwish’s music takes on even more significance.

This year's festival is the sixth Darwish ceremony, named after the first line of one of Darwish’s famous songs, “Visit me once a year” (Zourouni Koulli Sana Marra). The title, a festival brochure reads, tells Egyptians “not to forget him.”

There is a lot to remember Darwish for. In 1905, the singer joined Al-Azhar school in Alexandria, seeking religious teaching, but shortly afterwards left the school to sing in working class cafes. Though brief, his time at Al-Azhar gave Darwish, unofficially, the title of sheikh, and he became known as “Sheikh Sayyed.”

From 1912 to 1914, Darwish travelled to the Levant, where he showed remarkable progress playing on the oud (a pear-shaped stringed instrument). In 1917 he made the biggest decision in his life, moving to Cairo, where he was a main composer in many theaters on Emad El-Din Street, the center of the contemporary artistic boom.

Eight bands participated in Alexandria's recent ceremony with their own versions of Darwish’s songs. When some played the song “Rise, You Egyptian” (Oum Ya Masry), the audience became energized and started singing along. Darwish composed and sang the song in 1919, while Egyptians were protesting against British occupation. In the massive protests of the 25 January revolution, protesters sang it again.  

“Darwish is totally relevant to the current Egypt, where we are also celebrating a revolution that called for political freedom. Darwish believed in Egypt as a great nation and so did all the people who went to the streets in January demanding their rights,” said Zidan.

Darwish is an iconic figure in Egypt’s modern history. He composed the current national anthem Bilady (adopted in 1979), written by the poet Younis al-Qadi, but died before he could hear it. For another piece, he took words from a speech given by the anti-colonial figure Mustafa Kamal (1874-1908).

“Darwish created a ‘musical phenomena’ which you can enjoy till today. He music is ageless and it creates its own context and environment despite the time,” said Ashraf Fathi, a director and member of Eskenderella. One band played "The Beautiful Woman " (El Hilwa Di) using electric guitars and another sang “I Fell in Love with Him” (Ana Haweit) also using contemporary instruments.

“One of the aims of the festival is to let various bands to sing Darwish’s songs in their own style. This confirms that Darwish’s legacy is renewed and flexible,” added Fathi.

Dina Sabahy, a university student, and some of her friends attended the festival on Friday. “I learned about the concert on Facebook, and this is my first time attending a concert in the street. Of course, I have attended concerts by famous modern singers, but this one is completely new for me,” said Sabahy.

“That’s one of the elements of the success of this year’s ceremony. We have now new faces coming and enjoying the music. In previous years, the number of attendants was small and mostly intellectuals and foreigners. It was some kind of a special concert where you could figure out most of the attendants. Now the whole image has changed dramatically,” said Zidan, while attendants swayed to Darwish’s famous songs.

In the past, Eskenderella was forced to contact Khled Kehiry, a member of the former ruling National Democratic Party, who represented the area in the parliament, in order to host the event. This year the organizers contacted the residents directly.

The residents “welcomed us and provided all the necessary facilities to help organize the festival,” Zidan said. “They were motivated by the general atmosphere of voluntary work created by the revolution.”

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