Two days after his passing, Sabah Fakhri (1933-2021) was laid to rest in his native Aleppo. As his funeral procession marched through the war-torn city, mosques united the adhan with a recording of his formidable voice calling Muslims to prayer. This was a tribute to the man who had begun his career as a mosque muezzin back in the 1940s.
His coffin was draped with the Syrian flag and carried by army officers in the manner of a state funeral usually reserved for presidents only, never for cultural figures. Thousands were on the streets of Damascus and Aleppo, paying their respects to Fakhri, while the Cairo Opera observed a moment of silence in his honor, as did Expo Dubai.
From Aleppo to Damascus
Sabah Fakhri, whose real name was Sabah al-Din Abu Qaws, was born in the old alleys of Aleppo in 1933. He hailed from a humble family where his father had been a mosque preacher with limited income. Fakhri was raised with a religious education, learning how to recite the Quran at the age of four. His voice attracted the attention of Sami al-Shawwa, a celebrated violin player, who offered to take him to Cairo and train him to become a professional musician. Fakhri’s family took up the offer, hoping that it could put bread on their table, and in 1948, he went to Damascus with his mother to travel to Egypt.
In Damascus, Shawwa introduced him to Member of Parliament (MP) Fakhri al-Barudi, a nationalist leader and patron of the arts who was immediately impressed by his voice and saw a lot of promise in his talent, despite his tender age. Barudi brought him to the Presidential Palace where he was received by President Shukri al-Quwatli, who is often described as the “Father of Syrian Independence” for his role in leading the nationalist struggle against colonial France.
Quwatli praised the young 14 year old Fakhri and asked Barudi to look after him. Barudi offered to teach him in Damascus free-of-charge, but conditioned that the family abandon all travel plans to Egypt. He hired leading musicians to train him privately then had him enrolled at the Oriental Music Academy in the ancient Souq Saruja neighborhood of Damascus.
When Fakhri completed his studies, Barudi facilitated his entry into Damascus Radio, where he was hired as a lead singer. In return for Barudi’s favors, the young prodigy took on the stage name “Sabah Fakhri,” naming himself after his mentor.
Speaking to this author months before his death, Fakhri recalled: “I entered the Presidential Palace as a young boy, carrying my prayer rug. It was very big for me to sing before President Quwatli. I said to myself, right there and then, that I will one day become one of Syria’s celebrities, just like him. In looking back, I can proudly say: I did it.”
Under Barudi’s influence, Fakhri began recording traditional Aleppine songs and chants, excelling in muwashahat (songs from Andalusia, or Muslim Spain). He was influenced by the grand traditions of Arabic song and practiced singing the Arabic mawwal, a verse delivered in a dramatic tone before the start of a particular song.
Sabah Fakhri quickly established a wide audience in Damascus and Aleppo but spent the 1950s working several odd jobs to make ends meet. He was a fee collector at the Syndicate of Textile Manufacturers, a schoolteacher, and a mosque preacher. In 1958, Syria and Egypt merged to form the United Arab Republic (UAR) and Sabah Fakhri was invited to raise the adhan at the Kallasa Mosque of Aleppo during a tour by President Quwatli and his Egyptian counterpart, Gamal Abdul Nasser.
Fakhri’s rise to international fame came in 1960, with the founding of Syrian Television during the third year of the union republic. He began performing weekly on television, with a guest appearance on the 1964 comedy show Maqaleb Ghawwar, starring Syrian comedians Duraid Lahham and Nihad Qali.
In 1968, he moved to cinema, appearing with the comedy duo in the movie al-Saaliq, co-starring with Egyptian actress, Maryam Fakhruddin. He also starred with Algerian singer Warda in the 1974 television musical Al-Wadi al-Kabir (The Great Valley).
Over a career spanning six solid decades, Sabah Fakhri managed to bring traditional Aleppine music into every corner of the Arab world.
Over a career spanning six solid decades, Sabah Fakhri managed to bring traditional Aleppine music into every corner of the Arab world. He also began composing his own music, to the lyrics of famed Arab poets like al-Mutanabbi, Ibn Zaydun, and Syrian dramatist Abu Khalil al-Qabbani. By the 1970s, Fakhri had established himself as the king of tarab, Sufi-inspired music that captures music lovers into a trance.
He helped co-found the Artist Syndicate in Syria and was elected president of the organization in the 1990s. He also served as an MP for Aleppo in the Syrian Parliament, where he penned pension laws for Syrian artists. Despite lucrative offers to relocate to Egypt, which was the historical hotbed of Arab artists, he persistently refused to leave Syria.
The Sabah Fakhri Experience
Fakhri rarely recorded his music in studios, relying on live performances that lasted until daybreak, which often concluded with his hallmark adhan, announcing that the show was over. Among other places, Fakhri performed at the Royal Albert Hall in London and at the Beethovenhalle in Bonn, but the Citadel of Aleppo was his favorite singing venue, a stone’s throw from his birthplace.
A journalist who attended one of his open-air concerts at the citadel described the experience in these terms:
“Sure enough, down there on the stage, a rather rotund man of somewhat diminutive stature had appeared from nowhere. Sabah Fakhri, dressed in a dark suit and tie and looking more like a businessman than my idea of an adulated star, grabbed the old-fashioned microphone, unraveling its cord as he measured his steps around the stage; then, without warning, his voice soared toward the skies. It was strong and pure and very distinctive. There is no way one can ever confuse his voice with anyone else’s after hearing him even once. It bestows on listeners one of these rare moments of grace when they are confronted with perfection.
This kind of music does not touch the intellect, but something far more primordial. It is as pure and nostalgic as the sound of the neigh in the twilight, or a call to prayer at dawn. The concert lasted more than four hours, at the end of which the singer, as if in a trance, began to twirl to the music, faster and faster, not unlike a zikr performer, bringing the audience’s enthusiasm to a paroxysm.”
In 2010, Fakhri established the Sabah Fakhri Institute for Music in Aleppo, aimed at training young artists in song, composition, and articulation. Senior seminars and workshops were conducted by him personally until a series of strokes forced him to retire in 2012. Ironically, he was incapacitated during the exact same period that his native Aleppo collapsed into a cycle of violence in the Syria War.
“Sabah Fakhri was a living legend […] accredited for unearthing classical Arabic music and making it relevant—and popular—to 20th and 21st centuries audiences.”
Fakhri spent two years in Germany, receiving medical treatment, and then retired to Beirut for six years, before moving back to Damascus in mid-2020. His last public appearance was at the inauguration of President Bashar al-Assad in July 2021, where he appeared wearing the Order of Merit, Excellence Class.
“Sabah Fakhri was a living legend,” his son Anas Fakhri, who is also a singer, told Inside Arabia.
“Arabs agree that the three big giants of Arab music are Mohammad Abdul Wahab, Umm Kalthoum, and Abdul Halim Hafez, but Sabah Fakhri is no less important than all of them. In fact, he surpasses artists Abdul Halim, who was a talented performer, but did not compose his own music. Sabah Fakhri did, just like Abdul Wahab, and he is accredited for unearthing classical Arabic music and making it relevant—and popular—to 20th and 21st centuries audiences,” Anas explained before concluding:
“There will be music before Sabah Fakhri and music after Sabah Fakhri. He was a turning point in the history of Arabic music.”