Salah El Mahdi passed away on September 12th, medicine 2014. A Tunisian musicologist, order conductor, composer, flautist, music critic and judge, Salah’s friends and students called him ‘Ziryab’ after the famous Muslim singer and composer.
Newspapers throughout the Arab world mourned his death and published accounts of his life and accomplishments.
Salah was born in Tunis on February 9th, 1925 to an educated family with an interest in literature, the arts and intellectual pursuits. As a child, he studied at a traditional Tunisian kuttab, (a primary school for Islamic and Arabic education that was common in many Arab countries), then he continued his education at a national school. He graduated from Zaytuna University in 1941 and went on to study at law school and the National School of Administration. He obtained a PhD in musicology in 1981 and a Doctorate of Letters from the University of Poitiers.
In addition to his academic education, his interest in music began in early childhood. He joined the Rashidiyah School of Music, and studied under great artists including the Syrian Sheikh Ali Darwish, a master of music at the time.
He started singing and performing both Sufi and national songs, then went on to sing a wide variety of songs and to compose. He soon came to the attention of the school’s administrators, and they appointed him as a music teacher.
After Tunisia’s independence, President Habib Bourguiba asked Salah to leave the judiciary and head the arts department at the Ministry of National Education. He founded the National Institute of Music, which trained a generation of musicians who formed a national band that performed on the radio.
Salah El Mahdi’s death is a great loss for Tunisia, the International Organization of Folk Art, and many Arab and international music organisations.