We’ve updated our Terms of Use to reflect our new entity name and address. You can review the changes here.
We’ve updated our Terms of Use. You can review the changes here.

Tarab Vocal Art in Khedival Cairo, vol. 2, ca. 1905 - 1914

by Canary Records



When disc recording technology arrived in Egypt in 1903, much of the Arab world around the Mediterranean had been experiencing a cultural, political, and social "awakening" (the "nadha") that had been intrinsic to literary and artistic activities for over half a century. A flourishing trade in disc recordings in Cairo especially during the years preceding World War I documented the twilight years of this 19th century outpouring of highly elevated musical-poetic activity. Along with recordings made by the British Gramophone Company, the German Odeon label, and several smaller companies of street-level folk performers, the music of some exceptionally skilled singers working under the patronage of affluent were made available to Arabic-speaking listeners from a variety of social classes and backgrounds and in far-flung locations. So, it was possible, for instance, for the man born in Aleppo, Syria in the 19th century and living in New Jersey who collected the specific discs from which these restorations were made to have, at some considerable expense, stocked his household with the music of some of the greatest musicians of the Arab world and for his family to experience the pleasure of the sophisticated and complex art that might otherwise only have reached the highest strata of Egyptian and Ottoman society. The spread of sound recording technology and aesthetic choices made toward a popularizing and relatively simplified combined during the decades that followed these recordings so that when the generation represented here died off, the music changed significantly and was never really the same again.


SALAMA HIGAZI (b. Feb. 5, 1855; d. Oct. 4 1917) was from Alexandria and was trained as a religious singer including singing in Sufi circles. After studying with Khalîl Mehrem, a teacher of Yusuf al-Manyalawi's, he shifted like others of his generation in the 1880s to secular theatrical performance. In 1885, he left Alexandria and with his own theatrical troupe, He toured successfully through Egypt and Syria during the first decade of the 20th century, during which time he was among the first singers to make recordings in Cairo for the Odeon company. In 1911, he suffered his first cardiac arrest. He continued to touring until his death six years later. He is widely regarded as a pioneer of musical theater and a superb and influential singer.

ABD AL-HAYY HILMI (b. ca. 1857 in Beni Suef; d. Cairo 1912) absorbed music by osmosis during the time he spent in the salons of Cairo as an autodidact and an acolyte of the renowned singer and composer Abu al-Hamuli (b. ca. 1841; d. 1901). The received image of Hilmi over the past century is of a short, dark-skinned, dandified, bisexual, imaginative, eccentric artist on par with the best performers of his or any era in Egyptian music. A heavy user of alcohol, hashish, opium, and cocaine, he was regarded as an art-brat with an exquisite voice. His contemporary, the rigorous, serene, and disciplined Yusuf al-Manyalawi is said to have hated him, although the two men shared equivalent status as the best singers of the era. Hilmi began recording around 1905 and continued prolifically until his death for every label operating, often taking loans from them against future recordings in order to fund his lifestyle. His influence was pervasive; he taught Zaki Mourad who was one of the great singers of the 1910s-20s (and father of Leila Mourad, who was, in turn, one of the biggest stars of the 1940s-50s.) He was found dead in a restroom by one of his accompanists after a night of excess in 1912.

SAYYID AL-SAFTI (b. 1875; d. 1937) was, like Yusuf al-Manyalawi, a religious singer before becoming a secular performer. His mastery of intricate metrical material and dedication to his art made him among the most popular singers of the early 20th century. He began recording in 1903, and over the next two decades is thought to have recorded 300 discs. His influence was felt in Syria / Lebanon, where he toured. He was, however, a severe alcoholic, leading to a decline in his productivity and popularity in the last decade of his life.

ABU AL-ALA MUHAMMED was born in a village in Asyut Governate in central Egypt in 1884, the grandson of nobility. A singer, composer, and teacher, he was the primary mentor of Umm Kulthum in the early 1920s. He heard her in a rural performance singing one of the compositions she had learned from one of his records. He is regarded as among the first rank of musicians of his era. A prolific and innovative composer his work was sung by many artists including Sayed el-Safti and, later, by Mohammed Abdel Wahab. A drinker, his health declined in the ‘20s to the point that he was paralyzed in his legs, unable to sing, and deeply depressed. He ultimately died in 1927 of diabetes, apparently as a result of having consumed halva, an act that is suspected of having been suicidal. Umm Kultum sang at his funeral.

SULAYMAN ABU DAWUD did not record after 1914 and remains an obscure figure. There is only one photograph known to exist. Similarly, we lack biographical data on MOHAMED SELIM. Both appear to have been born in the mid-19th century and had been accompanied in performances by the group of Antoine al-Shawwa (b. Aleppo 1850), the musician who was among the first to introduce the violin to Arab music.

Violinist SAMI AL-SHAWWA, whose takhet (ensemble) likely accompanies many of the singers on this collection was born in Cairo in 1889 into a family of Orthodox Christian musicians from Aleppo, Syria that extended back three generations before him. His father, the innovative violinist Antoine al-Shawwa, had traveled from Aleppo to Turkey and then Egypt, where he accompanied singers including Abu el-Hamouli. Shortly after Sami’s birth, the family returned to Aleppo where he took up the violin against his father’s wishes. However, with the support of his mother and grandfather, he began performing as a child and quickly demonstrated incredible virtuosity. When he was fourteen, he was sent to Cairo by his father whose connections in the music world put him in front of appreciative audiences. While still a teenager, he began accompanying the best singers in Cairo including Yusuf al-Manyalawi, Abdel Hayy Hilmi, Sayyid al-Safti, Zaki Mourad, Sayyid Darwish (whom he was instrumental in promoting), and many others. By 1906, he co-founded a music school with oudist Mansour Awad, and by 1907 he began recording for the Gramophone Company. He was a central figure in the Arab music world for half a century, touring and making a strong impact in Iraq, the United States, Brazil, and across Europe. He published a method book on the oud in 1921. He died Dec. 23, 1965.


released November 25, 2023

Recording dates:
Track 1 ca. 1905
Tracks 2-3 ca. 1908
Tracks 4-9: June 1910
Tracks 10-11: Jan. 19, 1912
Tracks 12-14: Jan. 1912
Track 15: Jan. 22, 1912
Track 16: Jan. 25, 1912
Track 17: Jan. 1914
Tracks 18-19: ca. 1911-1914

Known recording engineers:
Tracks 4-15: Arthur Spottiswoode Clarke (b. Pewsey, Wiltshire, England 1885; d. Bedfont, Middlesex, England 1952)

Transfers (made at approximately 76 rpm), restorations, and notes by Ian Nagoski

For the sake of consistency, we have retained transliterations of artist names and song titles used by the Gramophone Company as they appear in the discographical work of Alan Kelly (b. 1928; d. 2015). When titles do not appear in Kelly's work, or where there is further data on disc labels we have used the transliterations as they appear on the original discs or added to the file information. Transliterations from discs that only have Arabic titles have been presented in a consistent format. Our assumption is that readers of Arabic will know what is meant by the anachronistic transliterations and may find some interest in the antiquated style; readers of English may, in many cases, be able to find better transliterations elsewhere via the work of Arab Music Archiving and Research Foundation or Havard's Loeb library.
Recording dates for the Gramophone Company material has also been drawn from Kelly's work.

Cover photo of Abd al-Hayy Hilmi and biographical data from the Foundation for Arab Music Archiving & Research. www.amar-foundation.org

Thanks also to Nizar Ismael, Jonathan Ward, and Raymond Nabba for their contributions.

Further reading:
Ali Jihad Racy, "Record Industry and Egyptian Traditional Music: 1904-1932." Ethnomusicology, Vol. 20, No. 1. (Jan., 1976)
Ali Jihad Racy. Making Music in the Arab World: The Culture and Artistry of Tarab (Cambridge, 2003)


all rights reserved



Canary Records Baltimore, Maryland

early 20th century masterpieces (mostly) in languages other than English.

An hour in clamor and a quarter in rheum.

contact / help

Contact Canary Records

Streaming and
Download help

Redeem code

Report this album or account

Canary Records recommends:

If you like Canary Records, you may also like: