After a career spanning seven decades, the Syrian tenor Sabah Fakhri, one of the greatest interpreters of classical Arab music, died on November 2 in Damascus. He was 88.
His death was announced by the Syrian information ministry and made headlines in the Arab world. Government ministers, politicians and artists attended his funeral in Aleppo, the country’s second city, where he was born in 1933.
Among many paying tribute to him on social media, the Iraqi oud player Naseer Shamma described him as “an immortal hero” with a “gigantic voice.”
Born into a Sufi Muslim family as Sabah al-Din Abu Qaws, Fakhri was the son of a Qur’an reciter and religious vocalist father. He studied music in Aleppo and Damascus before attracting the attention of the violinist Sami Al-Shawwa (1889-1965), who took him on tour of Syrian cities in 1947.
Sabah Fakhri got his artistic name from Fakhri al-Baroudi (1887-1966), the nationalist politician, writer and poet who played a prominent part in the struggle against the French occupation of Syria.
“An immortal hero” with a “gigantic voice.”Naseer Shamma
The Iraqi oud player
After Syria’s independence in 1946, Al-Baroudi retired from politics and devoted himself to supporting the Syrian artistic movement, notably by setting up the Oriental Music Institute.
Fakhri’s biographer Shatha Nassar says that in a live radio concert, Al-Baroudi instructed the presenter to introduce the singer as Sabah Fakhri: hence the name.
Master of Muwashahat
At that time, forms of traditional Arabic music such as muwashahat, qudud halabiya, and maqamat halabiya were in decline. Fakhri helped revive them and earned titles such as “King of Tarab Theaters”, “Sannaja Al Arab”, a title carried by Maymun Ibn Qays Al-A’sha, a sixth-century Arabic poet from Najd, Arabia, and “Master of Muwashahat”.
Many attribute Fakhri’s singing proficiency to his memorizing the Qur’an at the age of 12, at one of Aleppo’s Quranic schools, and studying the principles of Arabic, rhetoric and intonation.
In his youth, he was also a student of Muslim scholars who were also great musicians. They included Sheikh Ali Darwish (1884-1952) and Majdi Al-Akili (1918-1983), founder of the Damascus Music Academy.
Many attribute Fakhri’s singing proficiency to his memorizing the Qur’an at the age of 12, and studying the principles of Arabic, rhetoric and intonation.
At the age of 8, Fakhri began singing in public and was paid two Syrian pounds for performing at a party in Bab al-Nayrab, a historic district in Aleppo. Four years later, he found himself singing in front of the president of the Syrian Republic, Shukri al-Quwatli, during his visit to Aleppo in 1946.
Fakhri married twice and has four sons. The youngest, Anas Fakhri, is also a singer.
A Guinness Record
Throughout his career, Fakhri was known for his ability to interact with the audience as long as he was on the stage, no matter how long he sang. In 1968 he entered the Guinness Book of Records for singing non-stop for ten hours in Caracas, Venezuela.
Fakhri performed many traditional Aleppo songs in many Arab and international festivals, besides singing poems of some of the greatest Arab poets, like Abu Firas Al-Hamdani, Al-Mutanabbi, Ibn Al-Farid, Ibn Zaydun, Bahaa Al-Din Zuhair, Ibn Zahr Al-Andalusi, and Lisan Al-Din Al-Khatib.
Fakhri was known for his ability to interact with the audience as long as he was onstage. In 1968 he entered the Guinness Book of Records for singing non-stop for ten hours in Caracas.
He also composed music for poems by contemporary poets such as Fouad Yazji. Among his most famous songs are: “What’s Wrong with You, O Beauty”, “From the Wine of Love, Let Me Drink”, “O Bird, Fly Away”, and “Qul Lil Maliha” (“Tell the Beauty!”). Moreover, he sang many muwashahat, and mawawil, which have been widely popular in the Arab world.
Fakhri also appeared on television in shows such as the series “Al-Wadi Al-Kabir” (1974) by the director Elie Saadeh with the singer Warda Al-Jazairia. He acted in Youssef Maalouf’s movie “The Tramps” (1968) along with the actors Duraid Lahham and Maryam Fakhr El-Din.
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Among his many awards was one for singing in the Nobel Hall in Sweden for his revival of authentic Arab music. He also performed in the Beethoven Hall in Bonn, Germany, and the Palais des Congrès, in Paris. He was awarded the Tunisian Cultural Medal by the late President Habib Bourguiba in 1975, the Honorary Medal from Oman’s Sultan Qaboos in 2000, the Gold Medal at the 1978 Arab Song Festival in Damascus, and the Syrian Order of Merit of the Excellent Degree in 2007.
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