Those Days: P. Bona and Solfège

"Idris Al-Qayed"

In this photo is the late Mr. Abdullah Lutfi, whom I met in sixth grade. He was tall, tanned, handsome, charismatic, and had perfected the art of Italian suits. 

He walked in and ordered the first student he saw to stand up and recite the national anthem, “Ya Biladi” (My Beloved Country). When the student faltered, Mr. Lutfi called him “tabikha,” which made us all burst out laughing. Neither I nor any of my friends from the Boy Scouts gained the title of “tabikha.” Those who failed to memorize were dubbed “tabikha,” and those who did well were called “zahr.”

The purpose of Mr. Abdullah Lutfi’s visit was to find students with good voices. In that 1965 summer, “Hubak Nar” (Your Love is Fire) by Abdel Halim Hafez and “Nar Wallahi Nar” (Fire, By God, Fire) by Nuri Kamal were constantly blaring across the city in the June heat. 

Days later, we were learning how to read sheet music and musical scales in class. We were assigned the P. Bona textbook, and we were being taught the Solfège system. We were required to buy the textbook, but how could you ask your family to do that, when at the time, we all had to pitch in to buy one copy of Mickey Mouse or Samir comics to share? Besides, a lot of parents considered music education unseemly. The problem was solved a few days later, when the teachers handed out copies for free. I still remember the names of two members of the Police Band–Omar Khalifa and Belqassim Al-Naelly. They were very dedicated teachers. 

There was an amazing store for musical instruments on Istiqlal Street, owned by an old and grouchy Italian man, called Andrea, who sold most of his instruments to police and military bands. That’s where we bought our music notebooks. The lessons were numbered; once you were done with one lesson, you could move on to the next. The students who made no progress dropped out of class. 

Keeping the music lessons a secret from my parents was hard. I had to hide the Pascoli and P. Bona textbooks, along with my notebooks. I kept finding new places to hide them. Once, I hid them under the couch cushions, but my father found them immediately. 

I could hardly believe what happened next. My father proceeded to read the sheet music. He told me that I had been studying the popular “sol” key, while he was accustomed to reading in the less popular “fa” key. He told me that he had learned music in the Islamic Arts and Crafts School, and that he learned the deep “fa” note by practicing the massive brass instrument, the trombone. That surprise became the reason I made so much progress in the P. Bona lessons; my father helped me memorize one lesson after another. At the end of the year, each student chose an instrument to learn, and I chose the saxophone. 

Those months and long nights of practice prepared us for joining the central music band, which was affiliated with the Ministry of Education. Every day, each of us would practice their instrument in a separate classroom from 7pm to 9pm. Johannes Brahms’ “Hungarian Dance” was a difficult composition, yet we all fell in love with it and competed to get it right. We performed on Independence Day and other occasions in Tripoli and the neighboring towns. 

On Independence Day in 1968, we put together a new kind of performance. In addition to western songs, we also played “Enta Al-Hub” (You are Love) by Mohamed Abdel Wahab, the ballad, “Al-‘Azara Al-Ma’esat” (The Desperate Virgins) by Sayed Darwish, and “Shawki Da‘ani” (My Longing Called on Me) by Sheikh Aqnis. 

When Tripoli's Director of Education at the time, an Azhari professor by the name Ahmed Anbia, was scheduled to pay us a visit, we were incredibly intimidated. But his visit pleasantly surprised us. “What are your requests?” he asked us. We asked him for a piano, and arrangements were made to provide one. Then, I stood up and asked him for a uniform for the band. He was surprised and went quiet, then smiled and said, “And a uniform for these mischief-makers.” 

The sewing teachers, along with the arts and crafts students, made us some beautiful uniforms. The band expanded to include theater students and vocalists, until it became the central music band; it was a vibrant, civilized representation of the homeland.

Born in Tripoli, a pediatrician and a consultant at the World Health Organization. He has been practicing medicine for four decades and has authored guidance books for family physicians.

Idris Al-Qayed
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