Revolution soundtrack

Manchester-born Palestinian singer Reem Kelani
Manchester-born Palestinian singer Reem Kelani

HE didn’t live for very long – born 1892, died 1923 – but Sayyid Darwish’s name became ingrained in Egyptian populist culture during the 20th century.

It still is, a decade into the present one with his songs being sung by protesters in Cairo’s Tahrir Square and elsewhere in Egypt early last year demonstrating against the regime of Hosni Mubarak.

Manchester-born Palestinian singer Reem Kelani was in the square on January 25, 2011 and next Tuesday presents Music of the Egyptian Revolution at Firth Hall – specifically, music by Darwish.

Brought up in Kuwait, Kelani has been researching the composer and his music for the last eight years in London, Giza, Syria (in 2009) and Turkey for her next recording project, a two-CD set of his music.

“The revolution in Egypt has led to some project delays, inevitably,” admits the singer whose Sheffield University concert next week pre-dates the 120th anniversary of Darwish’s birth four days later on March 17.

“At the same time, it is a reminder of the very topicality of Sayyad Darwish – his music and his message. He would have been so proud to think that his songs provided the backdrop for the two most important popular uprisings in modern Egyptian history.”

The first was the country’s revolt against British colonialism in 1919 and Darwish is regarded as the father of popular contemporary Arabic music – nothing like the Western variety, obviously!

He was born in Alexandria and moved to Cairo around 1917 where he composed for theatrical troupes, regularly collaborating with the poet Badi Khayri – a sort of Weill and Brecht partnership.

Darwish and Khayri developed a colloquial comic theatre based on indigenous language, music and characters, music and text often being infused with the widely shared, anti-imperialistic political sentiments of the day, while expressing pride in an Egyptian heritage.

He wrote 30 musical plays and dozens of other songs, including national, religious, love songs (200 have been mentioned), many drawing on the language, songs and images of working-class Egypt. When Darwish died at the age of 31, the official cause was given as a heart attack, though some say he was poisoned and others it was the result of a cocaine overdose – no-one knows for certain and foul play is a distinct possibility.

Speculation can also be said to surround why one of his songs had new words woven into it and was officially adopted as the Egyptian national anthem in 1979, having more or less been it since 1923.

Although he is regarded as Egypt’s greatest composer, Darwish has long been persona non grata in the higher echelons of the Egyptian establishment and state. Exactly why is a mystery but maybe, as has been expounded, it is because his songs are regarded as a revolutionary reminder and thus a threat to a minority status quo. Events in Tahir Square early last year would seem to indicate that there might be some truth in it.