A Tribute to Artist Salah El Mahdi

Dr. Salah Al Mahdi

Tunisian Musicologist
Former President of IOV

0Salah 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.

The following are but a few of Salah’s many accomplishments in several fields:

  • He taught and trained many renowned musicians and singers, including Abdul Hameed Belalgiah and Muhammad Sadah.
  • He made music classes an essential part of education for children.
  • He composed songs for famous Tunisian singers such as the late Saliha and the late Fathia Khairi.
  • He founded the Tunisian Symphony Orchestra, which helped to discover brilliant voices such as those of the late Ulyyah and the late Nimah.
  • He composed almost 700 pieces of music, the most famous of which are the Ala Khallidi Tunisian national anthem and an anthem he composed to commemorate the Arab League’s second anniversary in 1947.
  • He was a member of the executive body of the organisation of Islamic history, culture and arts
  • He founded the Arab society for music at the Arab League.
  • He was a member of the International Music Council.
  • He was one of the founders and presidents of the International Organization of Folk Art (IOV).

His books include:

  • Arab music: Growth and development, Al Sharq Al Arabi Publishing House, Damascus, 2003.
  • Arab music: a continual process, Al Sharq Al Arabi Publishing House, Damascus, 2003.
  • Arab music studies…, Al Gharb Al-Islami Publishing House, Beirut, 1993.

Salah El Mahdi’s death is a great loss for Tunisia, the International Organization of Folk Art, and many Arab and international music organisations.

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