Arab Musicians of the 20th Century Who Had a Long-Lasting Impact on the World
By Muhammed Aladdin
Through the narrow alleyways of Old Cairo, tunes that tell of a golden age diffuse like incense into the air only to be carried to your ear, reminiscing of the music of the Arab people throughout the 20th Century. These are the voices of Umm Kulthum, Abdelwahab, Fayrouz, Asmahan, and many more, who shaped modern Arabic songs and influenced that spread through the region’s borders.
Like all cultures, Arabs have their own unique style when it comes to music; they also have a wide array of instruments, making Arabic music one of its kind. However, with the rise of colonialism, western influences were introduced, and the merging cultures saw Western instruments introduced to Arabic music, giving rise to Arab pop music.
With time, a collection of inspirations, eastern as well as western, gave rise to a number of artists whose names are known from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic. These were the legendary music icons of the 20th Century, and here are my top picks for those of which who had a long-lasting impact on the world.
Born Nouhad Haddad, the Moon’s Neighbor, or as she is more commonly known as Fayrouz, had one of the most iconic musical careers in the Arab World. All the way from Baghdad to Rabat, her mellifluous singing voice was heard in morning radio broadcasts.
The young Nouhad started out her career in the Lebanese Conservatory under the guidance of Musician Mohammed Flayel. One day while practicing, the prominent Halim El Roumy, father of Majida El Roumy, had heard her and was convinced that her unique voice allowed her to sing in both Arabic and Western styles.
Soon enough, Fayrouz was appointed as a chorus singer at the radio station in Beirut; her magical voice attracted fellow Musician Assi Rahbani, who was working at the radio station as well. The young composer started writing music for Fayrouz and soon they fell in love. The couple was married in 1955; shortly after, Fayrouz became an international icon, considered by some as the best-selling Middle Eastern artist of all time.
Many of the Arab World’s most prominent national songs of the 20th Century have one thing in common; the beautiful voice of Warda Al-Jazairia. The music icon was born in Puteaux, France to an Algerian father and a Lebanese Mother.
From a young age, her talent for singing was as clear as day, and soon afterward, the Algerian President Hourai Boumediene asked her to sing of Algeria’s independence from French Colonialism.
Back then, Cairo was the artistic center of the Middle East, and Warda found herself moving there to perform in the Egyptian orchestra. Here, she made her name with songs like “Helwa Belady El Samra” and “Al-Watan Al-Akbar”. Shortly after, Warda became an Egyptian sensation releasing several albums and starring in a number of films next to big screen names such as Roushdy Abaza.
Her career was full of glory, but like all things that are beautiful, it came to an end. The gorgeous Warda died of a cardiac arrest in Cairo in 2012. In honor of her career, her body was flown to Algeria, where she was given a state funeral and was buried in Algiers El Alia Cemetry reserved for national heroes.
The King of Rai was no ordinary teenager for, at the age of 14, Khaled Hadj Brahim formed his first band “Cinq Étoiles”, singing in nightclubs and weddings, and from there, a legendary career started.
Cheb Khaled is a household name, not only well-known through the Middle East but also throughout Europe and Latin America. The young singer rose to the international spotlight with his single “Didi”; the song was an instant hit in all Arab-speaking countries and made it to the top charts of France, Spain, and Belgium.
The legendary musician resorted to singing Rai, a form of Algerian folk music that was popular in the region of Oran, Cheb Khaled’s hometown. Through his appealing voice and mesmerizing music, he made Rai known worldwide.
His single “C’est la Vie” has spread a message of tolerance and coexistence throughout Europe, telling the hardships young immigrants from Algeria face in France. The song made it to number 5 on the Billboard top France Songs.
She is remembered as one of the greatest Egyptian musicians to ever live. Umm Kulthum, known in the Arab World as the “Planet of the East”, is arguably the best-selling Arab singer of all time. Born Fatima Ibrahim El Sayed El Beltagy to a modest family in rural Egypt, Umm Kulthum learned how to sing by watching her father teach her younger brother.
The years would pass and her father, an Imam at a local mosque, would discover her strong singing voice and asked her to join the family ensemble. At the age of 16, she dressed as a boy to sing on stage, only to be noticed by Mohammed Aboul Ela, another musician who became her mentor and taught her the classical Arab repertoire.
In a matter of years, Umm Kulthum moved to Cairo and met Poet Ahmed Rami, who wrote 137 songs for her, and Composer Mohammed El Qusbagi, the Head of her band. She had her first public success in 1932 when she sang in the Arab Theater Palace, and from there, her fame only flourished. Umm Kulthum embarked on a tour throughout the Arab-speaking world, becoming one of the most celebrated musicians of all time with singles like Enta Omri, Al-Atlal, and Be’ed ‘Anak.
Amal Al-Atrash, who would later become widely-known as Asmahan, was a Syrian-born legendary singer who lived in Egypt. During the peak of her career, hers was one of the few voices that would present serious competition to the reign of Umm Kulthum.
By the age of 14, Asmahan was introduced to the prestigious Cairo Opera House where she sang to the public, marooning the elite class of Egypt with her unique tone of voice. Two years later, she was invited to an Egyptian company to record her first album, which featured her single “Ya Nar Fouadi”, catapulting her into overnight fame.
Unfortunately, by the age of 31, she has lost her life in a tragic car accident. Even though her personal life was full of struggles, she managed to channel all her feelings into music that would help Arabs get through their own problems. Her short-lived career marked one of the most iconic music figures in the 20th Century.
Majida El Roumy
An Arab musical prodigy, a UN Goodwill Ambassador, and a Humanitarian Activist, Majida El Roumy is one of the defining pillars of Middle Eastern music in the second half of the 20th Century. She was born to the Lebanese Musician Halim El Roumy, who is credited for reviving Lebanese music and discovering many of its artists, including Fayrouz as previously mentioned.
Halim El Roumy’s house in Kfarshima, Beirut was a cultural hub attracting artists from all over Lebanon; submerged in this environment, Majida grew passionate about art and music. At the age of five, she sang to Umm Kulthum, Abdelwahab, and Asmahan, and soon enough, family members started to realize that the young girl had a talent for singing.
Throughout the following years, Majida El Roumy discovered her musical capabilities and sang on numerous occasions. However, the release of her first single “Am Behlamak” in 1974 marked her rise to the spotlight. Since then, she has been active, and to this day, she still holds concerts in Beirut.
In a career spanning six-decades, Al-Shahroura, or as she is commonly known, Sabah, has released a total of 50 albums, acted in 98 movies, and starred in 20 Lebanese stage plays. In her repertoire, she has more than 3,500 songs and was one of the first Arab performers to sing in Royal Albert Hall, London; Carnegie Hall, New York; and the Olympia, Paris.
In 1940, during her early teenage years, Sabah released her first single, and she soon caught the eye of Egypt-based Lebanese Filmmaker Asia Dagher, who signed the rising talent in three films. In the first of these, “El-Qalb Louh Wahid”, she played a character called Sabah, and it seems that the name stuck and it would be the stage name for Jeanette Georges Feghali for the rest of her career.
She brought the traditional Lebanese mawal back to life with songs like “Akhadou el-Reeh”, which made her voice well-known, not only in the Levant but in all of the Middle East as well.
Her joyful character made her a living symbol of hope, and even days before her unfortunate death, she asked her fans to dance dabkeh at her funeral. On that day, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese people covered the streets to bid the Empress of the Lebanese song farewell.