In memory of the Brown Nightingale

halim and oud

Abdel Halim Hafez; 1929 – 1977.

If you thought Beliebers or Directioners set the standard for hardcore fan action, you might have been surprised by scenes across the Arab world 39 years ago, yesterday.

On March 30, 1977, one of the most popular Egyptian singers of all time died at the relatively young age of 48.

And although the successful singing, conducting, acting, producing artist led a sickly life for most of his career, the great Abdel Halim Hafez’s death was received with the full weight of an unexpected tragedy by adoring fans around the world.

My mother says it’s a day she can never forget, simply due to the hyperbolic reactions that surrounded her. She tells me stories of friends and cousins who went into official mourning as soon as the news broke, retreating to their homes to cry for days out of genuine heartbreak.

She tells me of tensions running high at school, with the all-girl student population not taking kindly to suggestions that their non-stop sobbing over a celebrity who was not personally known to them might have been a tad excessive.

Farid Al-Atrache and Sabah visit Abdel Halim in his sickbed.

Farid Al-Atrache and Sabah visit Abdel Halim in his sickbed.

The Arab world donned black. Roads were blocked and a state of emergency was declared in Egypt to control the sea of mourners that emerged for the funeral of the talented artiste. Processions also took place across other Arab countries too, essentially enacting funerals in absentia – so overwhelming was the people’s love for Abdel Halim or, as they affectionately dubbed him, El ‘Andaleeb El Asmar: the Brown Nightingale.

So what was it about the man, so fondly remembered as one of the legendary giants of classical Arabic music, that inspired a Pan-Arab fandom that could rival that of Justin Bieber, One Direction, or even, for a more relevant throwback, The Beatles?

Perhaps it was due to his strew of romantic underdog roles in popular Arabic films of the day that had young fans mesmerised, as his characters fought obstacles of sickness, poverty, and class systems for the sake of love.

Still yet, it could have been his hairdo – although I personally always found that hard to appreciate.

Abdel Halim Hafez performing with his orchestra.

Abdel Halim Hafez performs with his orchestra.

There is no doubt, however, that the ‘Andaleeb had a stunning set of vocals. People would keenly await the broadcast of his concerts on their old school radios or early television sets. The annual concerts held on the Egyptian national holiday of Shamm El Neseem marking the spring new year and featuring some of the biggest names in Arabic music are said to have tapered off to an end soon after Abdel Halim’s passing; his power to grip an audience with songs that could at times last up to three hours each was a hard act to follow.

At its essence, kicking back to Abdel Halim’s music was a community event. With no earphones, headphones, iPods or mp3 players to facilitate individual listening and only old school radios at hand, entire neighbourhoods were subject to the blaring mood governed song choices of their residents. Who needs a Facebook status when you could just tune your radio to broadcast your feelings to the world?

Almost four decades on from his death, Abdel Halim Hafez’s music is still widely popular amongst Arabs today. With a song for every occasion, his repertoire has something for everyone. Here are a few of our favourites:

  1. For the wayfaring soul: Sawwaa7

2. For couples caught in the throes of first love: Awwel marra t7ebb ya alby

3. For suffering souls still pining over lost love while their exes have moved on: Asmar ya asmarani

4. For the patriots: 7ekayet Sha3b

5. For destiny’s children: Qari’at al-Finjan

6. For moments of betrayal: Gabbaar

7. For the love of love: Ahwaak

8. For the graduations, success stories and wins in our lives: Wahyaat Alby

What’s your favourite Abdel Halim Hafez song? Let us know in the comments below!

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