Mohamed Abdel Wahab - Biography

By J Poet


Muhammad Abdul Wahab was Egypt's best-known singer, composer and actor. He is one of the five cornerstones of modern Arab music, a pantheon that includes Farid Al Attrach, Fayrouz, Abdel Halim Hafez and Umm Kalthoum, who had hits with 10 of his most famous songs. He was one of the few Egyptian actors to transition from silent pictures to singing roles in talkies, and is said to have written almost 2,000 hits, including 100 he sang himself. His orchestration of the Egyptian national anthem (Said Darwish wrote the melody) is still played today,


Wahab was born in 1907 in Bab El-Sheriyah, a neighborhood in Cairo, Egypt. He began singing at an early age and was a featured stage performer in local productions by the time he was seven. He made his first recordings when he was 13. He studied oud and traditional Arab music at Cairo’s Institute of Arab Music and Western composition at the Bergran School. His strong baritone and masterful oud improvisations won him a wide audience, especially in high society. In 1924, the famous poet Ahmad Shawky introduced Wahab to his wealthy friends and he became a well-known entertainer at upper class parties. Wahab’s melodies, with lyrics by Shawky, were extremely popular with all classes of people. Shawky was known as the Prince of Poets and Wahab became famous as the Singer to Princes and Kings.


In the 20s, Wahab started writing musicals that incorporated Western music with Arab melodies and introduced tango, samba and rumba to Egyptian audiences. His blend of Arab and western music is credited with creating the template for modern Arabic popular music, but at the time his use of Western modes was controversial. Some of his early recordings, featuring his amazing oud playing, are collected on HMV Recordings, Vol. 1 (2000 EMI Arabia), HMV Recordings, Vol. 2 (2000 EMI Arabia), and Les Archives De La Musique Arabe - Mohamed Abdel Wahab Vol.2 1927 (1995 Ara International.)


In 1926 he completed the musical Antony and Cleopatra, an unfinished work by Said Darwish, considered Egypt’s greatest composer. He played Antony, and the production was ushered in a new era of Egyptian popular music. The score was later recorded for the album Cleopatra (1996 EMI Arabia, 2002 Virgin France.)


In 1933 Wahab made his first film as an actor, and when sound came in, he made seven light romantic musical comedies. His heroes, usually played by himself, were witty and sophisticated, a big change from the usual fare that portrayed lovers as doomed creatures tortured by their emotions. His starring role in The White Flower broke attendance records; the film still plays regularly in Egyptian theaters. Recordings of Wahab’s film music can be found on Songs from the Film Mamnoue El Hob, Vol. 1 (1996 EMI Arabia) and Songs from the Film Mamnoue El Hob, Vol. 2 (1996 EMI Arabia)


Wahab also recorded his won songs and instrumental pieces, which regularly became best sellers; his only credible rival was the great Umm Kalthoum. After the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown in 1953 by a military coup led by Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Wahab started writing more serious songs and patriotic odes. He stopped making movies to concentrate on his singing and composing. After Egypt and Syria joined to form the United Arab Republic in 1958, Wahab composed the national anthem of the new country.


Around 1963, he stopped making records, but continued writing melodies for other singers. In 1964 he wrote music for “Ente Omry,” a poem by Ahmad Ramy, and gave the song to Umm Kalthoum, his former rival. That record is still Egypt’s all-time bestseller and the first Egyptian recording to feature electric guitar.


Wahab made few public appearances after he stopped recording. In 1988, he released a new song “Al Habib al Maghoul” (1988 Cariophon Egypt) which immediately sold over two million copies. Wahab died in 1999.


Like all great artists, Mohamed Abdel Wahab’s hits have been repackaged endlessly. Start investigating his back catalogue with Treasures (1998 EMI Arabia), Les Classiques Arabes - Mohamed Abdel Wahab (2008 Aztec France), Super Belly Dance (1989 Voice of Stars), Colours from Abdel Wahab (1994 Voice of Lebanon), Kollina Nehib Elqamar 1920-1935 (1996 Voix du Maghreb), Watanyat Vol. 1 (1998 EMI Arabia), and Watanyat, Vol. 2 (1998 EMI Arabia.)

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