etcetera | Obituaries Electronic Telegraph
Saturday 26 April 1997
Issue 701

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Sayyid Makkawi

Blind singer and composer whose television operetta took Egypt by storm

SAYYID MAKKAWI, who has died aged 68, was a blind Egyptian singer and composer, whose rasping voice and traditionally styled songs endeared him to a wide audience in the Arab world.

He was best known for his music for a television operetta, al-Layla al-Kabir (The Big Night), about a farming family coming to Cairo to attend a moulid, a festival in honour of a local saint, a distinctly Egyptian celebration that combines religious fervour with the frantic delights of a carnival.

Al-Layla al-Kabir, written in collaboration with the poet and cartoonist Salah Jeneen, was first broadcast in the late 1960s, and is still regularly shown on Arabic television. It presents a teeming panorama of the pleasures and problems of everyday life.

As a composer of popular songs Makkawi rejected the fashion, led by the composer Muhammad Abd al-Wahhab, for giving Arabic songs western-style orchestrations, in favour of a style based on local folk music. His songs were sung in the streets and set a trend that a generation of singers followed.

Sayyid Makkawi was born on June 8 1928, in Sayyida Zainab, a district of central Cairo as old as it is poor. Blind from birth (and always photographed wearing dark glasses), he was destined to follow a career as a professional reciter of the Koran.

He graduated from Cairo's ancient religious university al-Azhar, where in addition to the traditional Islamic curriculum he learned the techniques of Koran recitation and the repertoire of songs, in praise of the Prophet or local saints, that are sung at festivals. The nasalised consonants that were a trademark of his later singing style were a technique he learned at al-Azhar. He also studied Arabic and European classical music.

In the 1940s he was employed as a singer on Egyptian radio, performing Andalusian-style ballads and religious songs. In the early days of his career he used the title shaykh, in recognition of his status as a graduate of al-Azhar.

Within a few years he was working as a composer for Egyptian Radio, writing musical settings of poems for leading singers in the Middle East. He eventually joined its broadcasting committee.

The Arab defeat in the Six Day War of 1967 inflicted a profound trauma on Egypt; according to Nasser's socialist ethos leading cultural figures were duty bound to attempt to heal it. The leading figure in Egyptian music (perhaps in Egyptian popular culture this century), the singer Umm Kalthoum, toured the Arab world performing concerts to raise money.

Sayyid Makkawi, for his part, wrote a stirring patriotic song whose title means "The earth speaks Arabic", referring to the Sinai Peninsula captured from Egypt by Israel. Nasser awarded Makkawi the Medal of Sciences and Arts (First Class).

In the early 1970s Makkawi wrote another popular television operetta, al-Masharati, whose title refers to the person who, during the month of Ramadan, walks through the streets in the hour before dawn beating a drum to awaken people in advance of the day's compulsory fasting.

Makkawi wrote songs for Umm Kalthoum in the last years of the singer's life. One, Ya Msaharni ("O, you who made me lose sleep") composed in 1972, was recorded.

Sayyid Makkawi enjoyed life to the fullest, despite his blindness. He is remembered for his sense of humour and for his fondness for hashish.

He was married and had two daughters.

Next report: Joan Reeder

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