Arabic folk music maestro Abu Bakr Salem Belfkih dies

Abu Bakr Salem Belfkih’s evocative Arabic folk songs were famed for their lyrics about love and longing

Saudi singer star Abu Baker Salem performs late 12 January 2006 in Doha on the second night of Qatar's seventh Song Festival. The six-day annual festival is hosting several Arab pop stars and classical singers, including Iraq's top singer Kazem al-Saher, Egypt's Shirin and Saudi Arabia's Mohammed Abdo. AFP PHOTO/KARIM JAAFAR / AFP PHOTO / KARIM JAAFAR
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A giant of Arabic music has passed away. It was announced on Sunday that Saudi-Yemeni singer Abu Bakr Salem Belfkih died at the age of 78, following an undisclosed illness.

An array of leading Arabic personalities took to social media to pay respects to an artist who exemplified the rich traditions of Arabic music and poetry. Sheikh Hazza bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Vice Chairman of the Abu Dhabi Executive Council, led the online tributes by hailing Belfkih’s voice as possessing a depth that is “is the embodiment of the culture of Yemen, the Gulf and the Arab world”.

Emirati-Yemeni singer Balqees called Belfkih a mentor. “He was a teacher, and his life and career is itself a school when it comes to art and music. My deepest condolences to his family.”

Emirati star Ahlam followed suit, describing Belfkih as “a dear father” to multiple generations of Arab stars. “The knight has dismounted and fled us,” she said. “May God grant him a blissful resting place.”

In addition to more than 20 albums, Belfkih’s legacy includes being one of the first Pan-Arab stars to emerge out of the region now known as Yemen.

Born in 1939 in the region of Hadhramaut, Belfkih was raised as an only child by a single mother after his father died. His melodious yet powerful voice was first noticed during his teenage years and Belfkih was offered opportunities to call the prayer in mosques around the town of Tarim.

After amassing knowledge in both poetry and the Islamic faith, Belfkih began his singing career performing nasheeds (spiritual odes) locally. It was only in his early twenties, after leaving Tarim for the hustle and bustle of Aden, that he began composing folk songs. 

A lot of that was down to Aden experiencing a cultural boom in the ’50’s in which the city hosted an array of artists including the poet Loutfi Iman and singers Ahmed Qasim and Mohammed Abdallah.

Inspired by the atmosphere, Belfkih began gigging regularly at parties. His success led to opportunities to perform on Aden TV and in a 1956 broadcast he debuted his first big hit Ya Ward Mahala Jamlak, the themes of love and longing of which remained a signature of his work through the decades.

Buoyed by the positive response, Belfkih undertook a busy two-year period in which he regularly released songs, which included Lima Alqee Al Habib, Khaf Rabek and Yahabibi Ya Kahef Al Rouh.

Feeling stifled career-wise, Belfkih then left Aden in 1958 for Beirut, which had established itself as a regional music hub through its plethora of performance venues, radio stations and well-designed recording studios.

The move paid off with the release a series of popular singles such as 24 Sa'aa (24 Hours). With more than a million copies sold, the track – a mix of philosophical lyrics and rollicking oud rhythms – is still widely regarded as one of the classics of Arab music's traditional Tarab genre.

With the Lebanese Civil War breaking out, Belfkih fled Beirut in 1975 for Saudi Arabia where he resided in Jeddah and Riyadh until his death.

In the past two decades, the veteran singer began to receive wider acknowledgement for his influential body of work.

Among his many accolades were official honours bestowed by the governments of the UAE, Yemen and Bahrain.

Belfkih remained ever-present throughout his final years, both on stage and in the studio. Earlier this year he released his final recoding, the four song collection, Shouf Le Hal and he continued to perform in the region.

No stranger to UAE audiences, the popular singer-songwriter performed concerts in this country for more than 30 years, with big gala shows held in Abu Dhabi in 1997 and also in Dubai, in 2001 and 2004.

Belfkih’s funeral was held yesterday in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia.


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