Passion for Modernizing and Popularizing Instrumental Arab Music

By Sami Asmar

In 1862, five Russian musicians in St. Petersburg (Borodin, Cui, Balakirev, Mussorgsky, and Rimsky-Korsakov) formed the “Gang of Five,” a group whose aim was to create authentically Russian music as opposed to the prevalent Western style championed by Tchaikovsky. A century later, five Lebanese musicians modeled themselves after the Russian group and formed their own “Gang of Five” with the mission of creating authentically Lebanese music. These five men, ‘Asi Rahbani, Mansur Rahbani, Zaki Nasif, Tawfiq al-Basha, and Tawfiq Sukkar, along with Wadi al-Safi, Fairuz, Sabah, and others, succeeded in creating “city music” based on the folk arts of the countryside. Of the Gang of Five, Mansur Rahbani is the only survivor after 81-year-old Tawfiq al-Basha died in December 2005, after a long struggle with cancer.

Tawfiq al-Basha was born in Beirut in 1924. He started his music career as a cello player, which was a rarity at the time, earning him many bookings and bringing him financial success; however, he eventually abandoned the cello in favor of pursuing his dream of composing. He enrolled in the American University in Beirut and apprenticed with a Russian instructor, then later studied with the same French music teacher, Bertrand Roupier, who had taught the Rahbani brothers and Zaki Nasif.

Basha began his prolific yet under-appreciated career during the 1943 independence of Lebanon, when a unique Lebanese cultural identity was being sought. In pursuit of this identity, the Baalbak International Festivals were established in 1957. The Gang of Five became the musical genius behind the festivals. Shortly after founding Baalbak, Basha co-founded Al-Anwar Ensemble with Said Fraiha. The ensemble toured Europe and earned Basha recognition as a talented orchestra leader and composer, often performing Basha’s own arrangements of popular and folk tunes such as “Ammi Ya Bayya’ al-Ward,” (My Uncle, the Rose Vendor), “Zuruni” (Visit Me), and “Ya Mayila” (One Who Sways).

After a short stint at the Jerusalem radio station in 1950, then another at the Near East radio station, al-Basha spent most of his career as head of the music department at the Lebanese radio station. He was credited with using that position to pressure the government bureaucracy to purchase new musical instruments and to contract with musicians who could read musical notation to play those instruments.

The emerging ensemble was considered for a long time to be the best in Lebanon and the players were invited to perform at many festivals. He increased the size of the ensemble, adding chorus members, producers, and technicians. He also attracted many accomplished Lebanese musicians to the station, such as Halim al-Rumi (father of singer Majida al-Rumi, who discovered Fairuz), and later Elias Rahbani (Asi and Mansur’s younger brother), Ihsan Mundher (a keyboard player who currently has a popular TV show), and Salim Sahab (conductor of a large Egyptian orchestra).

As the department head, Basha composed numerous songs for the radio station as well as many festivals, and he also composed songs for several famous singers, including Fairuz, Sabah, Wadi al-Safi, Suad Muhammad, Nour al-Huda, and his first wife Widad. Although he has nearly 3,000 tunes to his credit, Basha’s first love was not short songs, but rather large instrumental and orchestral compositions.

However, he recognized that Arabs, in general, preferred lyrical songs over instrumental compositions. Furthermore, the complex compositions required assembling large orchestras with highly-skilled instrumentalists, and even more challenging, it required an accepting audience, preferably one that was musically educated. Yet these challenges did not impede him from pursuing his goal of popularizing music without lyrics.

Basha’s best known compositions are “Beirut 82,” which marked the year of the Israeli invasion of the capital city; “Peace Symphony,” which marked the end of the civil war and was performed by an orchestra in Belgium; and the “Prophet’s Recital” or “Inshaddiyya” from the poetry of Ahmad Showqi, which was performed at the Cairo Opera House. His spiritual compositions beautifully combined musical depth with ethereal softness.

In 1969, he won a prize for a symphony oddly titled “Non-Maqam Ultraviolet.” Basha’s other works include“Layali al-Asfahani Fi Kitab al-Aghani,” “Majales al-Tarab ‘Ind al-Arab,” and “Juha.” In 1952, he composed the entire program of the Near East Ballet Ensemble. His work “Fantasie Oriental” was based on themuwashah (a musical term meaning terza rima) “Asqi al-Itash” (Give Drink to the Thirsty) with violinist Abboud Abd al-Al playing in lieu of a singer. He also wrote “Andalus Suites.” His Work “Le Tapis Magique”(The Magic Carpet) was inspired by “The Arabian Nights.”

With all his success – books, albums, awards and medals – and his significant role in the Arab League’s Arab Academy of Music, Tawfiq al-Basha will be remembered for two significant accomplishments: his scholarly and encyclopedic knowledge of the muwashahat genre, and his orchestral compositions. Basha learned Andalusian music from his uncle Khalil Makniyya long before studying classical music. He pursued Andalusian music and became a recognized authority, writing several books on the topic. Basha also wrote on the history and theory of Arab music – which he preferred to call Eastern music.

Basha believed in the Arab musical heritage and encouraged its presentation in the best possible light. He strongly debated about the purity of Arab music and sided with those who called for musical renewal, including exposure to and learning from Western and world music, albeit never from a position of inferiority. He introduced polyphony to Arab music, which is based on modal melodies.

This composer was determined to demonstrate that the Arabs can stand on their historical accomplishments without blocking modernity. He admired the great Egyptian composers, referring to Sayyid Darwish as the only contemporary Arab musician and to Muhammad al-Qasabji as the greatest source of change and renewal. He often expressed his respect for Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, and in the 1950s, Basha successfully combined several of the tunes of popular Wahhab songs into one suite. He composed transitional phrases to ease the listeners into connecting the songs, especially where maqammodulation took place.

In a long interview with critic Nizar Mrouweh in the late 80s, Basha discussed his strengths, as well as the the gaps in his musical education. He described developing Eastern music and his attempts to bring it international acclaim while maintaining its Arab spirit of swimming against the current. At the age of 70 he reportedly said that he was just beginning to compose, since he had many ideas left to realize, including a project with the poet Said Aql.

Tawfiq al-Basha, however, passed the baton to his son, the world-renowned pianist Abd al-Rahman al-Basha, who was honored in Belgium the same day his father died. One of Tawfiq’s songs was titled“Idinnya Haik” or “This Is Life.” As for this sad loss, one can only say Idinnya Haik!

This essay appeared in Al Jadid ,Vol. 11, no. 52 (Summer 2005)

Copyright (c) 2005 by Al Jadid


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