Sabah Fahkri Passes the Torch to Son Anas Abu Qaws

Nelida Nassar  08.12.2013

Sabah Fahkri’s concert at Beirut Holidays 2013 was full of surprises. In a career spanning 50 years, Fakhri has single-handily modified, popularized and elevated the once-fading forms of traditional Arabic music, Muwashahat and Koodood Halabiya. A celebrated Arabic traditional singer trained in Syria, he is a member of an uninterrupted lineage of music masters. Fakhri gave his first recital at age 15, beginning what was to be another glorious chapter in the history of Arabic classical music. Originally named Abu Qaws, he was given the stage name Fakhri by his mentor, Syrian nationalist leader Fakhri al-Barudi, who encouraged him as a young boy to stay in Syria and not travel to Italy. Unlike many Arab artists, he never studied or worked in Cairo. Instead, he enrolled in the Academy of Arabic Music of Aleppo, then later in the Academy of Damascus, and he has always wished to link his fame to his origins as a Syrian Arab. Fakhri is also one of the very few Arabic singers to achieve widespread popularity and perform concerts worldwide (in Europe, Asia, the Americas, and Australia). His name is enshrined in the Guinness Book of Records for his prowess in singing for 10 hours without a pause — in Caracas, Venezuela.

Joining him on stage was his son, Anas Abu Qaws, who has recently been active as a singer trying to create a style that mixes both tradition and modernity. He started as a rock and classical opera singer and is now preparing to launch his debut CD, Jamal al-Roh (Beauty of the Soul). There were also several virtuosi playing traditional instruments  — oud (lute), kamanja (spike fiddle), qanun (box zither), darabukkah (goblet drum), daf (tambourine) — and three violinists; the players often doubled as a choir with the soloists performing only a few chosen lines of the selected text (sama’i or bashraf).  All this added percussive richness to the ensemble sound. The string instruments conveyed a lithe muscularity, lean and clean. The range of colors that the players got out of their instruments was truly incredible, making it easy to understand their important role in classical Arabic music.

The concert proceeded according to Fakhri’s way of working with his audience, including his insistence on creating a good atmosphere by having good musicians and a state of the art sound system. The stage lights remained on despite a scorching and humid night in order to coax the audience to play a major role in bringing out the performer’s creativity, to be aware of the music and poetry, and to value the music performed for them.

The show opened with the ensemble pounding the first notes and the appearance of a female vocal soloist who warmed up the audience just before Fakhri stepped on the stage amidst enthusiastic cheers followed shortly by his son. From the start, it was a father and son show, with prominence given to the son. Abu Quas intoned the five stanzas of the muwwashaha’s strophic verses, which Fakhri sang or hummed, alternating the refrain with a rhyme and meter, but this did not last long. Fahkri quickly sat down in a comfortable armchair where he spent most of the evening except for a couple of brief moments of singing and dancing in his characteristic style, spreading his arms and moving around the stage. Echoes of his once exceptionally strong vocals could be heard the few times he performed. However, it was his son Abu Qaws who held the floor almost uninterruptedly for the concert’s three hours and fifteen minutes.

Abu Qaws sang lyrically, with impeccable execution of Maqamat and with great stamina, his father’s complete repertoire of Aleppo’s traditional songs, Arab poetry of Abu Firas al-Hamdani, Al Mutanabi, and many other traditional and contemporary composers. Examples of muwaššaḥ poetry started to appear as early as the 9th or 10th century. The word is thought to derive from the Syriac word mušaḥta meaning “rhythm” or “a psalm verse.” The earliest muwaššaḥs in the Levant are thought to have been heavily influenced by Syriac sacred music, even retaining refrains in Syriac.

The full range of Fakhri’s entire popular works – including Ya Hadi al Les, Malek Ya Helwa Malek, Khamrata el Hob, Ya Teira Tiri, Mawal Min Khamret Elhob, Zaman Zaman, Lamouni al Leimouni, El Kerrasia, Addouka al Mayass, Ya Mal il Sham, Mouwachah Imlili,Ya Chadi el Alhan, and Ana Wa Habibi —  was heard at the concert. Abu Qaws rendered the multiple maqam rows (scales) and up to three awzan (rhythms) and modulation to neighboring maqamat, as well as complete Aleppo waslah, up to eight successive muwaššah — literally “girdled,” the name for both an Arabic poetic form and a secular musical genre (which include an instrumental introduction (sama’i or bashraf) at times ending with a longa.

From time to time the audience called for Fakhri, who hesitantly joined his son and the orchestra. There were several memorable moments when Fakhri,  who still retains his charisma, basked in his notoriety and the crowd’s love, receiving cheers and standing ovations despite his frail condition. This must have thrilled the legendary singer and no doubt gave him a renewed vitality despite his reduced performance capacity. Fahkri also passed the torch, anointing his son as his successor; Abu Qaws beautiful voice and stage presence  discovered, luckily, did not disappoint. It was also an homage of the son to his father; he held the microphone for Fahkri and at one point kissed his hands, a sign of respect, love and admiration in Arab culture.

There was only one discordant note in the concert: the failure to include Abu Qaws’ name in the advertising and promotion campaign. Did the concert’s organizers fear that adding his name would reduce the public’s attendance and thus their anticipated financial gain? Many spectators voiced their discontent with this misleading advertising and left the outdoor arena before the concert ended. Abu Qaws obvious talents did not keep the audience from objecting to this equally obvious instance of nepotism which could not but bring to mind other father and son pairings: Hafez and Bashar al-Assad, Hosni and Gamal Mubarak, and Muammar Kadafi and his sons, not to mention all the Arab monarchies. Almost everywhere in the world and to different degrees, nepotism does exist, but shouldn’t art and music, in particular, be based on talent?

Cheers to save Aleppo and to restore peace to Syria peppered the concert, which may be one of Sabah Fakhri’s last. The torch has indeed passed to Abu Qaws and the lineage of classical masters will continue. This concert is a clear indication that he is set to become a prominent artist in his own right for his impeccable execution of Maqamat and harmony, his charismatic performances, and his excellent rendition of authentic Arabic Tarab.

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