DUBAI: With a career spanning 60 years, Saudi singer and oud player Mohammed Abdu, dubbed the ‘Artist of the Arabs’, has been an inspiration to many – and not just for his music.
Abdu was born in Asir province, Saudi Arabia, on June 12, 1949. His father, a fisherman, died when Abdu was only three years old, leaving behind his wife and five other children.
Unable to provide for her children, Abdu’s mother surrendered her children to Ribat Abu-Zinada, a local Yemeni hospital for orphaned families. She then petitioned King Faisal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud to find a place for her children in an orphanage, which he did. Abdu spent the rest of his childhood in an orphanage in Jeddah.
“That was really the real struggle,” Abdu once said in an interview on Rotana’s Ya Hala show. “I remember every moment and every detail of my life. God gave me a memory that helps me remember things from when I was one. My struggles were those of a kid who wanted to be like the other kids in his neighborhood. They were all rich. I would see that and dream of reaching that level one day.
This was Abdu’s motivation to work hard and build a name for himself. He got his first job when he was only seven, as a postman’s assistant. She also raised money by helping housewives shop and selling fruit and vegetables on the street.
While he was interested in music as a child, Abdu’s dream was to go into sailing or seafaring like his father. He even entered a shipbuilding institute. But eventually he abandoned the idea of becoming a sailor and turned to his true calling: music.
Abdu began his musical career in the 1960s when Saudi presenter Abbas Faiq Ghazawi invited him to sing on the Baba Abbas radio show. Two songs in particular – “Al-Rasayel” and “Ab’ad” – became extremely popular. Both remain part of his live performances today.
“Ab’ad” was a worldwide hit, with Iranian and Indian translations gaining airplay and even European bands covering the song.
With his powerful voice and distinctive oud playing style—reminiscent of Syrian-Egyptian virtuoso Farid Al-Atrash, Egyptian composer Baligh Hamdi and fellow Saudi Arabian Talal Mada—Abdu has toured the world. At a concert in Tunisia in the 1980s, he was first given the soubriquet “The Artist of the Arabs” by the then president of Tunisia, Habib Bourguiba.
In the late 1980s, Abdu suddenly took a break from music after the death of his beloved mother. It would be eight years before he performed or released another song.
Apart from being an acclaimed performer, Abdu is also a talented composer in his own right. He wrote several of his own songs, including “Al Remsh Al Taweel,” “Ya Shoog” and “Ya Sherouq Al Shams,” but has also written for other stars, including Egyptian singer Carmen Soliman, who partnered with Abdu after winning the first season of ‘Arab Idol’ releasing Khaleeji’s 2014 song ‘Akhbari’.
Soliman told Arab News that composer Abdul Latif Al-Sheikh was the driving force behind this perhaps unexpected partnership. “He wanted this kind of collaboration to happen and worked hard to make it happen,” she said. “I would like to thank him for choosing me. I couldn’t believe it then. I felt like I would have a song in my story that would never be forgotten. And everyone will know that this song is composed by Mohammed Abdu.
“He was my favorite singer to listen to,” she continued. “For me, Mohamed Abdu is a legend (the likes of which we will never see again). I love his voice. He has an amazing, powerful voice. Through it he can reach the hearts of the audience. I love his music.”
Soliman listed “Ma’ad Badri”, “Ala El-Bal” and “Shebeeh El-Reeh” as some of his favorite Abdu songs. “His performance in these songs is second to none,” she said.
Soliman also praised Abdu’s humility, which she said is not common among entertainers these days. “That and his humor,” she said. “You feel like you’re sitting with one of your family. He is very down-to-earth and close to the heart.”
Soliman is not the only singer hailing Abdu as an icon. Saudi artist Hassan Eskandarani, who is also a researcher of Saudi songs, told Arab News: “Mohammed Abdu is an independent school. He sang in all categories.
“I can’t give my opinion on an artist who has (such a long) career,” he added. “Mohammed Abdu has lived through three generations since the early sixties. He played a central role in the expansion of Khaleeji music outside the Kingdom. I hope he keeps singing until he decides to stop.”
Eskandarani says Abdu is a “stage master” who has had a major influence on his own live performances.
“Not everyone who sings a song on stage is a (real) singer,” he said. “Muhammad knows how to pick (songs) that the fans like, so they engage with him.”
Abdu remains a vital and relevant musician. Just this month, he reportedly broke the record for the largest acquisition of an artist’s back catalog (which includes a staggering 122 albums) in the Middle East when Rotana announced on November 8 that it had bought the rights to his works.
“Rotana has signed the largest deal of its kind in the Middle East – the agreement to purchase the full artistic content of Arab artist Mohamed Abdu,” the label announced on Instagram.
Chairman of the Saudi General Entertainment Authority Turki Al-Sheikh said at the event: “It is a brave move on the part of Mohammed Abdu to give up (these precious) works on which he has worked hard for 60 years. It’s like someone giving away one of their children.
“We at the General Entertainment Authority support archiving the artistic history of Saudi artists,” he added. “Nevertheless, Mohammed Abdu remains ahead of the rest of the artists.”