Amar foundation presents: Min Al-Tarikh
Walid Alaeddin: Welcome to a new episode of Min Al-Tarikh. To sum up Sheikh Zakariyya Ahmed, how would you do that?
Mustafa Said: He joined what we refer to as [the music market] by mistake. He was a master of being happy with music. He wasn’t keen on getting anything out of music but pleasure and the release of any emotions and sadness.
W: I like this description as I always feel that Sheikh Zakariyya Ahmed was having fun.
M: He indeed became part of what is known as the “music market” by mistake. He was an ascetic person who sought no fame or money. Neither did he gain that much money to be considered wealthy nor was he poor. As I told you, in the zenith of his fame as a singer, actor and a celebrated composer whose fee for composition used to be hundreds and thousands, he never omitted a session of Sheikh Ali Mahmoud at Al-Hussein mosque, not only as a listener, but, he used to sing as one of his Bitana or chorus.
W: we may say, then, that Sheikh Zakariyya Ahmed sought nothing with his music but his own spirit, imagination and pleasure.
W: essentially, what were the stimulation sources of Zakariyya Ahmed’s musical aptitude
M: What he used to listen to since his childhood was the main source. as he was a descendent of the school of chanting, most of his music tutors had been chanters like Sheikh Ali Mahmoud, and before him Sheikh Ahmed Nada, Mohammed Abul-Nour and Ismail Sukkar, in addition to reading.[Listen to an example of chanting by Sheikh Zakariyya Ahmed].
M: He also listened. He actually listened a lot. He used to listen to the older singers while singing, and he even listen to the fashionable music of his day like the opera at that time, and the lighter music like the theatrical music, and even the stories that came from Europe, he used to listen to all that. Initially, he fell in love with it like the others, then he made use of this experience without making a habit of it. He saw that the music he composed at the beginning of his professional life was not compatible with his musical taste.
W: did he use this music?
M: he made use of it a little bit. There were three or four years in the beginning of his professional life in which he experimented. Yet, he then retracted as he discovered that it was useless.
W: With these experiments, do you mean his reaction to his music like Abdel-Wahhab and the others or did he have a different approach?
M: He was nearer to the situation of Sayyid Darweesh as he used to sing accompanied by Piano, Flute and Violin in the same chanting manner and style.
W: He did not dispose of the style or the manner, but only used different musical instruments.
M: yes. So, he was nearer to Sayyid Darwish than to the others, i.e., he and Sayyid Darwish were together in an adjacent space.
W: But this experiment used to be described in this period, not as “dissonant” as you dislike me to use it, but rather as “random”.
M: it was a kind of exaggeration, i.e., he went the whole way: western style till the end. He, however, couldn’t cope in his singing with those who accompanied him using equal tempered intervals, so, he changed his mind about them.
W: of course, because he wanted to go on singing.
M: yes, he did not want this any longer.[Listen to dialogue Waadi Aleki ya Ammoura between Sheikh Zakariyya Ahmed and Munira El-Mahdiyya accompanied by Piano, Flute and Violin.]
M: therefore, I always tell people not to judge Sayyid Darwish as he did not live on, and God only knows what his choices would have been had he lived on. As he recorded with what they called “orchestra”, he also recorded some very progressive Adwar without relying on importing.
W: it was a progress from within the tradition itself, from the original music.
M: yes. So, this conflicting mentality was, we may say, the mentality of the whole society. How could we develop? The beaten is always keen on imitating the victorious, this is a fact. There had been a war in which we were beaten. There was a very wide gap between civilizations. There was colonization. The state that gathered the Umma together collapsed and caused absolute fragmentation. It’s true that there was a rising nationalistic sensation, but it was evolving under colonization. In his office, the national hero was hanging the photo of the representative of the colonizer, i.e., the high commissioner. There was confusion, a very severe confusion. It’s not possible, hence, to judge Sayyid Darwish particularly as he did not live on. How would he continue? He did not live on. El-Qassabgi, for instance, in the beginning, he composed Adwar, yet he included Arpeggios and such things. It was clear that he liked that, and he wanted to separate a bet from what was common.
W: It was a historical moment as you have already pointed out.
M: yes. However, the state of ambivalence which had overcome both Sayyid Darwish and Zakariyya Ahmed was not seen very much with other musicians. Zakariyya Ahmed chose not to develop through importing, but from within. Sayyid Darwish simply died, so we don’t know what he wanted.
W: true, we don’t know what he would do. It’s a very important notice. Zakariyya Ahmed was a chanter, and he was very attached to the Sufi ways, yet he was most famous for creating the movement of decadence as he had started by composing songs which were described as decadent, and many big campaigns were launched against him then accusing him of corruption.
M: Not only him, but it was also the whole generation including Sayyid Darwish himself, Sheikh Zakariyya Ahmed, Abdel-Wahhab, Om-Kolthoum, Munira El-Mahdiyya, Mohammed El-Qassabgi and undoubtedly Abdel-latif El-Banna, the whole generation.
W: it was then the characteristic of this period, and as they were part of this period, they were not separate from all this anyway.
M: no, no, no. They all sang everything. Abdel-Latif El-Banna, for instance, sang Muwashshahat even though he was famous for singing taqateeq like females as he was a man whose voice was like females, and he sang like them. He was not like Sheikh Ibrahim El-Farran, for instance, whose voice was sharp, but listening to him, one cannot suspect this is not a man singing. It was not, however, the case with Abdel-Latif El-Banna with whom one may get mixed up for a moment. As for Zakariyya Ahmed, he composed Tawasheeh, Tawasheeh for the Hadra and for different religious occasions used till now, and, at the same time, he composed Irkhi El-Sitara Elli Fi Rehna.[Listen to Irkhi El-Sitara Elli fi Rehna from Abdel-Latif El-Banna.].
M: Mainly, we cannot judge that era from our perspective as we do not know how they were thinking. Let’s look at the western Opera. It’s full of nonsense, and notwithstanding, it’s considered a classical international art and whoever listens to it is considered sophisticated and elegant.
W: I’d like to understand the psychology that makes a person who anyway belongs to the world of music use his music to compose for chanting, for Tawasheeh and decadence at the same time.
M: I’ll tell you a proverb that is still valid in Egypt: “live an hour for your heart and another for your God”.
W: ok. This man was then completely deeply rooted into the world of music, and he was ready to have fun anywhere within its circles be it in a Sufi or religious dimension, or in a dimension of enjoyment and pleasure even to the extent of crossing the societal redlines though we cannot make sure about the social traditions then.
M: did he harm anybody? This is the social tradition in our age, was it the same then?
W: anyway, any society has many classes, and we cannot deliver a general judgment. Let’s move a step forward to the next stage of Zakariyya Ahmed’s life. What was the next move that took place in Zakariyya Ahmed’s music?
M: The collaboration between Zakariyya and Bayram was useful for both. Bayram used to write poetry using music, and Zakariyya, on the other hand, used to pay very much attention to the lyrics and his choices.
W: Let’s stop here, about “writing poetry with music”, elaborate more on that. If you don’t mean the Tafaeel and the meter, you then mean something else with “poetry with music”.
M: you feel a movement in Bayram’s poetry. You feel as if it composed its own music. Even in the poems which were not sung like, for instance, this poem that he wrote in classical Arabic about the town council [El-Maglis el-baladi].
W: that means he was writing as if he was singing.
M: even when he wrote his sarcastic poem about the musicians Yahl El-Maghna to which, by the way, there’s a recording for it in Sheikh Zakariyya’s own voice in recitation not singing, it was a poem that one feels as if containing a kind of singing, as if he knew the music by heart and he just stacked his words, in a right sense, to build the poem on the musical basis of the words which wouldn’t be sung. Whenever you read the words when you read the poem, whenever the word “Wapoor” appears, the tune of Ya Wapoor Olli will no doubt jump immediately in your head.[Listen to a recitation of the poem Yahl El-Fann by Sheikh Zakariyya.].
M: One cannot understand wherefrom Sheikh Zakariyya used to get hold of some of the lyrics he composed. One wonders where he could get hold of Antoine Efranjiyya’s poem Bentu Karmin Yattamouha Ahlaha, this very beautiful Muwashshah composed by Sheikh Zakariyya. Where did he get these lyrics?
W: what does it say?
M: Bintu Karmin Yattamouha Ahlaha *** Wa-Ahanouha wa-deesat bel-Qadam,
Thumma Aadou Hakkamouha Baynahom *** Waylahum min Sharri Madhloumin Hakam.
M: only a couple of lines.[Listen to Muwashshah Bintu Karmin by Sheikh Zakariyya Ahmed.].
M: Where did he get hold of these lyrics?
W: It’s even a very good choice.
M: These lyrics are supposed to have come, according to the literary theoreticians, from an era of literary decline and such nonsense. No, there was good poetry written in the 11th and 12th Hejri centuries, i.e., 17th and 18th centuries AD, and despite this, they call it “Literary decline”. There’s nothing of the sort. There was good and bad. There was the poetry of the great Al-Shabrawy, and the lyrics by Guba’I of the Muwashshah Ma Shamamtu’l-Warda Illa Zadani Shawqan Eleyk, about which we made an episode in Rawdat El-Balabil’s Samaa. How could he find these lyrics? It was not then easy like today: one googles something and gets the results.
W: That means that he was a good reader, or maybe they had a source for that.
M: They were reading together. I understand Bayram.
W: the real value is in the ability to choose. The lyrics are in the books, and that means that he is a person interested in reading, yet, the ability to choose is really striking.
M: true. The collaboration between Sheikh Zakariyya and Bayram positively influenced both: on Sheikh Zakariyya regarding the poetry even not by Bayram El-Tunsi, and on Bayram El-Tunsi in the music that dominated the writing of his poetry.
W: as for Zakariyya Ahmed’s musical characteristics in this stage, is it possible to sum it up, describe it or explain it? This is for the listener to whom you may recommend listening to this or that song as an example of this stage of Sheikh Zakariyya Ahmed’s music, and what to pay attention for…etc. Can you elaborate on that?
M: the Tawsheeh entitled Ya Rabbi In Qaddartahu Lemuqabbilin Ghayri, falil-miswaki aw lil-ak’usi.
W: Wow, very beautiful.
M: The melody is a typical Tawsheeh melody and using the same rhythm usually used in the Tawsheeh. It was chanted by Sheikh Ibrahim El-Farran and Sheikh Zakariyya was part of the Bitana.
M: This Tawsheeh doesn’t have any rhythmic change even though Sheikh Zakariyya always liked to play with the different rhythms, always changing from one to another. But, here, no. The beginning of the melody is a typical Tawsheeh. Later, surprisingly, he goes to the Maghreb’s maalouf. Then, to upper Egypt, the history of the prophet, like Ibn Arous for instance. The Tafareed, i.e., the improvisational interruptions which Ibrahim El-Farran did, whether in this Tawsheeh or in Ma Shamamtu’l-Ward, as previously stated, shows you that he liked the idea of collective work, i.e., the idea that a tune shouldn’t be performed in the same way every time. Therefore, the Tawsheeh that was sung by Ibrahim El-Farran with a Takht, and rhythm player can also be sung by Taha El-Fashni without Takht or rhythm. Many of the Tawasheeh which have been sung even till today were composed by Sheikh Zakariyya. It made no difference for him that they are attributed to him. This has been stated by Sheikh Sayyid Mikkawy when he said in a radio interview:
Sheikh Sayyid Mikkawi: I’d like to say that all the Mashayikh in the Arab orient who chant the Mawlid nowadays, 95% of what they chant nowadays were composed by the musician Zakariyya Ahmed. The rest was by Sayyid Darwish, Sheikh Ali Mahmoud, Kamil El-Kholai, El-Sheikh Ibrahim El-Maghrabi and Sayyid Mousa. All these contributed to the remaining 5%.
M: he also stated in a private session: “I was there during the composition of various Tawasheeh by Sheikh Zakariyya Ahmed, and I know that they are by Sheikh Zakariyya Ahmed, but they aren’t attributed to anybody”.
W: attributed to the musical heritage only.
M: He wasn’t interested. He was more ascetic than that. Some people may ask “how is that? How about the case between him and Om-Kolthoum?”. I believe that the case between him and Om-Kolthoum was because he felt a personal insult.
W: because following years of acceptance and disinterest to a high financial income, a sudden revolt may only be attributed to the feeling of a personal insult.
M: he felt a personal insult and he did not accept that for himself.
Listen to Tawsheeh Ya Rabbi in Qaddartahu le-Muqabbilin Ghayri from Sheikh Ibrahim El Farran.].