Interview with Youssef Kassab

The whole world is jealous of us. The breeze was confused. The waves of the ocean are telling a story to the beach without an end. When will time allow you, my beauty, and I to stay together all night near the Nile? Do you think I will ever stay the night with my beauty again? We will stay up all night, far away and safe from the jealousy of others.

– Imta Al-Zaman, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, 1936

In this song, Abdel Wahab could well be describing the dramatic circumstances of Youssef Kassab’s departure from Iraq. I had the pleasure of chatting with Kassab during his visit to Philadelphia last week and he shared with me a few stories from his colorful life.

At the age of 20, Kassab graduated from the Damascus Conservatory with a specialization in voice and qanun and moved with two friends to Basra, Iraq where he found work performing at a nightclub. Having been educated in the Syrian musical tradition he knew no Iraqi music and in just one week he learned an Iraqi repertoire by ear. So impressed by his skills as a musician, the owner of the nightclub asked him to sign a contract.

At the nightclub, he and a few other musicians accompanied dancers. While working at the nightclub, he caught the eye of a dancer with “blue eyes and bronze skin.” Her appearance was as remarkable as her forwardness. “She liked me because I was young. She took me to her family—I had never known a woman like her before—so tough.” He wasn’t the only one to be surprised by her advances. One morning he was awoken by the sounds of pounding on his door. Before he could change out of his pajamas, the police told him to return to Syria because without a work permit he couldn’t legally work in Iraq. It was only later that he discovered that the violin player at the club, envious of the dancer’s fondness for Kassab, told the police that Kassab was working without a permit. Embodying the jealousy that so concerns the lover in Imta Al-Zaman, the violin player arrested a love affair that might have been by ratting out Kassab. So, Kassab was torn away from the dancer, deported from Iraq, and on top of everything he lost his oud, which he left nightly at the nightclub as stipulated in his contract. He returned to Damascus, the place where his love of music began, with only his voice.

Born into a family of musicians, his introduction to music began at an early age. Though today he is most well known as a vocalist, he played a variety of instruments at a young age. When he was ten years old he began singing and playing the tambourine with his uncle’s group, which played in local churches. His uncle then taught him to play the oud by ear. As he grew up he developed an interest in the qanun and at the age of 16, he entered the Damascus Conservatory to pursue his musical studies. It was there that he formalized his training in music by learning for the first time how to read and write music.

Upon his return to Syria, his mother, so eager to have him stay in Syria, arranged his marriage. But Kassab already had his sights set on pursuing a musical career in America where his friend Muhammad El Aqqad, a qanun player, told him “money is like sugar” and you would come home from a night’s performance to discover $100 bills in every pocket. In his experience, only one artist had ever enjoyed such appreciation—a renowned Egyptian singer, Umm Kulthum.

The day before his 17th birthday when he went with his father to see Umm Kulthum perform, remains one of his most vivid memories. “The room was completely full—600 or 700 people crowded into the auditorium of a local school. She was wearing red— not like wine, a little lighter—everything red except her dark glasses. She sang 4 songs—very long songs—the best singer in the world! Outside they were making ice cream in big barrels with gum mastic and real pistachios—not just green food coloring.” For Kassab, the day has a slightly mythical significance about it particularly since all the fanfare was in celebration of a musician.

Kassab left Syria for America to seek his own fame and fortune in 1969. He started out performing in nightclubs in Dearborn, Michigan, which was, as it is today, home to a large Arab community. But he did not find the America of abundance that his friend El Aqqad had described. Instead, he was earning a paltry sum and every night he would come home with his oud smelling of cigarettes. So, he left Dearborn for New York where in 1980 he met Simon Shaheen, a composer and oud and violin player who had just arrived in New York from Palestine. With their shared appreciation for the rich lyrics and melodies of the golden age, Kassab and Shaheen began making music together. In 1982 Kassab joined Shaheen’s Near Eastern Music Ensemble as the principal vocalist. With this ensemble, he performed in concert halls around the world. Kassab continues his career in music, singing with a variety of ensembles presenting a classical and folkloric repertoire of Arab music.

Over the course of the interview, he made mention more than once of the hardships, both economic and emotional, that a musician endures. “Musicians, they make everyone happy but they are not happy.” However, his rapturous description of the lyrics of Imta Al-Zaman and his impassioned performance Saturday night suggests that he is motivated not by the fame or fortune he sought in coming to America but by the beauty of the music itself.

Miranda Bennett
Outreach Coordinator
Al-Bustan Seeds of Culture

  • Photo by Langdon Photography: Kassab singing “Imta Al-Zaman” at Al-Bustan’s Arab Music Concert Series in Philadelphia, Oct 29, 2011

One Comment Add yours

  1. Julie says:

    Great write-up Miranda 🙂


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