Ala fi Sabil Allah by Sheikh Sayed El-Safti
Today’s post brings me back to my favorite music from Egypt – that is, classical works from the era before electricity. Yes, they sound far, far away, but the magic contained therein is worth the effort.
The renowned singer Sheikh Sayed El-Safti* (1875-1939) apparently began recording as early as 1907, possibly for the German independent Favourite label at first. Around ca. 1913 he recorded at least 2 dozen records for the Odeon company. He also recorded for Pathé ca. 1926, Polyphon, Columbia, and the Lebanese independent label Baidaphon in the late 1920s. His last recordings appear to have been ca. 1931.
El-Safti specialized in several song types: the mawwal, a non-metric vocal improvisation on 4-7 lines of colloquial text, the dawr, a song type from the 19th century noted for the choral responses that occur in response to the soloist’s improvisation in its second part (the ghusn), and the muwashah, a strophic song type in classical Arabic which originated in Al-Andalus. (These are simplistic definitions for what is a deep and detailed school of music, but I offer them to illustrate El-Safti’s virtuosity.)
This piece, however, is a qasida - a classical Arabic poem. It’s English translation is “In the Path of God.” El-Safti is accompanied here by a small ensemble of violin, kanun, and ney. As to when it was recorded, it’s difficult to say. It was released on the German Parlophon label, which may (or may not) indicate that it was originally released on another German label (Baidaphon, Beka – perhaps even Odeon or Favourite). Therefore it truly could have been recorded anytime between ca. 1907 and ca. 1925 – a fascinating time in terms of recorded music in the Middle East.
Issue Number: Bx 5708-I
Matrix Number: 1344
* Also commonly spelled Sayyid al-Safti, Said el Safti and Sayed Safti.