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For nearly 70 years, the Aleppine singer Sabah Fakhri (1933-2021) echoed across the Arab world and the entire globe, with approximately 376 melodies. Songs arranged on the major lyrical traditional Qawalib, manifested in folkloric Muwashahat, poems, songs, Qudud Halabiya, Mawawil, religious invocations, Adwar and Anashid.
These melodies were composed based on 18 eastern musical Maqamat. Fakhri himself contributed to around 68 of them.
Also, the “Arab Singing Cymbal,” as he is called, sang poems of various writers. He sang for 24 ancient Arab and 47 contemporary poets, with melodies composed by composer from Syria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Tunisia, Palestine and Iran.
It is not surprising to find out that his grandiose voice was discovered when he was a young boy. Fakhri once told his interviewer Shatha Nassar in the only book written about him entitled “Sabah Fakhri: A Biography and Legacy,” that at the age of one month, a relative used to deliberately wake him up by pinching him because he loved hearing his voice even when he cried, for he had a unique tone, especially when crying.
Childhood and Name
His original name, Sabah al-Din Abu Qaws, honed his talent and voice in the Al-Ajam neighbourhood in the village of Al-Qasilah in one of the old areas of Aleppo. He was surrounded by a group of major singers of authentic Tarab, Quran reciters and Qudud Halabiya glory makers.
From his early years, he heard soft tones and deep lyrical poetry in the classical Arabic language. By the school age, he joined the Quranic School in Aleppo, where he learned the principles of the Arabic language, eloquence, intonation and religion until 1947.
The Khawanim, or the high-class women of that time, contributed to the rise of the young boy’s star. Each of them had a monthly get together in which she hosted her friends and entourage, and her house was opened for singing, playing music and dancing. Since then, women started asking Fakhri to sing in their gatherings.
When the Syrian president Shukri al-Quwatli visited Aleppo in 1946, the 12-year-old Fakhri sang in front of him. A year later, Fakhri met the famous violinist Sami al-Shawa in Aleppo, who admired his voice and offered him a chance to work with him.
He accompanied him on several tours and musical performances, and he had chosen the name Muhammad Sabah for him at the time. He also suggested that he move to Cairo, where the music scene was on the wild rise with musical renewal trends, with well-renowned composers like Muhammad al-Qasabgi and Muhammad Abdel Wahhab.
As for his name, Sabah Fakhri, Shaza Nassar says that “in one of the live radio concerts, which was presented by the announcer Sabah Qabbani, Nizar Qabbani’s brother, MP Fakhri al-Baroudi wanted to adopt Muhammad Sabah and give him his name, so the announcer presented the singer with the name Sabah Fakhri,” and this became his stage name ever since.
Preserving the Heritage
Fakhri was never satisfied with only performing songs, be it on the radio or in movie theatres. Instead, he avidly sought to record a full-fledged, comprehensive lyrical and musical heritage on videotapes. As he once mentioned in one of his interviews, the recordings included explanations of the musical tones’ history and several clarifications about the origin and identity of each, which songs used which tone, and who composed and wrote them. It is a new experience that is considered a further breakthrough in understanding and studying this authentic heritage, different from the process of investigation and collection, as Fakhri labels it.
Through his role in the series Nagham al-Ams, Fakhri devoted several Muwashahat poems, Adwar, Qudud Halabiya, and some Mawawil, folkloric songs and religious chants to each Maqam. Also, he was able to record around 160 pieces of Arab lyrical Qawalib, with a detailed explanation of each of them, to consolidate and archive them so that they end up to be rooted in the listeners’ collective memory.
Sabah Fakhri the Ambassador
Sabah went beyond the Syrian borders and sang in most Arab countries. He also spared no effort to push forward and introduce the Syrian lyrical heritage, so he travelled and performed in several diaspora countries such as Venezuela, Argentina, Chile, Brazil, Canada, Australia and the US. Among his most notable performances was a concert he held at the Nobel Peace Center in Norway, another at the Palais des Congrès in Paris in 1978, and the théâtre Les Amandiers in Paris in 1985, at the opening ceremony of the Oriental Music Festival in France, and at the Beethovenhalle in Bonn, Germany, in addition to hosting several concerts at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris.
In Caracas, Venezuela, he sang for 10 consecutive hours and the audience was on the edge of their seats. By doing so, he broke the record for most prolonged continuous singing in 1968.
The Capable Professional
Sabah Fakhri masters the spirit and structure of each Maqam and has an excellent ability to transition directly and effortlessly between different lyrical maqamat. To show the mastery of his performance, he scientifically deploys some vocal techniques and some musical ornaments, such as the glissando.
This vocal performance technique glides from one pitch to another, passing or skipping all the minor pitches in between. In addition to the Zomra, a combination of musical tones sounded together, each of which is a scale degree apart from one or two neighbouring tones in the group, and the trill technique, which is a musical ornament indicated by the symbol “tr” written above the note.
It displays a rapid alternation between a relatively long duration note and the adjacent note in the scale above. Finally, the Gamme chromatique, a 12-tone scale, is a musical scale with 12 pitches separated by a semitone. It is made up of the seven degrees plus five middle notes obtained by alterations.
This unique vocal energy made him a singer, capable of performing all Arab classical lyrical maqamat, such as Muwashahat, Adwar, Mawawil, poems, Anashid, religious chants and folkloric songs with no effort whatsoever.
His professional and complete knowledge of rhythm enabled him to use all the instrumental beats accompanying the melody, both simple and complex, according to the different Arab lyrical Qawalib. So, we find his art ranging from heavy pieces that require attention, all the way to delicate pieces with a vibrating sense of dancing spirit that inspires fun and joy.
Fakhri’s experience is that of an avant-garde. Due to his distinguished musical contributions and pioneering achievements to the Arab musical movement, his artistic contributions spanning more than half a century and his efforts in preserving the Arab lyrical heritage, made him the undisputed icon of the Syrian music scene and one of the Arab music poles who imprinted the movement with their masterpieces during the second half of the 20th century.
Sabah Fakhri has made a priceless contribution to the long journey of the artistic movement in the Arab world and the development of an elevated and elegant artistic taste among the Arab listener from the ocean to the Gulf, through the great work that he presented and unique delivery of traditional lyrical maqamat
Fakhry, being the great dedicated artist that he was, has diligently aspired and worked in order to preserve and document his work for future generations. He will forever remain an image of an era and a model that helps will help future musicians and artists study and learn from the great productions of our time.
Nassar, Sh., Sabah Fakhri: biography and heritage – Dar Hachette Antoine, Lebanon, 2019 (Arabic version).
Boden.I., Sabah Fakhri: An overview over his life and Artistic distinction. Arab Music Magazine – 2013. (Arabic version).
Alxan, J., Sabah Fakhri and Jean Alexan – Al Arabi magazine – 1994. (Arabic version).
Sabah Fakhri: Aleppo’s Icon and Syria’s Symbol. Syrian Researchers (Arabic version).