Sabah Fakhri has almost single-handedly managed to dominate the musical scene not only in Syria but throughout the Arab world since the early 1960s.
This month the 75-year-old tenor inaugurated the Academy of Singing and Music, a pioneering project in the Arab East, in his native Aleppo.
The event was organised under the patronage of Syrian President Bashar Al Assad. The academy, known on the streets of Aleppo as “Sabah Fakhri Academy for Singing'', has 16 classrooms and will teach students from around the Arab world regardless of whether they have any background in music.
Fakhri told Weekend Review that the academy “is the first in the Arab world to teach singing in addition to music''.
Fakhri's academy will issue degrees to students, depending on their period of study which can range from one to three years. Fakhri said: “The academy will be for people of all ages regardless of their social and financial background. We are not doing this for money; we are doing it for the cultural life of Syria. The only requirements for acceptance at the academy would be a clean voice, talent, determination and willingness to learn.''
Fakhri, who was recently awarded the Order of Merit of the Syrian Republic (Excellence Class) by President Al Assad, will also teach at the academy.
Courses in “musical science, playing the lute and Arabic language [to help train students in sound pronunciation]'' will also be offered, Fakhri said. “Once students are done with the basics, I will teach them how to sing — from where to bring out their words to reach the hearts and minds of people.''
Fakhri says when he sees a teenager swaying to the classical Arabic music that he has popularised, he feels confident that “Arabic heritage in music will survive at least for another 50 years''.
Fakhri is the co-founder and former president of the Artistes' Syndicate in Syria. He has served as an independent member of the Syrian parliament and entered the Guinness Book of World Records in 1968 for singing non-stop for ten hours on stage in Caracas, Venezuela.
During his tenure as a member of parliament, he drafted the Syrian Copyright Law, which protects the works of Syrian artistes from piracy.
Fakhri was not formally educated in music at any academy but developed under artistes such as Omar Al Batsh and nationalist leader Fakhri Al Barudi.
Barudi, a statesman who played a leading role in driving the French out of Syria in 1946, gave Fakhri (whose original name is Sabah Abu Qaws), the nom de guerre, “Sabah Fakhri''.
Over his 50-year career, Fakhri has managed to spread Aleppine music to every corner of the Arab world and to preserve a musical style that is being discarded by the present generation of Arab artistes.
The artistes of today are using techno-music and video clips to promote their songs rather than a strong voice, proper tunes and lyrics — the qualities that helped Fakhri establish himself as the king of tarab, an Arabic term for music that is so good that it seizes the listener and music lover.
A journalist who attended a Fakhri concert at the Citadel of Aleppo described the experience as: “Down there on the stage, a rotund man of somewhat diminutive stature appeared from nowhere.
He stared at the crowd for a while, then strolled slowly towards the musicians, with whom he unhurriedly exchanged a few words. Finally the show seemed about to begin.
“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, unravelling its cord as he measured his steps around the stage.
“Then, without warning, his voice soared towards 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 during which they are confronted with perfection.''
In another development in the artiste's career, he is now watching the rise of his youngest son, Anas, on Syria's musical scene.
Strangely enough, Anas, 32, has chosen to steer clear of his father's music, wishing to add his own touch, mixing serious Arabic song with pure rock.
Anas, who started out playing heavy metal at youth concerts in Syria — although he is educated in Arabic opera — has done to rock music in Damascus what his father did to classical Arab music throughout the Arab world. A young man who heard Anas sing said: “There was rock music in Syria before Anas Abu Qaws and there was rock music after him. Who says that the son of Sabah Fakhri must sing the music of Sabah Fakhri? Look how different Lisa Marie is from Elvis [Presley]!''
Anas's musical choice, however, has raised eyebrows among an older generation of Syrians, who grew up listening to his father's classics. But it did not seem to surprise — or even upset — Sabah Fakhri.
He has refused to interfere in his son's career, claiming that as a responsible singer and musician, Anas should be allowed to chart his career the way he wants, discarding the luggage of legacy. When asked about Anas, Fakhri said: “I am not afraid for Anas because he has got a solid foundation in music.''
It must be noted that other Arab artistes such as Ziad Rahbani (the son of Fairuz and Assi Rahbani) and Tony Safi (the son of Wadi), were unable to escape their parents' towering presence and ended up singing with them or composing their music.
“I am different; I know it and Sabah Fakhri knows it. Very soon, audiences will realise this as well. He is not worried about me because I studied under his guidance; he knows what kind of quality he produced,'' Anas told Weekend Review.
Anas said that although “Oriental jazz'' (a fusion between jazz and Arabic music) is on the rise in the Arab world, there is no such thing yet as “oriental rock''. “That is what we are trying to bring into the music scene of Syria.
People expect me to sing the music of Sabah Fakhri just because I am his son. There is only one Sabah Fakhri and ‘re-producing' him because of the relationship is not good.
“Sabah Fakhri is a legend in his own lifetime. We are certain that his legacy will live on, through my work and through the academy.
“My original name is Anas Abu Qaws. When my first CD Khayef [I am Afraid] comes out in January 2009, I will have another name, an art name.
Perhaps it will be Anas Fakhri.''
Sami Moubayed is a Syrian political analyst.