“I am the daughter of a man who struggled to hold the first convention of Arabic music in 1932. His enthusiasm never waned, and he was the driving force behind other conferences, one after the other. Driven by my love for my father,
who was also my first teacher, I followed in his footsteps, working to preserve the great art of Arabic music.” These words were more than once voiced by the veteran musician Ratiba al-Hefny, the renowned Egyptian soprano, who passed away on Monday 16 September after prolonged ill health. She was an Egyptian and international opera singer who performed in more than 500 opera performances.
Born to a musical family in 1931, Hefny grew up with a deep love for music. Her father Mohamed Ahmed Hefny wrote more than 45 books on music, and her maternal grandmother was a German opera singer. At the age of five, Ratiba started playing the piano.
She studied music in Cairo, then later in Berlin and Munich, learning to play the traditional Middle Eastern instruments the qanoun and the oud. Hefny later said she had reached the level of concert pianist, but she was more interested in singing and in Arabic music.
When she had finished with her time in Germany and was back in Cairo in 1961, she sang the leading role in The Merry Widow, a lead which was followed by many others. In Europe, she sang leading roles, among them Rigoletto, La Traviata, La Boheme, and The Magic Flute.
Egyptians will always remember her weekly TV programme during the 1970s and 1980s Min al-Musseeqa al-Arabiya (With Arabic Music) which ran non-stop for 22 years, and in which she introduced viewers to Arabic Music, explaining its various fundamentals and intricacies, and presenting some of its finest works. Her melodious voice and unambiguous, easy introduction of Arabic music managed to create thousands of fans of that kind of music. It was through her efforts that many Egyptians became aware of and came to appreciate Arabic music even in its most sophisticated form: the muwashahaat.
Arabic music icon
Hefny was Dean of the Higher Institute of Arabic Music in Cairo in 1962, the first woman to attain that post. She headed the Cairo Opera House in 1988, and stayed in this post until her retirement in March 1990. She also acted as supervisor of the Centre for Talent Development of Cairo Opera House.
She was also a pioneer of the contemporary musical movement of the Arab World. She presided over the Arab Academy of Music (AAM) since 1997 and was the first female to hold this prestigious position.
Hefny had always been keen on nurturing talent since an early age, and had established the first children’s choir in Egypt in 1961. In 1973, she founded the Umm Kulthoum Ensemble for Arabic Music, named after the legendary Egyptian diva Umm Kuthoum (1904 – 1975), and the National Arabic Music Ensemble in.
For her expertise and renown, Hefny was asked by Kuwait to help establish the Higher Institute of Musical Art in Kuwait; she was there for 13 years working on this task which she brilliantly achieved.
In 2004, Egypt recognised Hefny’s life achievement and awarded her the
State Incentive Prize in Arts and Letters.
Walking in her father’s footsteps, Hefny authored a number of books including: The Solfege; Mohamed Abdel-Wahab—His Art and Life; Mohamed al-Qassabgi: The Adoring Musician; Sultana Muneera al-Mahdiya: Singing in Egypt Before and After Her Time; and Umm Kulthoum.
Among all her achievements, however, Hefny will in all probability be best remembered for the Arabic Music Festival which she established in 1991 and which has since become an annual, much awaited tradition in which many singers and players shine.
“Egypt has lost a memorable musician,” Culture Minister Muhammed Saber-Arab said, mourning Hefny. “She was an honourable figure who devoted her life to developing music in the Cairo Opera House, and to enriching the cultural and artistic movement in the country. She lifted Egyptian music from the local to the international.
“Hefny was the role-model of the successful Egyptian woman who was ambitious to create a real leap in all what she had taken part,” Saber Arab added.
Ines Abdel-Dayem, director of the Cairo Opera House, announced that, to commemorate Hefny, the Arab Music Festival will be named after her name, as well as one of the halls of the Opera House.
The Cairo Opera House will hold a memorial ceremony for Hefny shortly. Abdel-Dayem said the event will not be restricted to Egypt, but invitations will be extended to various Arab figures in the musical field.
Not much is known about Ratiba Hefny’s personal life; she was known to fiercely guard her privacy. In the last interview she gave the press, published in April this year, she said: “I am very proud of my many decades of artistic achievement. I think I managed to realise all my dreams and say all that I wanted to say.”
11 October 2013
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