Sheikh Imam.. Creator of Modern Arabic Political Song
Sheikh Imam gave a lot but received almost nothing in return, although his records were sold by the thousands all over the Arab world. Even his friends failed to give him the recognition that he rightly deserves.
Imam Eissa was born in 1918 in the village of Abu Al Namras in the Giza governorate. After losing his sight at the age of four, he was sent by his poor family to Cairo to learn Quranic recitation, according to the widespread assumption that the blind had no future except for reading the Quran at funerals, according to A Jadid magazine.
As a child, Imam lived in the Hussein quarter where he was drawn in more by Sufi dhikrs than he was by his religious lessons and the harsh Azhar educational system. He turned to studying music and playing the lute. He was helped along when he moved in with famed musician Zakariya Ahmed, who composed the music for most of Um Kulthoum's hits until he died in 1961. Imam Eissa, or "Sheikh Imam" as people called him, joined up with Ahmed's orchestra, working as part of his batana, the group of singers who, in the absence of recording equipment, memorized the melodies composed by Ahmed in order to remind him in the event that he forgot a phrase here and there. The batana was a necessary part of most artists' entourage, until the appearance of the tape recorder, especially since most great artists in Egypt did not know how to read or write musical notes.
Sheikh Imam did not last long with Zakariya Ahmed's batana. Um Kulthoum complained to Ahmed that some of his compositions were leaking to the public before she had a chance to present them at her concerts. Searching for the culprit, he discovered that Sheikh Imam was presenting the songs to his admirers in the Hussein area, some of whom were also regular attendees of Um Kulthoum's concerts and boasted of the fact that they had heard the diva's new songs before she sang them. Ahmed immediately kicked Sheikh Imam out of his batana, and the latter went back to singing at parties and other occasions for the lower classes.
Imam's story could have ended right here, but at the age of almost 50, Sheikh Imam was headed for fame. It is ironic that the defeat of June 1967 and the despair and frustration that it brought to so many Egyptians was the magic moment in Sheikh Imam's life. Intellectuals woke up to hear a song criticizing the Egyptian army and jeering at the defeat, Cairo Times said.
After the wounds inflicted by the defeat, Sheikh Imam and poet Ahmed Fuad Nigm were able to pierce the minds and hearts of most intellectuals of the period with their songs, sharply critical of the social and political situation.
The period from 1975-81 was the height of the Imam-Nigm phenomenon, the same period in which the left rose against President Sadat for his perceived weakness and inability to convince Egyptians that he could treat the causes of the 1967 defeat. Nigm wrote poetry accusing Sadat, government officials, and the media of being "traitors," who merely justified their cowardice and weakness by talking about peace and diplomatic initiatives and by convincing the people that it was possible to liberate the Sinai without another war. Sheikh Imam put music to songs like Build Your Castles and O Palestinian Girl, memorized by university students, who would repeat them at their parties and demonstrations. Director Yousef Shahin commissioned Imam to compose the theme song, Bahiya, for his 1967 war film Al Asfour (The Sparrow).
Despite the incessant bitter attacks on the West and on all the symbols in the world of politics and art who tried to promote the advantages of a friendship with Europe and the US, artist Azza Balbaa, who married Nigm in 1975 and later sang with Sheikh Imam, says that the Imam and Nigm were not completely convinced by the slogans raised by the Left. "But they felt a kind of gratitude to the left because it embraced their whole experiment," she says. "Imam and Nigm knew the extent of the cultured left's hatred of Um Kulthoum, and they made light of her in front of leftist bigwigs and their revolutionary audience. But they used to tell me in private not to believe [what they said], and that I should learn from this great artist and her style!"
Around the 1980s, Sheikh Imam began accepting invitations from abroad to stage concerts, visiting other Arab countries in the company of Nigm. But while they were on tour, a number of personal disagreements brewed up between them.
In the 1990s, people turned to the Lebanese musician Marsel Khalifa, who was more sophisticated in terms of composition, arrangement, and the instrumentation. In contrast, Sheikh Imam continued to present his works accompanied only by the lute and percussion.
A few years before Sheikh Imam's death on 7 June 1995, there were other signs of the end. He produced no work during the Gulf crisis, while Nigm presented anti-war satire in state and independent theaters. The enmity between the two became unbearably harsh.
Sheikh Imam's death was almost a cathartic experience for his fans--a chance for them to finally make the emotional break with their failed crusades – Albawaba.com
© 2001 Al Bawaba (www.albawaba.com)