Sheikh Sayyed Darweesh is, without a doubt, one of modern Egypt’s, and perhaps the Arab world’s, most influential composers. His contribution to Egyptian music not only created a bridge from the 19th to the 20th century, but also connected the music of the Near East to that of the West. An early pioneer in the domain of “world music,” Darweesh’s musical output was local but his musical vision was cosmopolitan.
Despite his early death at the age of thirty-one, Sayyed Darweesh left behind a prodigious legacy of thirty musicals, eleven adwar (long song forms with complex melodies and multiple sections), and over 150 songs. Almost all of this music was composed in the last seven years of his life! In addition to his legacy, Sayyed Darweesh’s music exerted an unmistakable and indelible influence on the most important generation of Egyptian composers that followed: Muhammad Abdel-Wahab, Riyad Al-Sunbati, Zakaria Ahmed, and Muhammad Al-Qasabgi, all of whom had a major role in defining Arabic music from the 20th century on.
The music of Darweesh was Egyptian in content and context. It was imbued with a strong sense of newly-found Egyptian nationalism that flourished as the Ottoman yoke was being shed from the Arab world during the First World War. Darweesh was steeped in the tradition of 19th-century Arabic music and, having studied to be muqri, a reader of the Qur’an, he was well-versed in Qur’anic chant. At the same time, he embraced the modern and the “other.” He loved Italian opera and greatly admired Verdi. Yet, ever aware of the rich heritage around him, Darweesh also learned Christian hymns from the Syrian Orthodox church, which he once referred to as “Godly opera.”
Sheikh Sayyed’s legacy is a complex one to fathom. His music was imbued with a nationalistic pride. The idea of “Egyptian music” was central to his work. Furthermore, Darweesh’s music is often described as the “voice of the people.” Indeed, many of his songs reflected and bemoaned the situation of the working class. Sayyed Darweesh composed songs about water carriers, waiters, shoeshine boys, horse carriage drivers, factory workers, lottery ticket vendors, and others. His music also dealt with the problems of the day. One song described the impending end of the water carrier tradition when an English company introduced plumbing into Egypt. He connected with the “people” because he was one of them.
It has been argued that Darweesh’s strong melodic sense gave extra potency to the lyrical content. This gave his politically-themed music “teeth.” This fact was not lost on the regime of King Faruq, who banned the reprinting of Darweesh’s records. His music was often critical of the British occupation or the corrupt Egyptian monarchy of the post-Ottoman period. Like many Egyptians who were active in the revolution of 1919, Sheikh Sayyed felt betrayed by the British occupiers and directed his anger directly at the British-appointed King Faruq. Yet Darweesh also called the modern Egyptian to action. In “Ya Bint Al Yom” (Today’s Girl), he tells the women to “wake up”: “you speak several languages and are as smart and talented as your European counterparts. You’ve had enough sleep.” In the very same song, he calls for voting rights for women. In “Salma Ya Salama,” he tells the would-be emigrant to “forget Europe, forget America; Egypt is the place to be.” The lyrics are energized by a sense of pride in Egyptian history and a “can do” optimism that resembles that of early 20th-century U.S.
Grounding Darweesh’s forward-looking musical and political ideas were his deep roots in Arabic music. His contribution to the “classical” Arabic musical repertoire is so vast that many musicians are often surprised to discover a piece thought to be qadim, meaning “old” and implying anonymity, to be one of Darweesh’s. He began setting to music poems, called muwashshahaat, that were written by Arab poets in Andalusian Spain. These songs entered the existing repertoire of muwashshahaat songs and have become veritable “war horses” of the classical music repertoire.
Hicham Chami, founder of the Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble, selected Egyptian composer Sheikh Sayyed Darweesh as the focus of a new CD project. Working with composer/arranger Kareem Roustom, songs were chosen from the extensive Darweesh repertoire, ranging from themes of love to nationalism. Dalia Alshafi transcribed the lyrics, referring to the "Firqat al-Musiqah al-`Arrabiyyah" songs and reconciling them with the original lyrics of Darweesh's recordings in his own voice. Translations for the CD booklet were prepared by Dr. Iman Roushdy Hammady and Nabeel Ebeid. Fifteen musicians from the U.S., Canada, and the Near East converged on Chicago to record “The Songs of Sheikh Sayyed Darweesh: Soul of a People,” which will fill a unique niche in the Arabic music market and provide a lasting tribute to this influential composer.
The Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble consists of professional musicians from several countries in North America, Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa. The ensemble performs traditional instrumental and vocal music from the Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, and Sephardic repertoires.
The CCOE presented its debut performance in 2003 at the Oriental Institute in Chicago, for the opening of the Edgar and Deborah Jannotta Mesopotamian Gallery. The ensemble performed with the Anda-El East West Orchestra during a nationwide tour showcasing Andalusian music in 2004. The CCOE’s 2005 tour, including performances at the United Nations and Kennedy Center as well as museums and cultural centers across the country, highlighted contemporary compositions by international artists. The CCOE's seven-city nationwide tour in 2006 featured "The Songs of Sheikh Sayyed Darweesh: Soul of a People."
Led by Hicham Chami, a Moroccan-born qanun performer based in Chicago, the CCOE represents a unique experience in the world of classical Oriental music in the U.S.