DUBAI: As his fingers swept over the 11 strings of his oud, the late Syrian-Egyptian composer and singer Farid Al-Atrash healed broken hearts and inspired beautiful love stories.
Al-Atrash, dubbed the “King of Oud,” is one of the Arab worlds’ most significant cultural figures. He was a composer, singer, instrumentalist, actor and film producer who released more than 220 original songs and acted in 31 musical films.
He earned his nickname for his extraordinary prowess on the Middle Eastern stringed instrument. His work includes numerous Arab music classics, including “Nora Ya Nora,” “Awel Hamsa” and “Alby w Mofatho.”
Al-Atrash was born on Oct. 19, 1910, to a Syrian father and Lebanese mother in Suwayda, Syria. He emigrated to Egypt with his mother and siblings — the legendary singer Asmahan (Amal Al-Atrash) and film producer Fouad Al-Atrash — to escape French occupation, as their family played a major role in the Syrian resistance movement. They later received Egyptian citizenship.
Al-Atrash’s inspiration was his mother, Aliya Bent Al-Monthir, a singer and a musician, whose talent helped to provide for her family in Egypt. She pushed him to pursue an education in music at Egypt’s music conservatory. Al-Atrash always said his instructor Riad El-Sunbati was his true musical mentor. While studying at the conservatory, Al-Atrash sold textiles to help his family.
His professional career began when he met composer Farid Ghosn and Egyptian singer and actor Ibrahim Hamouda. He joined Hamouda’s band as an oudist. By the time Al-Atrash was in his early 30s, he was already regularly performing on Egyptian radio.
“There is no doubt that Farid Al-Atrash is one of the greatest musicians,” the award-winning Iraqi oud player Naseer Shamma told Arab News. “He is considered a member of the Eastern school (of oud playing). He is a true icon — one of the three best musicians after Riad Al-Sunbati and Mohamed El-Qasabgi.”
Shamma believes that Al-Atrash helped to raised the public profile of the oud and its players.
“He presented endings to his musical compositions that people would long for and applaud,” he said.
Al-Atrash’s big break as an actor came when he starred in the 1941 film “Intisar Al-Shabab” (Triumph of Youth) with his sister Asmahan. He composed all the songs for the movie. He went on to star in some of the most beloved Arab movies of all time, including “Habib El-Omr,” “Lahn El-Kholoud,” “Afreeta Hanem,” “Bolbol Afandy,” “Resala Men Emraa’ Maghoola” and “Hekayet El-Omr Kolo.”
Al-Atrash’s love affair with Egyptian actress and bellydancer Samia Gamal is one of the most famous romances in Arab pop-culture. The couple never married because, according to Al-Atrash, marriage was like a death certificate for his emotions, which were the main inspiration for his admired music.
In an interview with a Syrian TV channel, Al-Atrash said: “I tried to get married multiple times in my life, but it was God’s will to not build a family and have children. But, trust that I tried to find a wife, and I did.
“An artist lives a life that is (not) an ordinary life,” he explained to the host. “My life is full of adventures. I am not stable. I am here today, tomorrow I’ll be in London. (I’m busy) with trips, concerts, interviews, TV, radio… So what woman would be able to stand a husband that stays out all night and comes home early in the morning, sleeps all morning then goes for interviews and for work? Our life is unstable and unorganized.”
As Al-Atrash’s career went on, competition in the music industry increased, as renowned musicians including Mohammed Abdel Wahab, Mohammed Al-Mougui, Kamal Al-Taweel and Baligh Hamdi started to make their mark. However, Al-Atrash’s star did not wane.
“During that time, Al-Atrash presented great songs like ‘La Wa Ainaiki,’ which (confirmed) the rise of a great musician and a top-notch composer. He was able to remain successful until his career ended,” Shamma said.
“If he wasn’t a composer and a singer, he would probably have been an oud player at a completely different level,” he continued. “But, he (only) gave part of his time to the oud — although this time was critical to Oriental music. Even today, he remains an inspiration to many students and oud lovers. He inspired many oudists to enter the music world.”
Shamma said he often advises aspiring oud players to practice several of Al-Atrash’s songs, including “Adhnaytani Bel Hajr,” “Banady Alaik,” “Ana Wenta Wel Hob” and “Habeeb El-Omr.”
“I wish these songs would get remade today by the beautiful voices of the youth,” he said. “I don’t know why singers are scared to approach Farid Al-Atrash’s work. Fareed’s work could give them great exposure because he has so many fans in the Arab world.
“Farid Al-Atrash is an icon who can never be replaced. Not as an artist, a creative, a musician, a composer, nor as a person,” Shamma continued. “As a person, he was amazing. He was very kind, decent and generous.”