Sabah Fakhri

The Sublime Sound of Syria

Richard Gehr

By Richard Gehr

on 05.14.12 in Spotlights

When I saw Sabah Fakhri perform in New York City’s Town Hall in 1992, I was as startled by his appearance as I was by his singing. It was as though the stunning tenor voice and phrasing of a classically trained Sinatra were emanating from the body of any random Joe — Franklin, Pesci, whomever — dressed in a business suit. But Fakhri was a true Middle Eastern star by then, and more. He represented his home city of Aleppo in Syria’s parliament in 1990; and a 10-hour set in Caracas, Venezuela, earned him a Guinness nod for world’s longest vocal performance. Fakhri’s stock continued to rise. In 2008, Aleppo’s Academy of Arab Music, where he studied during the 1940s, was renamed the Sabah Fakhri Institute, and it wouldn’t be an exaggeration to characterize him as the Arab world’s greatest living singer. His six tracks on The Two Tenors and Qantara, which he recorded inLas Vegas in 1999 with Palestinian powerhouse Simon Shaheen, supply ample proof.

Fakhri was born Sabah Abu Qaws in Aleppo in 1933. His family was religious, conservative and relatively well-off. Surrounded by singing women, Sabah was singing Koran verses at age six. After he finished his studies at the Damascus Academy in 1948, the nationalist leader Fakhri al-Barudi helped the teenager get booked on Syria’s national radio station — in appreciation, the grateful protégé changed his name to Fakhri in 1950. His career took off immediately and for real when he began appearing on Syrian television in 1960.

Contemporary Syria’s musical options include Arab pop stars like George Wassouf and Rouwayda Attieh (as heard on Now That’s What I Call Arabia 13); the Sufi chants of sheiks Ahmed Habboush and Hamza Shakkur; and the upwardly mobile dabke dance sound of singers like Omar Souleyman, whose overdriven village wedding music is taking over Dubai dance floors and, increasingly, American clubs and festivals. Fakhri, however, specializes in muwashahat, the Aleppi take on Andalusian songs, as well as the dramatic Arab poetry known as mawal. Careful listening is required; dancing is optional.

While Fakhri adds Egyptian strings to the traditional muwashahat-mawal ensemble of oud, zither, fiddle and flute, a more traditional version can be heard in the soul-stirring sound of Sabri Moudallal, who, like Fakhri, studied with Umar al-Barsh (but was far more likely to be seen sporting a fez and traditional Middle Eastern garb). Moudallal, who lived in Aleppo from 1918-2006, was equally comfortable with either sacred or profane music, employed “circular breathing” techniques in his singing, and eventually became the premier muezzin of Aleppo’s grand mosque. While it doesn’t sound quite as rich as his later Chants d’Alep, Moudallal’s Syria: Wasla of Aleppo includes examples of wasla suites that include muwashahat vocal compositions; vocal improvisations such as “Layali” (variations on the words “ya layl ya ayn,” or “O night, O eye”); instrumental improvisations (taqsim); and the qudud dance tunes that traditionally bring things to a close. It’s music from another, perhaps superior, era of Arab culture; and when Arab music is concerned, old nearly always trumps new.

Aleppo is known for its musical connoisseurs. The so-called samm’iah, or “those who listen well,” are Arab classical music’s hipster cognoscenti, and a smart performer always makes sure to invite a few devoted fans to any gig that threatens to flop. Sabah Fakhri is likewise known for being able to scope out an audience and play to the sammis. As he told ethnomusicologist A. J. Racy, “A mutrib [skilled singer] must also be a psychologist.” Fakhri likes to work with the house lights up, scanning the audience and tweaking the atmosphere as he works himself into the ecstatic state — which can combine both joy and sadness — that is the ultimate goal of the all-encompassing and transformative Arab music tradition known as tarab. In Fakhri’s case, this takes the form of a voice that’s constantly improvising around the melody while being completely in control. Like Sinatra, Fakhri is a dry martini of a singer who will eventually take you out of your mind and body to someplace completely elsewhere.

Sabah Fakhri’s recordings are indisputably more about vibe than production value. For a quick blast of Fakhri at his best, check out “Ya Mal El Cham” (O Treasure of Damascus) and “Ana Wa Habibi” on Best of Sabah Fakhri 2. He invariably performs the former song in concert, and the latter is a typically driving dance tune with some wonderful interplay between singer and chorus. Timeless is a similar hits collection, mostly recorded live, while Mawawil & Mouwachahat focuses on his classical repertoire a little more. Whatever its provenance, every note he sings sounds vital.