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Sabah Fakhri, Syrian tenor who helped preserve classical Arabic music, dies at 88

BEIRUT — Sabah Fakhri, a towering Syrian tenor who helped preserve classical Arabic music with marathon-length concerts around the world, including a 10-hour non-stop performance in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1968 that won him a Guinness World Record entry, died on November 2 in Damascus. He was 88 years old.

Syrian state media reported the death but did not cite a cause.

Mr. Fakhri sang the tarab, an emotional and repetitive form of traditional Arabic song. The word roughly translates to “elation,” and everything in the music was designed to invoke a trance-like state of ecstasy or transcendence among its listeners. Notes were held for 10 seconds or more, songs spanned nearly an hour, and one track often blended into another. In Mr. Fakhri’s hometown of Aleppo, crowds often gathered for his evening concerts and listened to him sing until dawn.

His purity of voice and his ability to squeeze a wide range of emotions out of his throat are what set Mr. Fakhri apart, said Syrian maestro Abdel Halim Hariri, head of the Aleppo Music Syndicate and director of the Sabah Fakhri Institute for Singing and Music.

“He went from a musician to a school, from which generations learn,” Hariri said. Mr. Fakhri created melodies to accompany Arabic poetry, the conductor said, and set up dozens of rhythms and helped establish the Arabic maqam, a musical modal system that is the foundation of traditional Arabic music.

He was often accompanied by a band playing traditional instruments such as the oud, an ancestor of the modern guitar; the qanun, a flat string instrument placed on knees or tables and plucked with two picks; and the ney, a wooden flute. A stone-faced Mr. Fakhri would often underline the notes played by his band, banging his fists along with the music.

The portly Alepian, still in a suit and tie, popularized old songs such as “Fog Ilna Khil” (“We Have a Friend Above”) and “Qadduk al-Mayyas” (“Your Swaying Form”). In his live concerts, he would often go from shimmy and dance to standing still as the crowd became thrilled by the sudden ups and downs of his voice.

Mr. Fakhri, whose first name was Sabah al-Din Abu Qaws, was born in Aleppo on May 2, 1933. At age 6, his father taught him to recite the Koran in the tradition of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam which is traditionally more comfortable weaving musicality and softness into recitations.

He learned to play the oud and found a powerful sponsor in the late Damascene political leader Fakhri al-Baroudi. From him, Mr. Fakhri took his artistic surname, a word that means “my pride”.

He sang about love, pain and home, sometimes weaving religious themes: in “Qul Lil Maleeha Fi al-Khimar al-Aswad”, which translates to “Say beauty in the black veil”, he sings a man who was robbed of his religiosity when he saw a woman. When he begins, the instruments fall silent, his first words accompanied only by silence, then feverish applause, whistles and cheers.

He was revered throughout the Middle East, but also found a receptive audience in Europe and the Americas. His 1992 concert at New York’s City Hall – a performance that lasted a relatively restrained two and a half hours – drew praise from New York Times music critic Jon Pareles for his “highly expressive singing and playing. protean” between the star and his ensemble of seven men and three back-up singers.

Pareles marveled at how the singers, in an instant, followed Mr. Fakhri in “improvised curves and flourishes, sometimes in wide arcs, sometimes in tight trills and microtonal quavers”.

Mr Fakhri, who had been largely retired in recent years, had been married twice and had four children, but full information about survivors was not immediately available.

Syrian restaurants abroad feature his concerts as background music, and his rendition of “Ya Mal al-Sham”, a song about the Syrian capital, is often played in nostalgic gatherings of Syrian expatriates who sing along imitating the sign of the hand of Mr. Fakhri.

For fans who heard him live, Mr. Fakhri will be remembered for his inexhaustible and piercing magnetism: standing in front of a microphone, his eyebrows furrowed, his arms extended out to the sides at an angle of almost 180 degrees, teasing long melodies even from the shortest of syllables.

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