Abdo Dagher: Egypt's forgotten violin virtuoso

Abdo Dagher: Egypt's forgotten violinist, composer and improvisational master
5 min read
Egypt - Cairo
02 June, 2021
An embodiment of the insatiable harmonies of the East mixed with the restrained structure of the West, The New Arab remembers Abdo Dagher, Egypt's violin extraordinaire. Self-taught, we pay tribute to the master of improvisation.
The legacy of Abdo Dagher lives on through his compositions and his highly distinguished students

“I was once described by German musical critics as a musician who came from the nation of the holy Quran and possessed by the spirits of artists like Bach, Verdi and Mozart; but in Egypt, they said nothing much about me,” late internationally-recognised Egyptian composer and violinist Abdo Dagher said once, during a TV interview back in 2018.  

Sadly, this remained the case for decades during the artistic pursuit of Dagher that started during the mid-20th century and ended on May 10 this year, the day he passed away in the Egyptian capital Cairo at the age of 85.

Throughout his career, Dagher fought against the current, undergoing the ignorance of the state of his talents and musical techniques.

Had his talent been adopted by the state, the world would have known him over half a century ago

Dagher’s musical genius is unique for someone who never attended a music school. Nor did he know how to write or read musical notes.

“There were many who resisted his musical approaches because he had received no formal education. Perhaps this is why he was underappreciated in his homeland and recognised abroad,” said Zain Nassar, author and professor of musical criticism at Cairo-based Academy of Arts.

“Had his talent been adopted by the state, the world would have known him over half a century ago,” Nassar, who personally knew Dagher and wrote research papers on him, told The New Arab.

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Known for being ‘Malik El-Takasim’ (the master of improvisation), Dagher would close his eyes, use musical themes only on his mind and improvise on his special violin, which dates back to the 16th century, responding to his audience’s involvement and enthusiastic reactions.

“For him, it was like giving a public speech where he knew the subject beforehand; but improvised the words and lines,” Nassar explained.

Born in the Damietta province in 1936, north of the capital Cairo, the late outstanding musician started his journey early, at the age of seven by learning to play the oud (oriental lute) on his own. Even though his father was in the music business, he totally disapproved of his son following the same path.

At the age of 10, Dagher was inspired by the famous Soviet violinist David Oistrakh during a performance held at a Church in Egypt, to be a turning point in his artistic career. “He wanted me to be either an Azhar scholar or a lawyer because, at that time, these were the most respected jobs,” Dagher said during an interview with local independent The Daily News Egypt newspaper in 2008.

He left home during his teenage years to play music with Sufi orders; and with them he learned Arabic ‘maqamat,’ (the plural of ‘maqam’). He later moved to Cairo at the age of 18.

He created a musical methodology new to the ears of listeners

A ‘maqam’ is an Arabic word meaning a system of melodic modes used in traditional Arabic music, each has a scale, and carries a tradition that defines its habitual phrases, melodic development and modulation.

“What was unique about Dagher was the abundance of creativity and his exceptional contributions to Arabic music via an originally Western instrument, the violin,” Nassar said.

“He created a musical methodology new to the ears of listeners. Most of the music in the region is originally Turkish and Western. He only used the maqamat’s names, built on them and made adjustments, creating new ones, ” he added.

Dagher was like a free spirit who would not feel comfortable being confined to a certain group. Even though he was a member in the ensembles accompanying the late legendary singer Umm Kolthoum and the late renowned composer and singer Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, he eventually quit playing for them and sought his own path.

Dagher’s music is further known for being mystical, always arguing that the music of the entire universe was originally derived from the intonations and the melodies of the holy Quran

International acclaim

Dagher eventually caught the attention of the West with his unique approaches and techniques. In 1990, he met a German oud player named Roman Bunka, who turned out to have heard Dagher’s music back in Germany, but didn’t know who the composer was.

Bunka returned later to Egypt with German director Fritz Baumann who directed an award-winning documentary film about Dagher and other distinguished Egyptian musicians entitled Al-Oud

The documentary and the cooperation with Bunka later paved the way for Dagher to be known in Germany and other European countries where he gave several concerts and mentored dozens of musicians.

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Dagher’s superior status in Europe was also cemented when a statue of him was erected inside a public garden in Germany.

Not only that, the late musician’s life story has been documented in a novel written by late Egyptian prominent writer Khairy Shalaby entitled Sahareeg El-Loaloa (The Pearl Shells), describing the grandeur of Dagher’s music in written words.

A mystical muse 

Dagher’s music is further known for being mystical, always arguing that “the music of the entire universe was originally derived from the intonations and the melodies of the holy Quran.”

“My [own] music has always been based on thoughts and reflections inspired by Quran reciters and Sufi enchanters,” he once said. 

Among Dagher’s well-known compositions are: Layali Zaman (Bygone Nights), Longa Nahawand El-Nil (The Nile River) and Nedaa (The Call).

He did not compose the amount of music expected from him, though.

“My goal was not to compose new pieces. Rather, I was keen on mentoring new musical talents for Egypt, who later became superstars [in the field],” Dagher said.

“It’s about quality rather than quantity. For me the few pieces he composed are rich and memorable enough,” Nassar concluded.

Horriya Marzouk is a pseudonym. The author resides in a jurisdiction where the publication of their identity may create security or freedom of movement issue