Defining the "golden age" of Arab music

The first concert of the Arab Music Concert Series will feature Syrian singer Youssef Kassab performing selections of music from Egyptian icons, Umm Kulthum and Mohammed Abdel Wahab, and Farid al-Atrash of Syria—artists who shaped the music of the “golden age” and continue to be among the most famous musicians and composers in the Arab world.

The period from the 1920s to the 1950s is considered the “golden age” of Egyptian cinema and with it came a blossoming arts scene in Cairo that drew artists from all parts of the Arab world. Along with cinema, music reached one of its pinnacles during the same period. With the advent of talkies (films with sound) in the 1930s came the introduction of a new form of film—musicals, which propelled the careers of many musicians to great stardom. Kulthum, Abdel Wahab, and al-Atrash all played starring roles in musicals. Farid al-Atrash (see photo to the right) moved from his home in Syria to Cairo and gained recognition for his role as a singing romantic lead in many musicals. Beyond his numerous film roles, he became known for his skill as an oud player and as a composer, performing only his own music.

In addition to the renowned musicians that the era produced, the music of the golden age is defined by particulars in composition and lyrics and the development of new media. Moving away from the romantic escapism of the post World War I era, music that dealt with the realities and hardships of the common man became more popular by the 1930s and 40s. The works of Egyptian composer Sayyed Darwish, the father of this golden age, depicted stories of working-class people, affirming local culture and politics while criticizing British presence in Egypt.

Like Darwish, many composers reacted to political changes in Egypt in their music. The end of Ottoman rule in 1914 also marked the beginning of the British protectorate and a growing europeanization of Egypt. Composers reflected this transition by moving away from Turkish music traditions and incorporating more elements of western classical music in their pieces. Abdel Wahab (see photo to the left), who emerged as a singer, composer, and actor in the 1920s, was one who juxtaposed European and Arab traditions in his music. With his move away from improvisation and audience-driven pieces that had long been central to Arab music, he is credited with ushering in a time in which composed pieces occupied a place of greater importance. In the face of growing Europeanization and the accompanying growth in support for western classical music, Umm Kulthum advocated for the appreciation of Arab music in her position as president of the Cairo Musicians’ Union and in choosing her own repertoire.

Musicians including Kulthum (see photo to the right) benefited from new forms of media. The development of radio in 1920s facilitated the transmission of music and the growth in popularity of musicians. A large portion of the programming on local radio stations and the Egyptian National Radio, which was established in 1934, was music. Kulthum solidified her status as the most celebrated female singer of her time with live-radio-broadcasts on the first Thursday of each month, which began in 1937 and continued until her death in 1975. As a measure of her popularity, streets would empty across the Arab world in time for her Thursday concerts.

The golden age may have a distinct beginning but the music’s popularity has extended its reign into the modern day. Youssef Kassab has a deep appreciation for this music, which he grew up listening to in Syria and continues to perform to this day in America, his new home since immigrating here in 1970. Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture is presenting Youssef Kassab in a performance of music from the golden age in Egypt and Syria on October 29. Check back soon for an interview with Mr. Kassab himself.

Miranda Bennett
Outreach Coordinator
Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture


Sources referenced:
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Racy, A.J. Making Music in the Arab Music: The Culture and Artistry of Tarab. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
Danielson, Virginia. The Voice of Egypt: Umm Kulthum, Arabic Song, and Egyptian Society in the Twentieth Century. Chicago: University of Chicago Press: 1998.

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