Shayk Abu al-°Ila Muhammad (ca. 1878-1927)

Shaykh Abû al-°Ilâ was probably born in the village of Bani °Ady, near Asyût, a village famous for the illustrious theologians who were born in it. It is likely that he studied for a while in al-Azhar and settled in the district of Suq al-Misk in Cairo, beginning a career as a munshid (cantor) and reciter of the Koran. He thus gained the title of "Shaykh". easily bestowed upon those who could show a veneer of religious knowledge.

Displaying multiple skills by the turn of the century, he started singing secular love songs and pieces of the learned repertoire for private audiences, accompanied by instruments. He followed the paths of the new musical school launched by the singer and composer °Abduh al-Hâmûlî (v1845-1901), singing some of his compositions which he transfigured through his own improvisatory genius. He recorded his first 78 rpm discs for the Gramophone Company in January 1912, then switched to other companies (Mechian during the Great War. Baidaphon circa 1920 and Polyphon circa 1924) in a time when learned music had reached a wider audience in Cairo and in the major cities. He followed a widespread attitude among cantors as he partly abandoned the religious repertoire to dedicate himself to secular music and perform in the most reputable singing cafés. The great Syrian violonist Sâmî al-Shawwâ (1889-1965) reported that Shaykh Abû al-°Ilâ never rehearsed the pieces he recorded: he requested the instrumentalists to play a prologue in a given maqam and then gave free rein to his inspiration. The hearing of his recording reveal, nevertheless, a great maturation and a deep compositional reflection.

He happened to hear the young Umm Kulthûm after the war years while touring in the Delta, and managed to convince her family to settle in Cairo, where she was to become the famed diva of Arabic music. He taught her the techniques of learned singing and she recorded many pieces of his repertoire. Her great rival, Fathiyya Ahmad, was also among Abû al-°Ilâ's most skilled pupils and interpreters.

The Shaykh was a creative artist, prodigiously inventive within the framework of maqâm music, endowed with a remarkably versatile voice, the litheness of which strangely contrast with an almost husky timbre, worn out by bitterness. He gained a flattering reputation in the musical milieu and was considered as a second Hâmûlî. Many singers of the twenties gave their own renditions of his songs. Shaykh Abû al-°Ilâ was an alcoholic, like many artists of the period who seeked in the artificial paradises a spur to their inventivity, and eventually lost his voice, his sight and his mobility after 1925, struck by diabetes. It is said that the subsequent depression he went through pressed him to suicide by an overdose of sweet halva cake... Only a handful of artist attended his funeral, among whom his pupil Umm Kulthûm. who followed the cortège barefoot.

Abû al-°Ilâ Muhammad proved his talent in all the fields of secular song, and even in the light ditties called taqtûqa. but he is mostly famous for setting tunes to classical poems (qasîda pl. qasâ'id). This precious genre represents more than a half of his recorded works, a proportion unmatched among his secular contemporaries. Most of those poems are mystical works, written by masters of Egyptian soufism in the Ayyubid era, such as Ibn al-Nabîh al-Masrî, Ibn al-Farid. or al-Bahâ' Zuhayr.

Unlike the nevrotic and tragic singing style of °Abd al-Hayy Hilmî (AAA 075) or Salâma Higâzî (AAA 085), Abû al-Ilâ conceives the metric "qasîda on the wahda" (titles 9 to 13) as a rich modal circuit, carefully thought and built, that only allows space for extemporization within "modules" in a given mode, with fixed transitions and melodic links between the different sections. In spite of a different style, he is closer to Yûsuf al-Manyalâwî (AAA 065) than to any of the great masters of his time. Abû al-°Ilâ opens the way to what will become of learned music in twentieth century Egypt, foreshadowing the compositions of Zakariyyâ Ahmad, or even the very first works of Muhammad °Abd al-Wahhâb such as "minka yâ hârgiru dâ'i" (AAA 011).

This CD presents a selection of recordings covering all the vocal genres heard within the frame of the wasla, the learned music concert as performed in Cairo between the end of the XIXth Century and the twenties: a metric extemporization on the words "O night, O eye" (layâlî), then a colloquial poem on a non-metric improvised melody (mawwâl), a metric semi-composition on a colloquial poem (dôr), and finally qasâ'id from the mystic and secular repertoires. Those very old recordings have been electronically cleaned in order to find a balance between minimum hearing comfort and the comprehension of the text. These are, however, archive documents and must be considered as such.

Frédéric Lagrange, April 1995

From the CD-liner notes: Shaykh Abu al-Ila Muhammad [1828-1927] Artistes Arabes Associès AAA 114 Les Archives de la Musique Arabe - Shaykh Abu al-Ila Muhammad.

Adapted and edited for the Web by Lars Fredriksson <>
with the authors and publishers concent [Copyright belongs to the author]