THE MELODIOUS KNIGHT OF ARABIC MUSIC
Karem was born on March 16th, 1922 in the city of Damanhour, Beheira, located in the northern part of Egypt, 60 Kilometers away from the seaport city of Alexandria.
In his hometown he studied in the “Sayidia
Elementary School.” During the evenings and nights he accompanied his elder
brother (with 15 years) Mohamed during his performances, improvising and
singing religious verses and readings from the Holy Quran. This later allowed
Karem the talent of singing Arabic poetry with precise pronunciation as
well as phonetic discipline.
At school his music teacher, “Tawfik Hamido”,
chose the young Karem for his lovely strong voice, and presented him as
the lead singer in the school’s annual performances. Karem was only seven
when he mastered singing difficult songs like “Shubiki lubiki” by “Saleh
Abdel Hay”, “Ya Oushak el Nabi” by “Sayed Darwish” and “Ya Garat el Wady”
by “Mohamed Abdel Wahab.” These difficult tunes and lyrics seemed far beyond
his immature capabilities, but the young Karem surprised everyone. When
he reached 12 years of age he sought the help in Damanhour of an old man
known as “Sheikh Mansour Elshamy” and asked him to teach him the science
and art of singing so as: “to appear and sing before the Egyptian Broadcasting
system.” The old Sheikh ridiculed Karem for that request and gave him a
somber lesson assuring him that he had no chance whatsoever to achieve
this lofty objective. This episode never led him to relinquish his dream.
It did however force the young boy, who was trying to realize his aspiration
at all expense, to escape to the city of Alexandria and try his luck there
where he started singing among “Fawzi Mounib’s” well-known musical troop.
The First performances:
He was introduced to the audience as the “miracle boy.” However he remained a missing boy, to be later found by the police and sent home to his father were a severe punishment was awaiting him. At that time he was advised to meet a great Professor of music; “Mohamed Hassan Elshougayi”, also from Damanhour, who listened to his talent and was extremely impressed. He advised him to join the Institute of Arabic Music in Cairo.
Formal studies and training:
Karem succeeded in the entrance exam by out singing the highest pitch and octave on the musical instrument of the “Qanoun.” The examining committee although ridiculing his size and young age, realized his great talent, as well as beautiful strong tenor voice and musical dedication. They immediately allowed him to join the already in progress academic school year and assigned him in the vocal school section.
As a young boy searching to live in the
huge city of Cairo, his mother earnestly strove to find a comfortable apartment
close to Karem’s school. She was over protective of the young boy and instilled
in him the strong ethics and values of rural Egypt. Living in the same
street was a great music composer “Sheikh Fouad Mahfouz” who tutored Karem’s
talent and gave him a heavy training dose of traditional Arabic and Turkish
music. It seemed long, difficult and extensive given his age, but his love
for singing made him learn and dedicate his talents to the arduous educational
A group of experts in their own merit like “Sheikh Darwish El Hariri” and “Sheikh Badawi” and the great composer “Safar Ali”, privately tutored him. They all did that without pay. They knew and valued the talent at stake. In playing the oud instrument he was also tutored by Hassan Gharib. This group of people who were typically versed in authentic and traditional Arabic music gifted and increased Karem’s knowledge of the discipline and science of genuine Arabic music. Karem studied in the institute with Ahmed Sedki, Ahmed Fouad Hassan, Abdel Hamid Tawfik Zaki, Kamal EL Tawil, Mohamed Fawzi and Abdel Halim Hafez, who were studying in the instrumental section namely the Oboe.
Karem graduated from the Institute scoring
the highest grades and academic position ever. He has his report hanging on the walls of his office at his
huge villa and mansion in Heliopolis. It stated in bold letters that he
has secured the first position throughout his years of study in the institute.
It went on to state that he graduated with a well deserved and an earned
unprecedented distinction. The world seemed ready for a rising tenor star.
Into the limelight:
His first ever-live radio broadcast was from the institute’s theatre in the beginning of the forties where he sang:
“Wa Hakeka Antal Mona Wal Talab”.
Before the airing of the live broadcast Karem did not forget to quickly take the train back home to his hometown Damanhour where he told everyone the good describing the event as well as the airing time. After nightfall he sneaked, under the shadow of the night, to the house of “Sheikh El Shami” where he pasted these banners on the walls of his house. This, he recounted was mischievous, but it settled an old vendetta. He wanted the Sheikh, and the whole world, to know that he finally achieved his objective.
The first song he recorded to the Egyptian Broadcasting System was:
“Mahla Eldahabia” from his own composition
“Betqouli li Tinsa Wedadi” also from his composition
and written by his old friend Rashad Eldessouki.
His old association with the Great Composer and conductor Mohamed Hassan Elshougayi created a team comprising a strong Tenor and the musical orchestration talent of Elshougayi. This led to the full use of the first orchestra for the Egyptian broadcasting system and the direction and presentation of numerous musical programs reciting a lovely story from the genuine stories from the traditional history of Egypt all intertwined and woven in a lovely musical fabric. These programs became very popular and helped spread radio technology throughout all of Egypt.
From these programs Karem sang:
|Rawia||Ouf Elasil||Qatr Elnada|
|Souq Baladna||Abnaa Elfounoun||Yaoum ElSakia|
|Shagret Eldor||Mathaf Elshamaa||Yalil YaEin|
|Kilma Wahda||Khatawat el Nasr||ElShater Hassan|
|The wax museum||Saheb Elarad||Safahat el Magd|
|A Tale of generations||Qalb Fanan|
|Alarous and the Navigator||Yaliali|
|Aly Baba and the Forty Thiefs||Qaria Elgin|
|The death of Cleopatra||the Philosopher|
|Taels of Zuriab and the Spring with Fayrouz and the Rahbanis|
Enter the TV:
He later started with Mr. Ahmed Shafik Abou Ouf the Television broadcasting of Old and traditional folkloric pieces composed by great musicians like Sayed Darwish, Dawoud Hosni and others. The production of these great on the air and live performances demanded a continuous flawless performance of these songs over a period of two hours, but since Karem was well trained and possessed exceptional quick learning capabilities, this was no problem to him. Of this talent some jokingly called him the “thief” because of his ability to steal the tunes from the very first short listening session.
And the silver screen:
His success in TV and radio broadcast, made him also sought for in the emerging musical movie industry, where he was one of the pioneers of the development of this type of cinema in Egypt. He starred in the following movies:
Karem sang all sorts and types of songs. His broad vocal capabilities stretched over spacious octaves, from the very low to the very high, made composers race over to him. Any composer with a difficult tune sought Karem for his capabilities and talents. He sang love, praise, poetry, old poetry, classical, light, solos, and national patriotic songs.
He performed in all the Arab countries, Europe, and the United States. He held a special passion for Lebanon, Tunisia, Syria and particularly Halab. In 1956 he performed in Tunis by singing anti French occupation songs and inspired the public and even rode open wide public demonstrations in the streets singing a song especially written for that occasion: “Green Tunis”. He also called for the liberation of Algeria and sang a well known patriotic song: “In the name of the Five Freedom Fighters.” On his way to Algeria from Tunisia he was arrested and jailed for months by the French occupation forces for that. The Algerian government annually invited Karem to their independence celebrations and gave him a medal. He said at the time that the power of singing could be as effective as a weapon.”
Until today, his famous songs such as Amana Aleek, Ennabi, Ala Shat Bahr Elhawa, El Habayeb, Fi Bahr Elshouq, Ya Sanei ElMarouf, Zekrayati, Nour Elhawa and Ya Helo are still fashionable, not only with the older generation or music experts, but also with the young generation who have no personal recollection of Karem Mahmoud.
Opera and operetta:
His fame took him to the historic Opera house known for its grandeur and built by Khedive Ismail for the grandiose opening of the Suez Canal, for the leading role in numerous musicals. He had the talent to sing in the Opera House without any microphones yet deliver beautiful notes. Karem’s contribution to Musicals gave him a very special status not to be compared or rivaled by anyone else. The problem as one composer explained was to find a lead female singer as well as a choir who will still be heard and not be overshadowed by Karem’s reigning and royal voice. Frequently Maestro’s appealed to him, from the stage, to lower his strong, proud tenor voice.
A famous musical narrator in describing Karem said: He performed “Lila Min Alf Lila” twice once in 1949 and the other in 1977 with a difference of a quarter of a century during which Karem’s voice grew better and more mature. He was a living miracle for preserving his voice. When asked how, Karem explained that his voice was a divine gift. He did everything in his power to preserve and cherish his voice; never smoking or doing any thing that may harm or hurt his chords of heavenly talent. Karem’s last words for his surgeon in London before he died were: “please guard my vocal chords throughout the surgery.” The chords remained untouched in this risky operation, but the great singer died on the 15th of January 1995, in the intensive care unit of Saint Mary’s Hospital in London.
Karem was a devoted family man, one marriage and two children.
He shall be always remembered.