Abdel Halim Hafez is considered one of the four greats of Arabic song, along with Umm Kalthoum, Farid Al Attrach and Mohammed Abdel Wahab.
Hafez was one of the most influential Egyptian musicians of the twentieth century, despite his fairly short career. He was most prominent during the 1950’s and 60’s.
Today, more than thirty years after his death in 1977, his music is still played daily on the radio in Egypt and the Arab world.
Abdel Halim Hafez, One of the Four Greats of Arabic Music
Abdel Halim Hafez is sometimes known as el-Andaleeb el-Asmar, The Dark Nightingale, because of the combination of his dark skin and resonant voice. The nickname is perhaps doubly appropriate because of the difficult and painful life that he lived.
Abdel Halim Hafez’s Youth and Early Career
Born in 1929, Abdel Halim Hafez lost both parents at a young age, and was subsequently raised by his aunt and uncle. At the age of eleven his eldest brother enrolled him in the Arabic Music Institute, where he developed his talent by singing the songs of Mohammed Abdel Wahab, a prominent 20th century Egyptian singer and composer.
Hafez later studied at the Higher Institute for Theatre Music, from which he graduated as a classical oboe player. He began his professional musical career as an oboe player, before setting his sights on becoming a singer.
He soon became known for his resonant but mellow voice, subtle vocal style and clean intonation, along with his long, moving vocal phrases. A blogger recently described his voice as “nectar and honeydew”, and it fits.
Abdel Halim had his first hit in 1951 and subsequently became a staple on Egyptian radio. He also appeared in many popular Egyptian films.
In 1961 Abdel Halim Hafez partnered with Mohammed Abdel Wahab (whose songs he had grown up listening to) and Magdi el-Amroussi to found an Egyptian recording company called Soutelphan (Voice of the Artist), which continues to operate today under the umbrella of EMI Arabia.
Abdel Halim’s Illness, Death and Funeral
Abdel Halim had contracted a parasitic water-borne disease called bilharzia when he was eleven years old, and it plagued him periodically and painfully througout his life. He finally died of the disease in 1977, a few months short of his 48th birthday, while receiving treatment in London.
His body was taken back to Cairo for his funeral, which was attended by thousands of people, more than another other funeral in Egyptian history aside from those of President Nasser in 1970 and Umm Kulthoum (another great Egyptian singer) in 1975. He is buried in Al Rifa’i Mosque in Cairo.
Abdel Halim Hafez is considered by some to be the most popular Arab singer of the twentieth century, as he has reportedly sold more discs since his death than any other Arab musician, even Umm Kulthoum.
Highlights of Abdel Halim’s Career
His most famous songs include Ahwak (“I love you”), Khosara (“A pity”), Gana El Hawa (“Love came to us”), Sawah (“Wanderer”), Zay el Hawa (“It feels like love”), and El Massih (“The Christ”), among the 260 songs that he recorded. His last, and perhaps most famous song, Qariat el-Fingan (“The fortune-teller”), featured lyrics by Nizar Qabbani and music by Mohammed Al-Mougy. He starred in sixteen films, including “Dalilah”, which was Egypt’s first colored motion picture.
In 2006 a feature film about Abdel Halim Hafez’s life, called “Halim”, was released. It starred the immensely popular (and now late) actor Ahmad Zaki in the title role. The film provides an accurate rendition of Abdel Halim’s life, but is hampered by poor production values.