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Legacy Amidst Six Decades of Change: Mohammed Abdo Shares His Musical Genesis With Billboard Arabia

Mr. Nimbus | 01/08/2024

Pinpointing the exact moment when Mohammed Abdo earned the title “Artists of the Arabs” proves challenging, yet it undoubtedly reflects his remarkable contributions to the pantheon of Arabic music. His unwavering commitment to evolving his artistic style and craft over the past six decades cemented his legacy. Abdo introduced the inaugural musical experience from the Gulf, specifically from Saudi Arabia, reaching audiences in Egypt and the Levant, and later, performances on distinguished global stages.

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In this realm, his artistic resonance mirrors that of other Arabic music icons such as Umm Kulthum in Egypt and Fairuz in Lebanon. Abdo’s music stands among these trailblazers, transcending boundaries of geography, dialect and cultures. It continues to be cherished, remembered and echoed across the Arab world, ingrained in the collective memory to this day.

When asked about the artistic activity closest to his heart, Abdo’s response is swift and confident: “The stage!” Abdo has always been passionate about bringing his art to the masses. “We started with open-air public theaters,” he says, a sentiment that defines the nearly sixty years he has been active in the music scene. Over this time, he has observed significant changes in the music industry, not only in Saudi Arabia but across the GCC and the Arab region as a whole. At just 14 years old, he experienced the proliferation of traditional Arabic music in Saudi Arabia and had the opportunity to learn from and train under the leading composers and musicians of the time.

While theater holds a special place in his heart, radio was the first and most influential platform in Mohammed Abdo’s artistic journey. He fondly recalls his time at Saudi Broadcasting Authority, reminiscing about the memories it holds. Abdo joined the station in its early days in the ‘60s, describing it as a pivotal moment filled with both fear and excitement. He recalls, “When the Saudi Radio aimed to contribute to the elevation of [Khaleeji] art, the Radio sought to adopt an artist whose work it would produce based on a refined culture.”

This leads him to remember his greatest moment of sadness. “One of the saddest moments in my life was when I heard my voice on the radio. Sadness and crying took over me, and maybe even depression to a certain extent.” However, fear and sadness became drivers of hope for him, and hope was always a source of joy. Hearing his voice on the radio marked the official recognition of his status as a professional artist, ushering in a feeling of facing the unknown and newfound responsibilities. To ease his nervousness, he even explored alternative career options alongside his music, but ultimately his drive toward music persevered.

It’s crucial to note that radio in that era, especially in the Kingdom, served as more than just a broadcasting platform; it was an artist’s home, production company, recording studio and distribution platform—all functions that are now separated. Mohammed Abdo emphasizes the revolutionary role of Saudi Radio in popularizing traditional Arabic music to Saudi Arabia in the early 1960s by bringing in musicians from the Levant. Before this, traditional music in the Gulf mainly consisted of collective chanting of poetry, including what we know today as Saudi Sheilat music.

After the foundational phase marked by fear, sadness, responsibility and personal struggles, Abdo entered another phase in his career characterized by collaboration with fellow artists, influencing and drawing inspiration from them. A significant figure in shaping Abdo’s musical journey was the late composer Omar Kadars. Abdo expresses, “I gained a wealth of knowledge from him. His openness to traditional Arabic melodies, their intricacies and his mesmerizing oud playing greatly benefited me. As an amateur with modest talent in the beginning, I ended up benefiting immensely from his guidance.”

It was during this time that music in Egypt opened up even more. In the 1970s, young Abdo set off to Egypt, ready to take on the world as a budding artist and expand his horizons. He went with a clear purpose in mind, saying, “When I went to Egypt, I had a plan. I brought my tunes and my vision. I wanted to bring fame to my country’s art. You could say it was a fully integrated Saudi artistic project…. My first trip to Egypt was in 1969 and I can confidently say that I benefited from the musical workshops they used to organize, which helped me showcase the true colors of the Gulf.”

Proving himself as a serious artist, Abdo collaborated with legendary Egyptian composers like Riad Al-Sunbati, singing his compositions in a national operetta. He also worked with the late Egyptian poet Ismat Al-Habrouk, co-writing a eulogy song for Umm Kulthum called “Bulbuli Al-Sadah” when she passed away. This moment deeply affected Abdo, a devoted fan of Umm Kulthum who attended her concerts across the Arab world whenever possible. As he continued his music journey in Saudi Arabia and made regular trips to Egypt, he produced songs resonating throughout the Arab region in the 1980s, such as “Aywah,” “La Treddin Al Rassayel” and “Markab El Hind.”

In the 1990s, the Artist of the Arabs began reaping the rewards of his years of hard work in music, performing his rich repertoire on some of the world’s most prestigious stages as the pioneer of Saudi song. His voice brought people together with heartfelt songs like “Baad Kuntu Wala Garibin,” which he dedicated to expats. Abdo performed in major Arab and European cities as well, as part of the Weeks of Cultural Exchange that Saudi Arabia used to organize.

After reflecting on his long journey, we must also explore Mohammed Abdo as an artist in the present day, while considering how production techniques and methods have evolved. In this context, he emphasizes that today’s generation of aspiring musicians is incredibly fortunate. “Nowadays, demand is higher than supply,” he stated, referring to the numerous radio stations and platforms that give emerging talent the chance to showcase themselves to their audience. “An artist without an audience is an artist without art. The audience isn’t ignorant; they need to see something valuable in the artist,” he explained, sharing his perspective on the special relationship between an artist and their audience. However, certain aspects that define an artist’s essence remain constant regardless of the era. According to Abdo, “An artist is composed of two layers: natural talent and the mastery of it. Talent is innate, while mastery is acquired.”

In the interview, Abdo also compares yesterday’s music with today’s. He acknowledges the changes in composition and recording techniques, pointing out that technology has made things easier. “I’ve always been a bit slow with composition, but nowadays, technology is a real time-saver,” he admits. However, he also sees a downside to this convenience. He believes that artists have become a bit lazy due to the ease and speed it brings. Previously, music recording required effort, focus, discipline and a respect for time.

When it comes to AI and the future of the music industry, Abdo doesn’t shy away from expressing his support for technological advancement: “Scientific progress in general should never stop,” he says. However, upon closer examination, he also recognizes that AI-generated sounds, especially in traditional Arabic music, are still far from perfect. Particularly in genres that rely on improvisation and creativity, there’s still work to be done.

When asked about the wave of openness toward art and music in the Kingdom, and whether it aligns with Saudi Vision 2030, Mohammed answers, “What we are witnessing today is a culmination of past efforts, with officials knowing exactly when to seize the moment and launch us into this smart era. We’re picking up where others left off, and it’s a remarkable time to be part of the scene.”

This article is translated from the original on Billboard Arabia.

Mohammed Abdu, Billboard Arabia

This post was originally published on this site

Written by Mr. Nimbus




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