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Remembering Farid al-Atrash: A Contender in the Age of Giants
By Sami Asmar
The same family that spearheaded the rebellion against the French in Syria's Druze Mountain after World War I also produced two of the most renowned Arab musical artists of this century. Farid al-Atrash and his sister Amal, along with their brother Fouad, grew up in the religious minority clan of their parents, Princess Alia and Prince Fahd al-Atrash.
The al-Atrash parents, who moved frequently between the major cities of the Levant in their political struggle against the French, kept watchful eyes on their three surviving children. Princess Alia had lost two of her five children to disease at a young age and became highly concerned about the safety of the others. Her fears were compounded when Farid almost died in a drowning accident in Beirut while playing with another child on a small boat; after that his mother locked him indoors when he was not in school.
Due to the potential for French reprisal against his family, the Druze leader sent his family to Egypt for refuge. Leaving her husband and wealth behind, the princess disguised herself and her children, taking the fake family name Kusa, Arabic for zucchini. This odd choice of names brought Farid ridicule in his new school in Egypt C a French school, ironically, which waived the tuition of the "poor child."
"The instructor, despite Farid's nice voice, was not impressed with his inability to express feelings and advised him to cry so that the listeners would feel the pain expressed in the chants. As his fans know, this advice worked, and remained a theme that lasted through his career, as he earned the label the 'sad singer.'"
In the midst of this economically difficult life, Farid's musical interest grew as he listened to his mother sing and play theoud (lute) at home. He trained with the school's Christian choir. The instructor, despite Farid's nice voice, was not impressed with his inability to express feelings and advised him to cry so that the listeners would feel the pain expressed in the chants. As his fans know, this advice worked, and remained a theme that lasted through his career, as he earned the label the "sad singer."
Al Wasat magazine describes a story about Farid's love of music as a child. He admired a certain singer in a coffee shop, but could never afford to buy a cup of tea there to listen to him. He frequently stood outside the shop to enjoy the music, until an observant shop employee noticed with displeasure that the teenager was not paying for the show, and surprised him by pouring a bucket of cold water on him. Farid walked the streets of Cairo hoping his clothes would dry, but eventually returned home and slept in his wet clothes hoping to avoid his mother's anger. He woke up with a fever that would have been much worse had he not wrapped himself in newspapers to stay warm. He later commented in a radio interview that the protection he received from those newspapers was his first positive experience with the print media.
The former princess eventually sang in clubs to support her children, and allowed Farid to sing in school events. As he developed his talent, he performed in a university concert honoring the Syrian rebellion, a performance that attracted the art community's attention but revealed his true identity as a member of the al-Atrash clan, the French school dismissed him. He graduated from a different school and was admitted, with another tuition waiver, to a music conservatory; from there he became an apprentice to the renowned composer Riyad al-Sunbaty. Sunbaty recommended the hard-working young man highly, and al-Atrash sang in privately owned Egyptian radio stations in the 1930's. When a national radio station was established and the private stations ordered closed, the national station hired Farid as anoud player in its orchestra and later made him a singer. His sister's singing talent was also discovered, and she took a catchy yet classy art name, Asmahan. Several film makers hoped to showcase the curious brother-sister phenomenon in a film. After several offers, the two singers starred in a successful movie in 1941, but only after a risk-taking producer reluctantly agreed to Farid's demands to compose all the music himself.
The quick success of the handsome young star changed his lifestyle; he enjoyed the city nightlife, love affairs, and gambling on horse races. Farid soon found himself in debt and abandoned by his disapproving mother. This difficult phase of his life was made even worse by the drowning death of Asmahan, an accident that has yet to be fully explained and remains the subject of interest for conspiracy theorists. Farid, however, found comfort in a relationship with the dancer Samia Gamal. He was motivated to risk all he owned for her, and managed to borrow enough money to produce a movie co-starring the two of them in 1947. The unexpected large financial rewards of this enterprise placed Farid in the wealthy class practically overnight. Five films later, the unmarried couple broke up in a bitter fight. Farid proceeded to work with other film stars in numerous successful movies. He almost always played the romantic lead role of a sad singer C even reusing the name Wahid, which means lonely, for his character. Apparently unable to function well without a girlfriend and refusing to get married (claiming that marriage kills art), he broke the hearts of many of his co-stars. Farid loved being in love, a pre-requisite for a romantic singer. Though the movies' plots were not particularly memorable, Farid's leading ladies were another story, and audiences clearly remembered his beautiful songs for a long time. His classic songs include "Al-Rabi'" (Spring) and "Awall Hamsah" (First Whisper), and the timeless tunes "Lahnial-Khulud," "Tutah," and "Raqsitil Gamal," the latter two being dance pieces. His "lighter" songs like "Nura Nura," "Hallet Layali," and "Gamil Gamal" remain incredibly popular to this day. Farid exhibited his nationalistic side in the song "Busatal-Reeh" (Flying Carpet), a conceptual tour of the musical styles of the Arab world. Though it has not been located in his archives, it is also rumored that he compo sed a national anthem in anticipation of an independent Palestine.
One of his more interesting real-life love stories involved a member of the royalty. Shortly before the Egyptian revolution, Farid befriended the king's wife. The playboy king was understandably uncomfortable sharing the spotlight with another celebrity. Soon thereafter, he and his wife found themselves forced into exile, but after she and the king divorced, Farid's "friend" returned to Egypt where her stormy love affair with al-Atrash was the buzz of the tabloids. Her family, however, rejected Farid as a husband for their daughter, partly for political reasons in the revolutionary environment of the nation. The end of this affair sent Farid into one of the long periods of depression not unfamiliar to the sad singer, and marked the beginning of health problems that continued until his death.
Later in his life, however, bon vivant Farid, who made homes in both Cairo and Beirut, reconsidered his position on marriage and proposed to the Egyptian singer Shadia, then to a Lebanese artist, but changed his mind at the last minute each time. He said he feared that his health would fail and he would leave a young widow behind. That scenario was probably familiar to him from his romance movies and songs. In 1974, Farid died in Beirut at an estimated age of 60, with one film unfinished. Despite his many achievements, he had not fulfilled his dream of composing a song for Umm Kulthum. Rumors reported that his clan refused to bury him on the Druze Mountain, but his brother Fouad's public statement stressed Farid's wish to be buried in Cairo, where his sister died.
Farid al-Atrash is recognized among Arab musicians as the best oud player of his time C the king of oud. Singers often unashamedly imitate him, paying homage to his great talent; moreover, his voice and sad style were so unique that they could be clearly imitated. Composers found in Farid (a name that means unique in Arabic) a competent competitor and a contender for leadership in that domain. These accomplishments were particularly impressive since he broke into the art world during the age of established giants like Mohammad Abdul Wahab and Umm Kulthum, and in an era when new technology like recording and film were reshaping the field. In an effort to create his niche, Farid borrowed from flamenco and tango in his compositions. The former has a common maqam with Arabic music, while the latter was fashionable in Europe at the time. He attempted what he called "operatic" works with elegance and sophistication, catering to an elitist attitude dominant in his circles.
Arab musicologists, however, were not always in agreement on Farid's place in Arabic music. For example, in his book "The Seven Greats of Modern Arabic Music," Victor Sahab lists Sayyid Darwish, Mohamed al-Qasabgi, Zakariyya Ahmad, Mohammed Abdul-Wahab, Umm Kulthum, Riyad al-Sunbati, and Asmahan as his carefully thought-out seven. Anticipating objections that Farid al-Atrash was excluded, the author claimed that these seven had changed the "state" of modern Arabic music. Several others made important contributions but did not fit the criterion of having developed a musical concept. Sahab, however, gives tremendous credit to Farid in the chapter on Asmahan, the only non-native Egyptian on his list, for his role as a composer, and records that Asmahan sang more songs composed by her brother than any other composer. Farid's compositions for his sister included her trademark waltz song "Layalil Unss" about nightlife in Vienna from the film "Gharam Wa intiqam" (Love and Revenge). Farid and his sister were reportedly not on speaking terms when he taught her that song; they never outgrew their teenage habit of constant arguments.
Though he gives deserved admiration to Farid, Sahab points out little-known technical weaknesses. He uses Asmahan's song "Rigit ilak" (I've come back to you) to illustrate Farid's brilliant use of the oud and maqamat (theory of scale and modal structure) but points out that Asmahan's voice is almost off key in the low octave of maqam Kurd. The composer overlooked her individual vocal range when he composed the song, though a composer is supposed to accommodate the singer's capabilities at the extreme ends of the scale. Abdul Wahab admired Asmahan's voice and gladly composed for her; he also admired Farid's oudplaying and gave both of them advice as they frequented his house. However, he reportedly commented that neither one met his standards of enunciation (particularly the Arabic ha andr sounds) because they had not received training in the Quranic chanting (tajweed) that he and Umm Kulthum had.
Farid al-Atrash has clearly left his touch on Arabic music in a profound way. Oud students swear by him and imitate his improvisational style C the ultimate flattery. Vocal teachers point out his ability to sing away from the beat while starting and ending a phrase on the beat, as an incredible skill that adds to the tarab (ecstasy) of the audience. As we reevaluate our culture at the end of the century, Farid stands out as a giant who is yet to be replaced. Farid sensed his own greatness in a historical context but consciously refused to comment on it, believing that his work would speak for itself. These days, with the explosion of short songs that lack musical depth, people often reminisce about the old days when Arabic music was so rich, and artists moved their audiences with emotions. Farid al-Atrash, the sad lover who captured the Arabs' imagination, is inevitably the first such artist to be mentioned.