Shayk Salama Higazi (ca. 1852-1917)

Of humble origin, Salâma Higâzî was born in Alexandria circa 1852. Trained in the cantilation of the Koran since his youth, he was introduced to religious choral groups and learned the practice of dhikr from Kâmil al Hafifi, the head of Alexandria's cantors. By the end of his teen years, he had gained a flattering reputation as a muezzin and munshid (cantor), and thus was worthy of being called a shaykh. in spite of limited religious formation. He completed his musical education with the Cairene shaykh Khalîl Muhrim, who had also been a master for Yûsuf al-Manyalâwî (1848-1911). the "Singer of the Kings" (CDA 065).

In the early 1880's, Higâzî adopted a widespread attitude among cantors when he switched from his religious repertoire to urban secular music, and started singing for wealthy families during private soirées, accompanied by a takht. He adapted his mystic poems to the new musical standards set by the learned musicians of the court, as Abduh al-Hâmûlî (1845-1901) and Muhammad Uthman (1855-1900), and was trained into singing dôrs. Love songs in colloquial arabic which demand high extemporizing skills in their rendition.

1884 marks a turning point in his career, as he launched out in the adventure of the theater, which made him an outstanding artist. At that time pioneers of the scene who had come from Syria and Lebanon were in search of a local singer who would help enhancing the prestige of this new art in Egypt. A conservative Salâma Higâzî refused to act on stage but accepted to sing between the acts, risking his reputation in this sulfurous new activity. After he got acquainted with the world of the theater, he was eventually lured into acting and singing in leading parts.

He worked with various troupes from 1885 to 1905, settled in Cairo and left his traditional shaykh outfit (turban and caftan) to adopt the classier ottoman redingote and tarbouche. He was a famous popular actor in many sung tragedies, among which the most famous are "Shuhadâ' al-gharâm" (The Martyrs of Love), a free adaptation of Shakespears "Romeo and Juliet" and "Salâh al-Dîn", a melodrama on Saladim the vanquisher of the crusaders. based on a plot by Walter Scott. Although he composed collective tunes in the shape of muvashshahât for his plays, he would keep for himself the main arias, classical poems sung on a nonmetric semicomposed melody, indeed a transposition on the stage of the cantors' traditional art.

Higâzî founded his own theatrical company in 1905, '*Dâr al-Tamthîl al Arabî" (The Arabic Theater) and squandered his fortune on lavish productions. A touring ambassador to Egyptian culture, he embarked on various trips to Syria, setting an example for his followers. Unknown in Beirut and fearing failure, he decided to call for prayer from the city's main mosque. The inhabitants were so charmed by his voice that they franticly welcomed his performance in ' Salâh al-Dîn". Struck by hemiplegia while touring in Damascus in 1909, he never entirely recovered from his disease, in spite of a visit to Tunis in 1914. Exhausted by his activities and by financial setbacks, he died in Cairo on October 4th,1917.

The recordings of Salama Higâzî reveal a refined art which searches within the aesthetical limits of tradition a way of expressing new dramatic topics. Higâzî put the art of coranic psalmody in the service of theatrical expressiveness. His science of melismas, his mastering of vocal effects seems unlimited and sometimes overtones modal invention, as he might privilege emotion over construction and lead his lithe voice to the limits of a breakpoint.

Often heard of as a legend, Salâma Higâzî is seldom heard in the Arab world, for his discs have never been reprinted since the thirties. The German Odeon company cut 47 records between 1906 and 1910, which were among the first commercial successes of the 78 rpm industry in the Orient. It is unfortunately impossible, due to the loss of the archives, to precise any further the dates of the takes we have selected here. This CD includes classical mystic poems, theatrical arias, and colloquial dawr's.

Frédéric Lagrange, March 1994

From: Artistes Arabes Associès AAA 085 Les Archives de la Musique Arabe - Salama Higazi

Edited and published to these webpages with the autours permission
by Lars Fredriksson <>

Copyright belongs to the author