An archivist turns his love of ancient music from the region to an institute that is dedicated to preserving songs and sounds from the past
BY Nour Samaha
Nestled deep in the mountains of Lebanon, hidden almost completely out of view, is an old house with a lush garden that overlooks one of the valleys that lead down to the Mediterranean Sea.
When you step inside the small hall—surrounded by floor to ceiling windows—you can see the arduous operations taking place: a small but dedicated team of music specialists and enthusiasts working relentlessly to document, restore and preserve some of the region’s oldest recorded music. This during a time where militants seem to be systematically working to destroy whatever cultural heritage still exists in the region.
“Our aim is to disseminate this music as much as possible because it is unknown to the world and especially unknown to the young generation,” says Kamal Kassar, founder and director of the Foundation for Arab Music Archiving and Research (AMAR). Casually dressed in sweat pants and a hoodie, he is relaxed and at home in what is literally his backyard.
A self-described explorer and connoisseur of music from the Near and Middle East, Kassar has always been an avid collector of traditional Arab music recordings. In 2007, however, he came into possession of a unique collection of 2,500 records and tapes from Egypt, which is when he decided it was time to share his treasures with the rest of the world.
“The collection included records from 1903, which is when the first record disc was ever made in the region,” he says, as he removed one such record from his archive. Handling the one-side record—which is how they were produced during that period—Kassar delicately runs his fingers across the label, where one can clearly read the name Cheikh Says Al Safti (Sayyid El Safti), one of Egypt’s first ever recorded artists. “It was then that I realized people really aren’t aware of the musical tradition and heritage they have here and there is a huge disconnect with this particular period of time. That’s when I decided it was time to make the foundation.”
Established in 2009, AMAR today holds close to 8,000 original records and approximately 6,000 hours of recordings on tape reel of traditional Arabic music from across the region, dating back as early as 1895, making it one of the only institutes of its kind. Included in its possession are the original wax cylinders of records—which pre-date flat disc records by over a decade—from Egypt and the Ottoman Empire, modern-day Turkey.
From Wax Cylinders to Flat Discs
AMAR possesses the largest known record collections of Egyptian, Syrian and Lebanese music from 1903 and the 1930s—considered to be the renaissance of classical Arabic music. Wax cylinders—using wax from palm trees—started around 1878 in the United States, were commercialized by Thomas Edison, and came to the Middle East in 1895.
“Before a certain period, many of the recordings were non-electrical, which meant the singer would stand in front of a horn and record,” says Kassar. The vibrations of the music would travel through the needle and scratch out on the wax. “When it came to the region a few years later, the majority of the music, and what we have here at the foundation, was from Turkey or Egypt.””
The wax cylinders quickly morphed to shellac cylinders, before eventually turning into shellac record discs, as shellac was easier to work with than wax. “Wax cylinders weren’t so popular because they were difficult to reproduce,” he says. “At the same time, this is what makes the wax records incredibly special, because there really are only a few of them around.” The foundation has around 30 wax cylinders in its possession.
One can sense the history of this musical era throughout the small hall: from the crackling sounds of a particular record playing on one of the antique gramophones, to the shelves holding thousands of records meticulously detailed and stored, to the boxes of cylinders still wrapped in their original casings.
Oussama Abdel Fattah, a professional Oud player who has been working as a restorer and archivist with the foundation for the last three years, describes the discovery of unknown artists or recordings of artists, who had only ever been written about but never heard, as nothing short of magical.
“We grew up learning about the great musical revolutionaries like Abdu Afandi Al Hamouli, but were never able to hear what his original recordings sounded like,” he says, describing one of Egypt’s pioneers of music at the end of the 19th century. “Now we are in possession of wax cylinders with his recordings from 1895. It’s amazing.”
The mere possession of the physical record is not enough for the archivists; each record warrants its own investigation. Once they acquire a record, they work on restoring it to its original form, as many records turn up broken or damaged. They use specific fillers to bring the record to a state where it can be played on the gramophone, and then they work on digitizing and archiving the originals.
On many occasions they have found records by unknown artists, so the archivists get to work on the identification process. They do this by either sifting through documents from the recording studio, using the matrix numbers imprinted on the record or by identifying the instrumental players involved in the track or the background score.
“Sometimes you hear some of the most beautiful voices, especially with female artists from that period, but you know next to nothing about them,” says Kassar. “For example, we have 50 records for Mohammad Salim, but we don’t know much about him. If you’re lucky, there’ll be a faded picture of the artist imprinted on the record, but it’s not always the case.”
Other sources of information can be found in diaries and notes written by people involved in the industry at the time. For example, the diary of Arthur Clark, a British sound engineer who arrived in Cairo in 1903 when Gramophone Company first came to the region; he offered invaluable information on artists in Cairo at the time. Based on his writings, as well as interviews and media reports from that time, the foundation has been able to piece together the biographies and musical history of many otherwise undocumented artists.
Abdel Fattah says the restoration of the records is one of the trickiest, but most rewarding, aspects of his work.
“You get excited at the idea of being able to listen to the original recording of an artist you’ve only ever read about, so you work really hard to fix the actual record because you want to hear the music, the sounds and the voice,” he says. On one occasion, a record belonging to Iraqi artist Mohammad Al Kabanji from the 1930s, turned up at the foundation broken in two.
“I raced to the office at 10pm and worked throughout the night to restore it,” says Abdel Fattah. “You can’t imagine how beautiful it is to hear how singers used to perform, how they pronounced words, and played with music back in those days. Each new record that comes in is like an undiscovered treasure for us.”
He adds, “For musicians like me, it’s as if you’re listening to history. You learn from it, and it’s so important that this part of our cultural history is preserved, especially now.”
A Cultural Renaissance
The renaissance of classical Arabic music, also known as the Nahda era, took place in Egypt at the turn of the 20th century and saw the recorded documentation of artists such as Sheikh Yousef Al Manyalawi, Abdel Hay Hilmi, and Mohammad Othman, who had otherwise no known recordings. Cairo became home to the large recording companies like Odeon, Pathe and Gramophone, who had come from the West. While records from other parts of the region also existed, the efforts of individuals who traveled to these areas with a phonograph to record made it possible to have this music available.
“There was a guy who came from the Netherlands and traveled round Al Sham (modern day Syria and Lebanon) and even as far as Hijaz in Saudi Arabia with a phonograph and recorded the music,” says Mustafa Says, AMAR’s creative director. “These recordings are based on individual efforts, rather than recording companies.”
Even the themes picked by the artist is a documentation of history; while many of the songs are related to matters of love and life, others highlight the political turmoil taking place at the time, be it the Ottoman Empire, the first World War, or foreign occupation.
“You can hear songs supporting the British, and you can hear songs against the British,” says Kassar. “It is all documentation of history, but through music.”