His music marked a dividing line between Ottoman classical music, with all its know-how, and the spirit of modernity. It paved the way for lyricists on the one hand and listeners on the other to catch up with 20th century music.
His successors over the past hundred years, such as Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Mohamed Fawzi, Baligh Hamdy and Ammar El-Sherei, have been an extension of his output.
Darwish, nicknamed “the people’s artist”, was born in Kom El-Dekka in Alexandria on March 17, 1892.
He was born when Khedive Abbas Hilmi ascended the throne, during a state of political crisis and British interference.
He received his basic education in a kuttab school, then he went to an Al-Azhar institute. At the same time, he made friends with many foreign expatriates in Alexandria and heard their music. This was reflected in many of his later compositions such as El-Garsonat (“The Waiters”) and El-Arwam (“The Turks”).
Darwish then traveled to Syria and Lebanon with the Amin Attallah theater troupe and was trained by the biggest names in music there, such as Saleh Al-Jaziyah, Ali Al-Darwish and Othman Al-Mosuli.
He was also influenced by craftsmen’s songs and beats and was able to adapt them into songs like El-Helwa Di (This Beautiful Girl) and El-Qullel El-Qinawi (The Qenawi Jugs).
In 1914, the British declared Egypt a protectorate, deposed the khedive, and declared martial law. These events ignited Darwish’s nationalist fervor, and he peaked in the songs he wrote and composed during the 1919 Revolution and its aftermath.
His masterpieces from this era include Ana Al-Masri (I am the Egyptian), the music of Biladi Biladi (My Country), which became the national anthem, and Ouum Ya Masri (Stand Up, Egyptian), which aroused patriotic feelings against the British Occupation and fight against bigotry.
Moreover, he adapted the songs of Badie Khairy, the famous playwright, in order to serve the nationalist cause.
In the theater, he improved the genre of operetta, following the leading role of Sheikh Salama Hegazi in this field. His operettas were El-Ashra El-Tayyeba, El-Barouka (The Wig) and Cleopatra wa Mark Anthony (Cleopatra and Mark Anthony) which his disciple Mohamed Abdel-Wahab completed.
He continued to use craft songs, as in El-Arbagiyya (The Carters), El-Saqqyeen (The Water-Carriers), and El-Mommardeen (The Nurses), and was adept at using dramatic effect in sung dialogue , as in the devil’s song at El-Barouka. Musicals lacked these characteristics before he introduced them.
According to Sayed Darwish experts, he wrote 31 pieces, including 200 songs, in addition to his solos.
He used polyphony in some of his compositions, which was quite evident in his ‘The War Drums Are Beat’ in the operetta Shahrazad (Scheherazade).
Darwish died in 1923 at just 31, but lived through one of the most turbulent periods in modern Egyptian history. Digesting all these evolutions, Darwish reflects them in his music.