The Arabesque Music Ensemble debut CD, The Songs of Sheikh Sayyed Darweesh: "Soul of a People", was released in 2006 in conjunction with a year-long international tour. The CD and concerts were received with enthusiastic audience response and critical acclaim. The Seattle Times called the project "a bold historical retrieval"; the CD was named one of the "top-ten world music recordings of the year" by the Boston Globe/WNYC.
Echoing the headline in a story on the CCOE in Le Devoir (Montreal), "Le compositeur d'abord!", the ensemble's next recording project was designed along the same lines--focusing on classical Arab composers. Boston-based composer/arranger Kareem Roustom proposed a subsequent recording devoted to "al-fursan at-talatha" (the "Three Musketeers": Muhammad al-Qasabji, Zakariyya Ahmad, and Riyad al-Sunbati, composers for legendary singer Umm Kulthum.
Scores for the recording were transcribed by Youssef Kassab. The ensemble (re-named the Arabesque Music Ensemble) recorded the CD in New York City, Chicago, and Damascus, Syria. Rob Ruccia of Uptown Recording in Chicago engineered the studio sessions and supervised the mixing and mastering. Nabeel Ebeid prepared translations of the lyrics; liner notes were written by respected Egyptian-born ethnomusicologist/musician Dr. George Dimitri Sawa of Toronto.
Exclusively for the Arabesque Music Ensemble, by Dr. George Sawa, Independent scholar of medieval Arabic music history
The songstress Umm Kulthum (also known as Om Kalsoum, 1904-1975) dominated the Arabic music stage for most of the twentieth century. Music connoisseurs from all over the Arab world looked forward to listening to her live broadcast concerts, which took place on the first Thursday of every month. The luckier connoisseurs were those who could afford to attend her live concerts and those who could afford to travel from all over the Arab world to hear her perform live.
The phenomenal success of Umm Kulthum is due to many interconnected factors. She was schooled in the most sophisticated musical tradition: Islamic religious chant and recitation of the Holy Qur'an; at the same time, she possessed a very beautiful and powerful voice and an inimitable control of vocal ornamentations and improvisations. Initially trained by her father in religious chant, she branched out to the secular world; there she found a wealthy audience of fine music connoisseurs who provided the social and economic maintenance needed for her fame and success.
Next were her shrewd sense of business, an orchestra made up of the most skillful instrumentalists, great poets such as Bayram al-Tunisi and Ahmad Rami, and last but not least, three composers of genius: Muhammad al-Qasabji, Riyad al-Sunbati, and Zakariyya Ahmad. These three colossi, also known as the "Three Musketeers", knew how to compose for her in a way subsequent composers could not. It is, therefore, not surprising that the "golden age" of Umm Kulthum was in the thirties and forties, when the above poets and composers wrote her songs.
Of the Three Musketeers, Zakariyya Ahmad stands out as the traditionalist. He took most of his musical inspiration from the mashayekh, that is, the hymnodists who chanted and composed religious chant during the festivites surrounding the Prophet Muhammad's birthday, or the birthday of religious Islamic saints or Sufis. As a result, his musical style is as Egyptian as can be, with hardly any Western influence. Muhammad al-Qasabji and Riyad el-Sunbati, respectively nicknamed Asab (sugar cane) and Abu el-rod (literally, father of the garden) by Umm Kulthum, experimented with Western music and musical instruments side-by-side with the established tradition.
Muhammad al-Qasabji (1892-1966)
Muhammad al-Qasabji, a contemporary of Sayyed Darweesh (born less than a month before him), was influenced by Darweesh and shared his interest in Western musical styles. Al-Qasabji, who produced an oeuvre of 360 songs, incorporated European instruments and musical concepts such as harmony. He played 'ud in Umm Kulthum's takht; she performed his songs until 1946.
This CD includes two al-Qasabji compositions set to poems by Ahmad Rami: Ya Fayetni, first recorded in 1931, and Leh Tilaw'ini, first recorded in 1932.
Zakariyya Ahmad (1896-1961)
Zakariyya Ahmad embodied an indigenous Egyptian style (both in his traditional dress and populist outlook); Dr. Virginia Danielson writes that he was the "greatest composer of colloquial Egyptian music that Umm Kulthum worked with", and that his music had a "sing-a-long" quality to it, though with a daunting vocal range. Umm Kulthum performed Ahmad's songs until 1947.
Three works by poet Bayram el-Tunisi are included with the Ahmad compositions on this recording: Habibi Yessa'ed Awkatu and Ana F-intizarak (1943) and Ghannili Shewayya Shewayya (from the film Sallama; recorded in 1944).
Riyad al-Sunbati (1906-1982)
Riyad al-Sunbati also enjoyed an informal "mentorship" with Sayyed Darweesh and was inspired by him. Al-Sunbati met Umm Kulthum in 1922 and wrote his first song for her in 1928. He composed for her for decades, including numerous qasa'id by Ahmad Shawqi. Al-Sunbati favored Western instruments such as cello, bass, accordion, piano, and mandolin.
Two al-Sunbati compositions set to Rami poems are included on this CD: 'Ala Baladi al-Mahbub, sung in the film Widad and recorded in 1935; and Ifrah ya Qalbi, 1937, from the film Nashid al-Amal.