The most popular male Arab singer of all time – Abdul-Halim Hafez – rose from poverty to become a friend of kings. He lived for his art and died too soon. Loved and admired by people of all ages, the “Egyptian Elvis,” left his mark on Arabic music for future generations.
On June 21, 1929, in the Nile delta village of Hilwat, north of Cairo, a poor woman gave birth to Abdul-Halim Ali Ismael Shabaneh. Hours later, she died. A few months after that, his father also died, leaving the baby and his sister in the care of their older brother Ismael, a struggling young music teacher. The orphaned children grew up in extreme poverty. However, Abdul-Halim showed musical aptitude at a young age and was encouraged by his brother. Abdul-Halim loved the most popular singer of that time, Mohammad Abdul-Wahab, whom he heard on the radio. As a teenager, he walked to the nearest big city to hear him perform. Too poor to buy a ticket, he climbed to the roof of a nearby building to get a better view, but his ingenuity backfired as he fell and broke a leg.
In economic desperation, his brother Ismael moved the family to the capital city with hopes of making a better living. This afforded Abdul-Halim the opportunity to attend a tuition-free music institute where he learned to play the oboe. He also formed friendships with fellow students Mohammad Al-Mougi and Kamal al-Taweel, who would be instrumental in his later career. After graduation, Taweel became a staff composer in the Egyptian radio station, and Abdul-Halim was employed as an oboe player in a small ensemble. By coincidence, the ensemble was hired to record a song composed by Taweel for a celebrity singer. They rehearsed with Taweel and prepared for the recording but the singer failed to show up. Hoping to salvage the situation, Taweel asked his friend Abdul-Halim to sing. Surprising himself and his friend, a reluctant Abdul-Hamid performed beautifully. Taweel quickly persuaded the station manager to hire his friend.
This critical event led to a meeting that Taweel arranged between Abdul-Halim and the manager of the Alexandria radio station, named Hafez, who was greatly moved by the newly discovered singer. He insisted on arranging a meeting between the young man and the “ustaz” [the teacher or master] of Arabic music, the great Mohammad Abdul-Wahab. In gratitude for this demonstration of his faith in him, Abdul-Halim Shabaneh changed his name to Abdul-Halim Hafez, in honor of the station manager. Abdul-Wahab, when they later met, was amused by the change of names and suggested that the new name was more musical. In that historical meeting, Abdul-Halim played the oud and sang for Abdul-Wahab, who was not generous in his compliments, although he reportedly was extremely impressed with the young man’s voice quality and style. He offered Abdul-Halim simple, polite remarks, and decided to remain in touch with him.
These new connections would guarantee Hafez steady work as a singer in the radio station. He and Taweel shared the good news with Al-Mougi and told him of the audience with the ustaz. Mougi was not impressed and surprised them by advising Hafez not to accept this line of work. He insisted that the real success and money were in the private sector, not a government job with a fixed salary. Mougi volunteered to compose Halim’s first song, and arranged with a producer for him to sing at beach clubs in Alexandria – for handsome pay.
The gang of three, along with a lyricist, worked hard and traveled to Alexandria for their first performance. Abdul-Halim sang “Safini Marra” [Approach Me Once and Leave Me Once] to uninterested audiences while his friends held their breath waiting for audience approval. The crowds yelled at the young man to stop whatever he was singing and perform the popular songs of the day. After a few nights of dwindling attendance, the nervous club owner intervened and begged Halim to sing known material. He refused, on principle, canceling the contract and therefore losing compensation. The distraught artist sought counsel from Abdul-Wahab, who told him that the same thing happened to him at the same beach when he first started. He explained that beach audiences were not real listeners, being nothing more than summer vacationers seeking late night entertainment.
The situation changed, however, as Hafez persistently performed to more refined audiences, and gained the support of musicians and composers. In a short time, Taweel’s tune “Ala Add Eshouq” [As Much as I Yearn] became a hit and people started comparing Hafez to Farid Al-Atrash for possessing a beautiful voice and singing sad themes. Hafez broke that mold, leaving Farid on the throne as the sad singer, and started singing cheerful songs about national events and celebrations. “Wihyyat Albi Waffraho” [I Swear by the Happiness in My Heart] became a school graduation theme song and was played by every Arab radio and television station. Most of his songs had romantic and poetic lyrics, but were somewhat experimental in the instrumentation, with frequent use of keyboards and the introduction of the saxophone to the orchestra. He also increased the use of harmony, which is uncommon in the melodic Arabic style. He sang about Nasser’s revolution, and even sang about Christ, a courageous step in a Muslim society.
Hafez publicly acknowledged other artists, and was a big fan of the Lebanese singer Wadi al-Safi. At a social event at the house of Theodore Khayyat, where the guest list included Abdul-Wahab, Fairuz, Filimone Wahbi, and Wadi al-Safi, Safi performed. Hafez was asked to sing next, but refused, saying, “How can I sing after listening to this beautiful voice? I should quit music and go sell beans!”
With his new success, Hafez turned to musical films as had singers before him. He starred in several successful films with featured songs that became very popular. His best known film, “Abi Fowqa Shagara” [My Father Is On Top Of A Tree], showed him at his best in looks, singing, acting, and with an unexpected sense of humor. The Hollywood-style “Du’uu Shamasee,” [Bring Out the Beach Umbrellas] a song about beach vacations, was the equivalent of Gene Kelly’s “Singing in the Rain.”
This turn of fortune from early failure to stardom was not simply a matter of luck. Hafez realized that his success could not ride on his talent and hard work alone in the tough and competitive music market. He strategically formed a plan for success that consisted of two elements: one was to befriend the elite decision-makers of the arts, and the second was to appease the press and critics to win them to his side. His circle of friends expanded to include people like Mohammad Abdul-Wahab, and following in his footsteps, grew to include government officials all the way to the head of state, and foreign leaders such as Morocco’s King Hassan II. As taught by his role model and ustaz, he pursued wealthy and influential people to learn their ways, make business connections, and perhaps to make up for his deprived childhood.
Hafez turned out to be the master of public relations. He sent gifts to writers and invited critics to his concerts and parties. He set up a veritable army of vocal supporters, cheerleaders and defenders. In the process, he not only contained criticism, he also prevented the competition from rising to his level of public support and popularity, much to the disadvantage of singers like Moharram Fouad, Kamal Housni, and others. The media flooded him with praise, most of which was well deserved, but he also manipulated the media to his advantage.
Yet, Hafez was also extremely loyal to his supporters. He showed allegiance to the famous novelist Ihssan Abdul-Quddous and writers Hassanein Haykal and Kamal Shinnawi, and particularly to the brothers Ali and Mustafa Amin, even as the latter ran into political problems leading to imprisonment. Through their writing, they, in turn, opened doors and created opportunities for him and, most importantly, made him a household name. He even achieved another bizarre wish – to hear his songs played on the half-dozen major radio stations simultaneously, which reportedly happened more than once due to the sheer volume of requests from listeners. He managed to monopolize the airwaves, which is why every Arab to this day probably knows his most popular song, “Sawwah” [The Drifter].
His planning and attention to detail was not limited to his social life and business associates. He examined every word and every note of his songs, and every outfit and every line in his films, not accepting any that did not reflect the image he wished to portray. It is reported that he worked for five months to locate the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani to convince him to change just one word in the song “Qariattil Fingan” [The Fortune Reader] that Hafez was not comfortable singing. His rehearsals took months and he often conducted the orchestra himself. Despite his talents and success, tragedy always lay beneath the surface of his life. Abdul-Halim had been fighting an illness for most of his life that he contracted from unclean village water. He died in a London hospital on March 30, 1977, at the age of 47, leaving his wealth to his brother, sister and a close cousin.
It is not uncommon to hear people categorize Abdul-Halim in the classic era of Arabic singing, 21 years after his death. But he is far from that. The classic era of this century was built by Sayyed Darwish, Mohamad Abdul-Wahab, Umm Kulthum, Ahmad Shawqi, and a few others. Their fans considered Hafez a modern iconoclast, cynically calling his fans the Abdul-Halim generation. But that is often how the great ones start. Perhaps today, he too is classic. The romantic tall dark and handsome Al-Andaleeb Al-Asmar has become an integral part of the Arab music legacy.
*The original title of this essay published in 1998 was "Over Two Decades After His Death, Musical Legacy of Abdul-Halim Hafez Revisited."
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 4, No. 24, Summer 1998.
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