March 30, 2009
My best friend is about to travel to Cairo, surely to experience wondrous sights and sounds. I thought I’d send her off with a piece featuring three of the greatest Egyptian virtuoso musicians ever to record during the 78rpm era. Both sides are featured here, as the piece is in two parts.
Syrian violinist Sami al-Shawwa (1887-1960) established a music school in Cairo by 1906, and began his career on record that same decade, both as a soloist, and as an accompanist for many well-known Egyptian singers (Zaki Mourad, Sayed El-Safti, Um Kulthum – you name them, he played with them). His appearance on a recording was clearly considered a stamp of quality very early on, as he was often credited on records side by side with the singer. On this track he is joined by kanun player Ali Rashidi, of which I know very little (though I know he recorded solo kanun performances around the same time). On oud, however, is the legendary Muhammad al-Qasabji, known forever as Um Kulthum’s oud player (and sometime composer for her, as well as for Asmahan). The three masters perform a bachraf, a song type associated with Turkey, here in the hejaz (or hedjaz) maqam, or scale. Listen to how Sami can’t resist having the last word in the piece, fiddling away after the others have stopped, using up the last 10 seconds available to them.
I am not sure about a date on this recording, but I would guess about 1926 or so, as it’s rather early in Columbia’s “X” series. Enjoy….and bon voyage!
Issue Number: 18-X
Matrix Number: E72 (1-A-1)
December 1, 2008
Today’s post brings me back to my favorite music from Egypt – that is, classical works from the era before electricity. Yes, they sound far, far away, but the magic contained therein is worth the effort.
The renowned singer Sheikh Sayed El-Safti* (1875-1939) apparently began recording as early as 1907, possibly for the German independent Favourite label at first. Around ca. 1913 he recorded at least 2 dozen records for the Odeon company. He also recorded for Pathé ca. 1926, Polyphon, Columbia, and the Lebanese independent label Baidaphon in the late 1920s. His last recordings appear to have been ca. 1931.
El-Safti specialized in several song types: the mawwal, a non-metric vocal improvisation on 4-7 lines of colloquial text, the dawr, a song type from the 19th century noted for the choral responses that occur in response to the soloist’s improvisation in its second part (the ghusn), and the muwashah, a strophic song type in classical Arabic which originated in Al-Andalus. (These are simplistic definitions for what is a deep and detailed school of music, but I offer them to illustrate El-Safti’s virtuosity.)
This piece, however, is a qasida - a classical Arabic poem. It’s English translation is “In the Path of God.” El-Safti is accompanied here by a small ensemble of violin, kanun, and ney. As to when it was recorded, it’s difficult to say. It was released on the German Parlophon label, which may (or may not) indicate that it was originally released on another German label (Baidaphon, Beka – perhaps even Odeon or Favourite). Therefore it truly could have been recorded anytime between ca. 1907 and ca. 1925 – a fascinating time in terms of recorded music in the Middle East.
Issue Number: Bx 5708-I
Matrix Number: 1344
* Also commonly spelled Sayyid al-Safti, Said el Safti and Sayed Safti.
November 18, 2007
For me, classical Arabic music from the first two decades of the 20th century is poetic and beautiful, besides being probably as close a chance we’re going to get to hearing what music may have sounded like in the Middle East in the 19th century. Powerful voices and performances abound, although this is coming from an untrained ear, mind you! I just go by what moves me. There’s a lot out there.
Diehard collectors are all too familar with this, but listening might sometimes be a challenge for some when it comes to early international recordings, the main reason being that the music (up until 1925 for most labels) was recorded before the invention of electric microphone recording. Considerable surface noise was par for the course, no matter how perfect the record. Voices sound like they were recorded far away, through a tin can you might say – the result of singing into a recording horn. A few plays on a period phonograph player with a bad needle could cause instant distortion on an otherwise perfect playing surface. It made the fragile discs all the more ephemeral. Yet the musical (and historical) value of these early recordings far exceeds technology’s shortcomings.
Munira al-Mahdiyya (1884-1965) is among the earliest female recording artists of Egypt. She was a celebrity during her day and appeared in films, much like Umm Kulthum who, shortly after she began recording, eclipsed nearly all artists in Egypt in terms of popularity. I believe this recording was made ca. 1914. On violin and kanun are two accompanists, one of whom (I assume) joins Munira in singing the last third of the song. The title of the piece translates literally to “adversities tore me apart.” I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to take a little more liberty and say that it could also be “hard times tore me apart,” which sounds a lot like countless blues songs.
The Baidaphon label was an early independent label out of Beirut, Lebanon. Started before 1912 by several members of the Bayda family (including singer Farjallah Bayda, also a Baidaphon talent), the label recorded throughout the Middle East and North Africa, sending their masters to Germany to be manufactured. I’ve been lucky to find Baidaphons from Morocco to Central Asia. The label pictured here is their 1920s design. However, I believe the song is from an early session of al-Mahdiyya’s, so in effect this very well may be a 1920s re-release. Baidaphon, like Odeon and a few other companies, seemed to like the 10.5″ record, of which this is an example.
Thanks to Karim for help with translation!
Issue Number: 23045
Matrix Number: 2345