Occupation(s) Singer, Actor
Asmahan (Arabic: أسمهان; birth name: Amal al-Atrash) (1918-1944) was a famous Egyptian/Syrian singer and actor who lived in Egypt and sang most of her songs in Egyptian Arabic. She was the sister of Farid al-Atrash, a famous singer in his own right, and a member of the famous Druze family of al-Atrash, known for its role in the resistance against the French mandate in the 1920s.
Asmahan started her career in Lebanon, then traveled to Cairo, Egypt, where she worked with many famous composers such as Riyadh el-Sonbati and Mohamed El Qasabgi. Her films include intisar echabab and garam wentikam.
• Asmahan's father is Fahd al-Atrash. He got remarried after he divorced her mother. He held a number of public offices in Ottoman Turkey and Syria.
• Her mother 'Aleya Menzer is a Lebanese Druze. She was a singer and an oud player. She was known to be the source of inspiration for her children.
• Her brother Farid was a musician, singer and a virtuoso oud player; he composed many of her songs.
• She also had a brother Fouad, and a sister and another brother who died very young.
Her father was governor of the district of Demirci in Turkey, during the last days of the Ottoman Empire. When Syria fell to the allies in 1918 he feared revenge, and on October 24, 1918 he fled the country with his two sons and pregnant wife. They took the boat from İzmir to Beirut, and Asmahan was born on that boat. She was named "Amal" (Arabic: آمال), meaning "hopes". She was also called "Emily", but always preferred the name "Amal".
Her parents separated in her early childhood. Her father returned to his hometown in Sweida, while the rest of the family emigrated to Egypt (around 1923), where they were naturalized later on. Her mother 'Aleya Menzer started singing at private parties to support herself and her children. Everyone in the family could sing (the mother and Farid could also play oud), but success was only to crown the efforts of the two most gifted: Farid and Amal.
Asmahan and her debut
Amal's vocal talent was discovered since an early age Little Amal used to sing in home and in the school's special celebrations. She loved particularly to sing Oum Koulthoum's songs ( who are very hard because of their wide and high tessitura and the difficult florid and coloraturas passages full of every sort of complex vocal ornamentation typical of the oriental music) and also Mohammad Abdel Wahab's songs ( Abdel Wahab was famous for his pure and chic line of singing who gave away all unnecessary ornamentation and just kept the essential that suits the dramatic essence of the lyrics and the song's meaning).
The family friend the Lebanese musician Farid Ghosn introduced the young talent Amal to Zakaria Ahmad, Mohammad el Qasabji and Daoud Hosni, who were all under the spell of her enchanting voice and musical talent. So Hosni suggested her name to be changed to Asmahan in memory of an old arabic singer. Yet, there is another version of her discovery:Once her brother Farid (still a debutant singer and Oud player)was receiving at home one of the biggest musicians in Egypt the famous composer Daoud Hosni, who happened to hear her singing while she was in her room,so he demanded to see her immediately and asked her to sing again, so Amal sang one more time and Daoud hosni was very impressed and pleased, after she finished he told her I once had a pupil who was as beautiful as you and have a voice just like yours, but alas she pased away at a very young age before knowing the fame she would have deserved, so theredore I would like you to be called Asmahan and so henceforth Amal became Asmahan.
Asmahan was solicited by a record company to register her first Album who had a first song Ya Nar Fouadi by Farid Ghosn. She was not even sixteen. With the music and singing taking all her time she couldn't but drop out of school. But she already was in the most prestigious music academy.As a matter of fact Asmahan was lucky to have the biggest names in music as her mentors or Pygmalions : Farid Ghosn, Daoud Hosni , Mohammad El Qasabji And Zakaria Ahmad who gave her all the vocal training and music lessons ( though she learned music from an early age at her school). With their help she was offered a contract with Colombia Recordings.
So Asmahan's raise of fame was very quick, her repertoire started growing with songs composed by El Qasabji alongside her song by farid Ghosn and another song "Ahedni Ya Albi" by Zakaria Ahmed.Her first public performance was in The prestigious Cairo Opera (where only real talents can't get there but after years of hard work as their final consecration or recognition as an accredited artist) She was very solicited to sing in the Aristocratic families celebrations (like all the big singers Abdel Wahab, Oum Koulthoum....). She also started singing at Mary Mansour's night club alongside her brother Farid.
But it wasn't long enough before her cousin Prince Asmahan Hassan al-Atrash came to Cairo and asked her for mariage, so she returned to Syria where the marriage was celebrated in 1933, and gave birth to a daughter, Camellia. She lived in Sweida, her home town, where people dubbed her "The Princess of the Mountain" (of Jabal el Druze mountain).
Her marriage ended in divorce four years later. After that she returned to Cairo and resumed her singing career, where she married the director Ahmed Baderkhan, but they were soon divorced. In 1941 she went back to Syria and re-married her cousin Hassan for a short time. Finally, she married the director Ahmed Salem.
Asmahan's originality and voice characteristics
Known for her wide vocal range, Asmahan's voice could cover the low notes and Oriental Modes and sub-modes to reach the upper Soprano measures this is shown in her song ya toyoor where she reaches a high A with ease and brio. Asmahan's voice could be seen as the mixture of two oriental divas'voices opposed in style and interpretation =Fairouz famous of her angelic tone of voice who was among the first to adopt the western (old Italian school of singing) singing method using a head resonance technique that is nearer to falsetto at a time where the nasal and chest resonance technique was reigning in the Arabic singing scene, and who despite the fact that her voice is hard to be classified between the mezzo-contralto(alto) and mezzo-soprano could reach high notes yet with less power than Asmahan but have a wide range of dynamics ranging from pianissimo to fortissimo from bottom to top, and Sabah (singer) who is famous for her powerful voice whose technique is similar to the American Broadway belting technique (belt (music)), alongside her phenomenal long breath where she can hold a high note for more than one minute.
Too much pressure (chest resonance technique) will deprive the singer from using a lot of dynamics as he will loose all the pianissimo and the bridge between the head and chest voices will be very difficult, not to mention that the legato line singing will be impossible and that the vocal range will shorten where the head register becomes weak. On the other hand the head voice technique( typical of the Western classical and operatic singing) will eliminate any chest resonance so the voice will become too sweet or artificial and consequently lose all the power and dramatic capacities required for the oriental Tarab genre
Asmahan's voice was so powerful that despite her heavy singing she was still able to use her head register and sing in a very controlled tone of voice a very demanding high pitched musical line with a very impressing and elegant Legato( the vocalization) in Ya touyour by Mohamed El Qasabgi and in a light color of voice (reaching a high A=LA) then return to sing the medium notes and reach the low register with the typical Arabic (nasal+chest) technique. Besides the fact that she was the first arabic singer to use the classical western technique, very few performers are able to alternate two opposed styles of interpretation and technique in one song.
Some say that Nahwand had similar vocal abilities as Asmahan. Another specialty about her talent was her strength of breath and its duration, accompanied by her ability to switch between various musical notes in one musical sentence, a talent only shared with Fairouz.
Role in World War II
In 1941, during World War II, she came back to Syria on a secret mission: to convince her people in Jabal el-Druze to allow the British and Free French forces to enter Syria through their territory without a fight (Syria was under the Vichy France rule back then). The British and Free French promised the independence of Syria in return, and the Druze agreed. After the allies secured Syria, General De Gaulle visited Sweida (the capital of Jabal el-Druze) where he met Asmahan, his successful messenger.
On 14 July 1944, a car carrying Asmahan and a female friend of hers crashed into the River Nile after the driver lost control. Without a door on their side both ladies got stuck and drowned. Nevertheless, the driver managed to escape the tragic death.
Asmahan was always afraid of water. When she was young a gypsy told her just as she was born in water she would die in water.
These suspicious circumstances gave rise to many rumors and much controversy, comparable to that of Lady Diana. Tabloids were rife with conspiracy theories, pointing fingers everywhere. They accused the British intelligence - after many reports claiming she was working with them - of getting rid of her after she handed over some military information to the Germans. They also accused the German Gestapo of killing her for helping the British. And they even accused the prominent singer Oum Kulthoum of organizing her assassination to eliminate competition. It was widely reported and rumored that Oum Kulthoum had an unreasonable fear of Asmahan, knowing what she could achieve given the right circumstances, with her voice and captivating beauty.
Her house in Syria is located in the French Quarter of Sweida. Years after her death, that house was seized by the Syrian government, and became – like much of the French Quarter – a property of the Syrian Army. It took the government sixty-two years to give in to the demands to turn the house into a museum for Asmahan and Farid.
The Ministry of Tourism acquired the house in September 2006, but work on it has yet to start.
• Al-Atrash, Majid. "Asmahan: Amirat at-tarab was-saif wan-nada (Asmahan: The princess of music, war and grace)" Al-'Adyat magazine, summer 2005, p.75-77 in Arabic