Sabah Fakhri: tenor who helped preserve classical Arabic music


Sabah Fakhri, an authoritarian Syrian tenor who has helped preserve classical Arabic music with marathon concerts around the world, including a non-stop 10-hour performance in Caracas, Venezuela, in 1968 that earned him a Guinness World Record , died at the age of 88. .

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

His purity of voice and ability to extract a wide range of emotions from his throat is what sets Fakhri apart, said Syrian maestro Abdel Halim Hariri, head of the Aleppo Music Union and director of the Sabah Fakhri Institute. for song and music.

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

He was often accompanied by a group playing traditional instruments such as the oud, an ancestor of the modern guitar; the qanun, a flat stringed instrument placed on towers or tables and plucked with two picks; and the ney, a wooden flute. A stone-faced Fakhri pointed out the notes played by his band, hitting his fists with the music.

A 10-hour non-stop performance in Venezuela in 1968 earned him an entry for the Guinness World Record

(AFP / Getty)

The portly Aleppian, 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 switched from shimmy and dancing to the still position as the crowd became elated by the sudden rises and falls of his voice.

Fakhri, whose first name was Sabah al-Din Abu Qaws, was born in Aleppo on May 2, 1933. At the age of six, his father taught him to recite the Koran in the tradition of Sufism, a mystical branch of Islam that traditionally weaves musicality. and gentleness in recitations.

He learned to play the oud and found a powerful sponsor in the person of the Damascene political leader Fakhri al-Baroudi. From him, Fakhri took his artistic surname, meaning “my pride”.

His ability to extract a wide range of emotions from his throat sets Fakhri apart.


He sang about love, pain and home, sometimes weaving religious themes: in “Qul Lil Maleeha Fi al-Khimar al-Aswad”, which translates to “Tell the 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 are silent, his first words are accompanied only by silence, then applause, whistles and feverish cheers.

He was revered across the Middle East, but also found a receptive audience in Europe and the Americas. His 1992 concert at New York City Hall – a performance that lasted comparatively short 2.5 hours – drew praise from New York Times music critic Jon Pareles for his “very expressive vocals and protean interaction” between the star and her ensemble of seven men and three singers.

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

Syrian restaurants abroad feature his concerts as the 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 with imitating the characteristic hand gesture of Fakhri.

For fans who heard him live, Fakhri will be remembered for his inexhaustible and fascinating magnetism: standing in front of a microphone, frowning, arms outstretched by his side at an angle close to 180 degrees, teasing long melodies. even the shortest. of syllables.

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

Sabah Fakhri, tenor singer, born May 2, 1933, died November 2, 2021

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