Last month, according to my mother-in-law who lives in the desert south of Phoenix, the Arizona police found the body of a Mexican border-crosser who had died after struggling through a field of cholla cactus in the dark. He was caked in their broken, spiny arms. I thought of him when I came to review this CD because Sheikh Sayyed Darweesh, like the Mexican, died when he wasn’t expecting to, and, like the Mexican, he had a journey ahead of him and a purpose in mind. Darweesh wanted to visit Europe and study opera under Verdi. Instead he overdosed on cocaine and wound up dead in 1923 at the age of thirty-one, cutting short a rapid flow of operettas and popular songs.
It’s a pity that he never got to write those operas. They would have been an interesting mixture of Egyptian tradition and foreign innovation, influenced by European ideas of notation, instrumentation, and arrangement, but using language and style familiar to the people on the Egyptian street. The operas would almost certainly have been patriotic, because he was involved in pro-Egyptian political movements and regularly brought patriotism into his music. “Oh Egypt! Land of wonders!” run the lyrics of “This is what happened”, or “Ahu Da el-Li Şār”. “Your people are noble! Shame on your enemies!” In “Sālmah Yā Salāmah” he advises his Egyptian listener to, “Forget America! Forget Europe! / No place is better than my land. / The boat that brings me back, / Is better than the one which takes me away.”
There would have been love stories in his operas; he often wrote love songs, and the operas that were popular in his day were filled with anguished couples in love. “How can you desert me”, his singer cries in “Ya Bahget er-Rōh”, “when my heart swoons for you?” Darweesh was a progressive as well, and one of the songs in Soul Of A People makes a diversion into feminism. “Women have degrees and diplomas”, point out the lyrics of “Bint el-Yōm”. “We can talk politics in all seven languages!… Tell me, what does a man have that we don’t have?… Why do women have a voice in European elections and we don’t?” It all comes back to patriotism though. “The Egyptian woman is unparalleled… in her love for her country.”
There’s a competitiveness in his national pride which isn’t surprising in the citizen of a country that was trying to break free from foreign domination. “They” have power and money and progress, and the Egyptian needs to better them at their own game so that Egypt can prosper. The Egyptian should not feel jealous of these people. He is well up to their level morally and in manners (“Wherever the Egyptian goes, / He maintains the best of taste”) but that’s all the more reason to “join hands and get up to struggle”.
The Chicago Classical Oriental Ensemble heads into Darweesh’s tunes with a good amount of flourish and weight. There’s a rhythmic drag in this kind of music, a moment after the strings have swirled in a circle when the tune pauses to extend a hook backwards and anchor itself in the earth before moving on. The Ensemble gives those moments plenty of definition. The best word I can come up with for this loop-and-hook movement is “serpentine”, and you can hear it in the music of Islamic countries all around the globe. It’s one of the things that gives taarab its kick. (There’s probably a perfectly good word for it in Arabic, but I have no idea what that might be.)
“Sālmah Yā Salāmah” throws the druggy repetition of women’s voices against faster singing from men. “Khafeef er-Rōh” bounces forward with a flirty tap-tap. There’s a formal feeling on Soul of a People, as you would expect in music a century old being played by a group of people who are calling themselves a classical ensemble, but it seems dignified rather than oppressive. It doesn’t prevent “Al-Shayyāleen” kicking back with a ponylike trot, or “Ya Ghuşeyn el-Bān” from slithering and trembling with qanun dulcimer lust. Listen once, listen twice, listen three times and regret, again, those lost operas.