Tag Archives: al-mullaya singing

History of a Song – Ya Ayn Mulayatayn

26 May

This material is all by the amazing Hytham M. Hammer.  Collector, seer on historic music – Jordanian and sometimes Iraqi.

I’m putting it here because I don’t want to lose the references on Facebook.

It’s early morning here in Amman, and I am sitting in my room listening endlessly to a certain song that defies categorisation. In the Arab world, there are few songs that can travel over such a vast, multicultural land stretching 13 million square-kilometres to become an ageless, pan-Arabic song like this one here attached in the YouTube video link that the Lebanese singer Samira Toufic (Arabic: سميرة توفيق), is seen singing with her band led by the Lebano-Armenian darbouka-player Setrak Sarkissian (Arabic: ستراك ساركيسان; nicknamed in Armenian as “Seto”), Mohammed Al-Berjawwi (Arabic: محمد البرجاوي, whose real name is Mohammed Ali Bakri and was known for his darbouka acrobatics!), first on second derbouka, then played on the large tabl, or bass-drum, and the impossibly magnificent mizmār-player Mahmoud ‘Ajroush (Arabic: محمود عجروش), in this televised live-set shot at Jordan’s Television studios in 1972, namely ‘Äl-Äin Mūllāyattin’ (Arabic: عالعين موليتين), a song sung on the bayātī scale (Arabic: مقام بياتي), and composed using the 4/2 Sol diesis (G# minor) sub-māqam called Ibrāhīmī (Arabic: مقام ابراهيمي), also written sometimes as ‘Ya Äin Mūllāyattin’ – يا عين موليتين), first put to record in 1923 by the Iraqi female singer El-Sett Ṣedīka El-Mūllāya (Arabic: الست صديقة الملاية, also spelled as El-Mullayé Sadika on her Baidaphon records), who’s a forgotten legend of the highest calibre that contributed greatly to Iraq’s folkloric music.

Ṣedīka’s real name is Fargha Bint Abbas Bin Hassan Al-Shebl (Arabic: فرجة بنت عباس بن حسن آل شبل. Note: Ṣedīka was a nickname that she became known by in women’s circles. She changed her name later to Ṣedīka Bint Saleh Bin Moussa to hide her real identity from the public as not to bring shame to her family). As a very young girl born in Al-Moussayyab county in Baghdad, the Iraqi capital in 1901 (Note: some date her birthday later to year 1909), when she was only two, she went with her mother to stay at Maḥallat Bab El-Sheik (Arabic: محلة باب الشيخ); a place where poor people resided, and began to learn how to sing some old laments called Al-Marāthy Al-Ḥusseiniyyah (Arabic: المراثي الحسينية; sad songs for women sung to memorise the killing of Imam Al-Hussein, who was killed in 680 A.D. in the Battle of Karbala mourned till this day by Shiite Muslims in the ten-day period starting from the first day of the lunar month of Muḥarram). Her first teacher was El-Mulla Shamsah (Arabic: الملا شمسة. Note: the title of mulla, or mullaya is designated to women who read these sad songs at women-only gatherings, as well as singing old poetic laments when someone passes away, called arājeez, depending on where the funeral is taking place whether it’s in the large city, or the countryside called ‘al-rïf’), who taught her how to sing.

The recitation of these old, traditional mourning lamentations called ‘Al-Qerāt Al-Ḥusseiniyyah’ (Arabic: القراءات الحسينية), is often combined with adulatory songs dedicated to ask God for the blessings of the House of prophet Mohammed at the end of the ten-day period, and Ṣedîka was always on the call at these gatherings that belong to the Shiite sect of Islam to sing. Later, she was taught how to sing Iraqi mâqamat (Arabic: المقامات العراقية), under the tutelage of ustad Rachid Al-Qanderghi (Arabic: رشيد القندرجي, who lived from 1887-1945); a grand-master singer considered as one of the best to have ever sung these thousand-plus years old music scales. She became famous overnight, and in 1918 started to sing professionally in Al-Shourugah nightclub where the wealthy Iraqi high-class elite used to go to listen to the best acts in the Iraqi capital and started to invite her to their palaces, most notably the Emir of Al-Muḥammarah Sheik Khaz’al. In 1923, the famous Odeon recording company invited her to record some of her best songs on 78RPM shellac that sadly, most got lost, or destroyed. The Iraqi national radio (Arabic: دار الإذاعة العراقية, Arabicised as Dār al-Ithā’a al-Irāqiyyah), asked her to be the first to inaugurate its music programmes on the 1st of July, 1936 which was a great honour at that time when Iraq was still a Kingdom.

She started to lose the limelight after WW-II when younger, more attractive female singers rose to fame and stole her thunder like Zouhour Hussein (Arabic: زهور حسين), Afifa Iskander (Arabic: عفيفة إسكندر), and Waḥida Khalil (Arabic: وحيدة خليل), to name here but a few, and after the end of her music career, she led a very poor life in neglect taking dole from the accounting department at the Iraqi radio where she used to go to get some money and beg outside of its gates after she’s lost her eyesight and became totally blind. Some Iraqi singers who frequented the radio building took care of her like singer Mohammed Al-Qubanchi, but slowly she was left prey to terminal rheumatism until she died in 1970. Her voice still survives on a dozen or so recordings that’s distinguished by its raw power and deep intonation that have won her such a glamorous status. This signing is called ‘al-mūllāya’, or ‘debkat al-mūllāya’ (Arabic: غناء المولية/ دبكة المولية), famous in the Euphrates region and used as a musical ‘geographical’ oral archive to immortalise certain places. It’s made of four poetic lines written in the metapoetic rhyme of Baḥr Al-Basiṭ (Arabic: بحر البسيط), with a stressed ‘nunnated’ yā’ Arabic letter in the fourth which is the last letter in the Alphabet. The songs are usually sung using the aforementioned bāyati, in addition to the nāhāwand scale.

There’s another female Iraqi singer who also sang this song, but she wasn’t a Muslim, nor a Shiite. Her name is El-Sett Ruth (Arabic: الست روتي; also spelled as Rutti, who was mentioned in a radio interview in 1963 to have been born in Baghdad in 1883). Just like Sett Ṣedīka El-Mūllāya, she also sang in cabarets and nightclubs, as well as her house on invite-only concerts for her richest fans who paid large sums of money to come listen to this woman who was nicknamed in the mid-1920’s “Bulbul Al-Iraq” (Arabic: بلبل العراق. Trans. The Nightingale of Iraq). Between the years 1925-1926 she was asked to record a handful of 78RPMs for Odeon, and these recordings still survive unlike Ṣedīka El-Mūllāya’s own. Some say that she wasn’t actually Iraqi but of an Indian descent; hence the name Rutti that was always misspelled as “Mrs. Ruth” on some of her Odeon and Baidaphon shellac recordings. What’s known about her life amounts to almost zero, but some sources attest that she was married to an Indian-British general at the British Army, and had a daughter from that marriage who went to live in England, then after quitting singing, she had remarried a man from Baghdad and disappeared completely from the music scene until she died, probably in the late-1960’s. Rutti was more active than Ṣedīka and got more recognition.

The two singers were contemporary, though. Little is known about who first sang ‘Äl-Äin Mūllāyattin’, but I can tell judging from the setting of Ruth’s song that she sang it after Ṣedīka El-Mūllāya by maybe two or three years in around 1925. Ruth’s recording (Note: I included it as an extra, downloadable MP3 file in the comments’ section as well as a full recording of Ṣedīka’s song), include clapping, called in Iraqi ‘taṣfeegh’ (Arabic: تصفيج), and a chorus ululation called ‘tahāleel’ (Arabic: تهاليل). These weren’t a common feature in classic al-mūllāya singing—a strictly solemn singing that had none of these two characteristics. The song was also recorded with various lyrics that differed in content but not in context. The words talk about the departure of a lover that’s left the eyes of a female lover as if two mullāyas, or weeping women were crying over them (Lyrics: “äl-äin mūllāyattin…” – عالعين موليتين; translated literally as, “There are two lamenting weeping women crying over my eyes”), then the song goes on to stress the sadness of this bereft lover with the second part of the song (Lyrics: “we ṭ’nash mūllāya” – وإطناش/ إثناعش مولية; trans. as, “and twelve mūllāyas”. The number twelve correlates to the Twelve Imāms of the Shiite Muslims). Through other parts of the song, it talks about men wearing “green turbans” which is also Shiite.

Shiites, or Shī‘ī (Arabic: الشيعة), have a close affinity to the descendants of prophet Mohammed and the consecutive sons of Ali who are numbered at twelve imāms, or leaders of the faithful, in what’s known as al-Imāmmiyah, or the Imāmmites just like the Twelve Apostles in Christianity who were Christ’s disciples, and the Twelve Tribes of Israel in Judaism who were Jacob’s sons. The song mentions an iron-bridge that the lover “breaks” in two halves going and coming to beseech the buried Shī‘ī Imāms Muhammad al-Jawād, and Mūsā al-Kādhim; both entombed in Quraish Cemetery situated on the west banks of the Tigris river. The bridge was built by the invading British Army in 1917, ordered by Lieutenant General Sir Frederick Stanley Maude who overtook Iraq from the Turkish Ottomans in the First Battle of Kut. The name of the bridge is called The Imāms’ Bridge (Arabic: جسر الأئمة; Arabicised as Jīsr Al-A’īmmah), and it connects the two suburbs of Baghdad, namely Al-Kāẓimiyyah and Al-‘Aḍamiyyah. It was made out of floating pontoons called in Iraq ‘ed-doub’ (Arabic: الدوب). There’s a huge mausoleum where people—especially women—go to pray and seek help from those dead pious Imāms buried there. The female lover in the song was no exception and she visited that place to pray for the return of her lover.

The main question remains still: How did Samira Toufic get to sing that song which—according to her hardcore fans; including myself—resembles her best song that oddly enough, she didn’t bother to put to recording until it became very famous shown in one of her 1974 films (Name: Al-Ghajariyyah Al-‘Achiqah, or ‘The Gypsy Lover’ – الغجرية العاشقة. See the link to watch it in the comments below), that was directed by the Syrian film writer and director Redha Maysar? The story begins in early 1972 when the president of Iraq Aḥmad Ḥassan al-Bakr (Arabic: أحمد حسن البكر), commissioned literary writer and poet Shafiq Al-Kamāli (Arabic: شفيق الكمالي); the Iraqi Minister of Information at that time, to put to record famous Iraqi songs for Samira Toufic who was visiting Baghdad to sing in the Iraqi dialect at the radio there. The president was attracted to Samira as he thought that she was really a bedouin singer when she was one-hundred percent Lebanese! Shafiq then asked the famous Iraqi, bedouin singer Jabbar ‘Akkar (Arabic: جبار عگار; the son of old, rababah-player and bedouin singer Sa’ed Akkar – سعيد عگار who had sung this very song before in the 1940’s as well as many other singers including female rïf singer Ḥamziya Yassin – حمزية ياسين, and the blind Iraqi singer Sa’adi Al-Bayati – سعدي البياتي), to teach her some of his bedouin-style songs to sing live at the radio (Note: it’s called Dar al-Itha’a al-Iraqiyyah, or دار الإذاعة العراقية).

He did, indeed, choosing four songs and among those songs, only ‘Äl-Äin Mūllāyattin’ saw a rising fame so much that every listener at the Iraqi community radio phone-in programme ‘What Listeners Want’ (Arabic: برنامج ما يطلبه المستمعون), asked for this song by Samira to be played over and over! The president didn’t like Jabbar’s voice, and instead favoured another bedouin singer, namely Mulla Dheif Al-Jebouri (Arabic: ضيف الله الجبوري), but when he saw his song getting sung by Samira Toufic, well that was one helluva lucky strike that has regained his faith in Jabbar ‘Akkar who first sang this song in 1969 as a rïf, or country song. Samira Toufic was paid exactly four Iraqi Dinars only! That measly sum of money was a huge insult to Samira who was used to private, highly-paid concerts in Jordan and Saudi Arabia, but Al-Kamāli couldn’t do a thing about it because had he given her a bigger payment, he’d have been obliged to raise all Iraqi local singers’ wages which was impossible to do taking into consideration the mediocre budget of the official, state-run radio at that time! Anyhow, her first recording wasn’t really all that good, so when she returned to Beirut, she asked Jordanian bouzuki-player and writer Jameel Al-‘Aaṣ (Arabic: جميل العاص), to rearrange the music for her, and the words to this song were changed to suit Samira’s soft voice.

To wit, when Sett Ṣedīka El-Mūllāya sang hers, she always wanted her voice to sound coarse; even hoarse and almost manly to suit the deep, and “thick” maqām (Note: something in al-mūllāya singing that’s usually called ‘al-ghaleeẓ’ – غناء الغليظ according to ustad Hussein Ismael Al-A’ẓamhi), where words are read and recited as loud as possible. Normally, the reciter woman would “read” in a coarse and loud voice so everyone present would hear. She was also called ‘äddādah’ (Arabic: عدادة, literally translated as ‘she-counter’ for being able to mention things that would set people to tears and force them to weep and cry in what’s known in Iraqi music as ‘al-boukaī‘īat’ – البكائيات that exclusively belong to the Shiite sect of Islam), and introduced foreign-language poetic lines into her songs being a tri-lingual singer herself knowledgeable in Kurdistani accent of foueliyyah (Arabic: الفولية), that she had inherited from her mother who was Kurdish. Samira met Sa’adi Al-Hilli (Arabic: سعدي الحلي, known as Abu-Khalid), in Sahara Hotel when she was invited to sing in Baghdad and both agreed to arrange for the four songs commissioned by the Iraqi president to be rewritten by Hilli himself who at the end took credit for them all. These songs include the following three songs that were part of Samira’s ‘Gypsy Lover’ film, and they are: ‘Yamma Hina Yamma’ – يما هنا يما, ‘Hay La Dana’ – هاي لا دانا, and ‘Ya Äin Mūllāyattin’ – يا عين موليتين.

The last song became an instant hit all of a sudden, and singers in as far as Turkey covered it, including the Father of Turkish rock Erikn “Baba” Koray, renaming it ‘Şaşkın’ (Translated fairly as ‘Bewildered’), in 1974. The video shown is from 1972 shot at Jordan’s T.V. studios—the same place where she recorded many of her best songs in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Jordan remained Samira’s second home when the civil war broke in Beirut, and she was loved by every Jordanian, including the late Jordanian king himself King Hussein, who had a crush on her and adorned her with the Order of the Star of Jordan (Arabicised as ‘Wisam al-Kawkab al-Urduni’), from the second degree. She was nicknamed in Jordan as “Umm Al-Jeish” (Arabic:أم الجيش), or ‘The Mother of The Army’ because she used to sing to Jordanian troops stationed in their war-fronts back in the late-1960’s and early-1970’s as if she belonged to them! Needless to mention is the basic fact that Samira was the first Arabic singer to get invited to sing at the inauguration party of Jordanian Broadcasting Authority (JBA, Arabicised as Haī‘īt Al-Itha’a al-Urduniyyah, or هيئة الإذاعة الأردنية), in 1959 along with the Rahbani brothers, introduced by Minister of Information at the time Salah Abou-Zaid. During that performance, she panicked and left the stage only to be invited to sing at the King’s palace the next day!

She’s an amazing woman and a daring performer who had certain “tics” that included her famous wink that men would die to get from her khoul’d eyes! Samira also employed a simple veiling gesture by placing her long-end of the cuff of her dress directly under her nose to mimic a bedouin girl who’s not supposed to look at a man with a full face as a way of enticing her fans who wished to marry a woman as beautiful as she was. One of the trademarks of Samira Toufic was her ‘fake’ mole that she had sported on her left cheek! This woman is a living legend at 82 years, and her family still surround her with the utmost care and love imaginable. Only two months ago, they surprised her on her birthday by asking her long-time tabl-player and friend George Shaqr to come to their building at Al-Hazmiyyah district in Beirut which brought her to beautiful tears*. Most drummers like Setrak Sarkissian, Mohammed Al-Berjawwi and Mohammed Ali Qazmouz related their success to this wonderful bedouin singer whom Jordan was her real takeoff to stardom, fame, and fortune. We Jordanians never forget her songs and in the last year King Abdallah-II invited her to sing at Jordan’s celebration of its Independence Day on the 25th of May during which he adorned her with the prestigious King Abdallah Ibn Al-Hussein Order for Distinction of the First Degree.

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