Percussive passion – Culture – Al-Ahram Weekly

After five months of absence from Alexandria, Said Al-Artist has finally returned to the Mediterranean city with a concert on Friday September 9. Announced as “Said Al-Artist and his oriental percussion ensemble”, the concert – held at the historic Sayed Darwish Theater (Alexandria Opera House) sold out two weeks in advance, and the management of the opera house actually added 70 seats to meet demand.

Throughout the four-hour evening, one of Egypt’s greatest masters, Said Al-Artist, took the Alexandrian audience by storm as he conducted 50 tabla (or darbouka) players – 45 women, 20 men – as well as 15 others on daf, duhulla (bass tabla), riq, finger cymbals and other percussion instruments. The stage also included violin, qanoun, ney, accordion, keyboard, joining selected pieces, as well as two solo clarinets (Hoda Hosny and Ayman Al-Abyad), a mizmar player (Said Al-Husseini) and a solo accordionist . (Farouk Mohamed Hassan).

Between rhythmic and instrumental numbers, the concert included several well-known Egyptian songs from the repertoire of Um Kulthoum, Warda, Abdel-Halim Hafez, Ahmed Adaweya, Zekra and Nagat performed by Egyptian singers Rana Abu Soud, Mai Mustafa, Yara as well as Asmaa Lazra from Morocco and Hisham Al-Yamani, an eleven-year-old singer from Yemen.

Al-Artist’s percussion compositions and his rhythmic arrangements of well-known songs were of course the main attraction. And what makes such an evening even more appealing is the presence of several generations on stage, starting with a four-year-old child and working their way up to players in their 40s and 50s. Many of the attendees were Al-Artist’s own students, which he teaches through courses organized by the Talent Development Center (a body operating under the Cairo and Alexandria Opera Houses) as well as workshops in many other places in both cities.

“I was happy to see the enthusiastic reception from the public and despite the length of the concert, everyone stayed until the end. We finished just before midnight,” comments Al-Artist. In fact, each of Al-Artist’s concerts brings together a large audience from all walks of life and all generations, but the one in Alexandria on September 9 was unique in its length, variety and drawing power. Not only was it sold out, but it generated a social media storm after its end, with people sharing videos and photos and reveling in a “one-of-a-kind night”.

It was Al-Artist’s passion for the instrument, which he fell in love with as a child and played for many decades across the Arab world and beyond, that allowed him to collaborate with legends such as Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Wadie Al-Safi, Amr Diab, Warda, Hakim, Samira Said, Mohamed Abdu, Shadia, Sabah, and many others, accompanying them on regional and international stages. He has also performed solo in Muscat, Oman, Osaka, Japan and elsewhere. In 2019, joined by his own troupe of professional musicians, he gave a memorable concert at the Hall de la Chanson in Paris, “a very important step in my career”, as he says.

But training a new generation of percussionists remains undoubtedly Al-Artist’s greatest passion. They perform with him, join other ensembles or launch their own projects. “Today, I see many very talented people joining my classes and performing with me on different stages. Some of them are ready to stand in front of the public from an early age,” he explains The most advanced of them – Ahmed Amr (10 years old), Reemas Hassan (9 years old) and Elen Shehata (7 years old) – had the chance to perform solo in front of a large audience.

Awarded the title of King of the Drum by the Ministry of Culture, Al-Artist has contributed significantly to the social repositioning and perception of tabla over the decades. Although long rooted in Arab-Egyptian culture and present in an overwhelming number of Eastern musical compositions, from traditional to modern songs, until recently much of the community disapproved of tabla musicians as nightclub performers supporting belly dancers.

Today, a greater interest in the tabla and the work carried out by Al-Artist has led to a change in approach, the proof of which is a clear and rapid increase in young people wishing to learn to play it, whether to give performances or simply for pleasure; for many, the tabla has become the joy it is.

“Tabla is my life; it’s like my child. The tabla is ingrained in our culture and I am happy to see many people opening up to its beauty, discovering its history and performing in many places,” comments Al-Artist, emphasizing how the tabla is an ambassador of oriental music.

In an interview published on these pages in 2020, Dina Darwish quotes Al-Artist as saying, “I come from a family of artists. All my brothers play an instrument. I chose the tabla because it is almost the only instrument that is in direct contact with the heart, also by the way you hold it, on the left side. I devoted 50 years of my life to it, to the point that my wife is jealous of it since I spend the best moments of my life with my tabla.

The passionate tabla player has a large number of compositions for tabla in his repertoire, some of which are collected in the album Spectacular Rhythms: Said Al-Artist and his Ensemble, released in 2007 by the Hollywood Music Center. The concert included several older and newer tracks composed by Al-Artist such as Maganini, Ehna Shabab, Mokassarat, Da’at Al-Mawaheb and – one of his latest compositions – Kharbasha. Throughout these compositions, Al-Artist showcases the adaptability of the tabla by blending traditional themes with modern percussive practices.

On the other hand, the musician develops his arrangement of rhythmic lines which he inserts into existing compositions from the Egyptian golden age, embellishing them with a unique technique. Segments featuring Al-Artist’s own compositions for tabla featured long and often complicated rhythmic patterns, most of which he teaches his students.

“Playing the tabla is not only knowing how to execute basic rhythms”: malfuf, maksum, baladi, masmoudi, etc. segments of the percussion ensemble”, he comments, explaining the beautiful rhythmic conversations thus obtained.

And since his concerts attract a large audience, he is able not only to provide pleasure but also to publicize an extremely valuable musical culture. Indeed, in his hands, the tabla becomes a cultural vehicle and a power that unites people because they love to listen to it and often drum on anything within their reach.

Said Al-Artist’s next concert will take place on September 22 at the Institute of Arabic Music in Cairo.

*A version of this article appeared in the September 15, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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