DUBAI: Saudi musician, composer and singer Talal Maddah was hugely popular across the Middle East for his melodious voice and emotionally resonant music.
Dubbed “The Earth’s Voice” and “The Golden Throat” for his singing talent, Maddah left an indelible mark on the culture and music of the Arab world in the 20th century.
He was also a talented oud player, earning the nickname “Ziryab” from renowned Egyptian musician Mohammed Abdel Wahab. Ziryab was an entertainer in the Court of Cordoba in the early 9th century and a great musician of his time who played a key role in developing medieval Eastern music.
Maddah was born on Aug. 5, 1940, in Makkah. He began his career in the late 1950s with the release of his first album “Wardak Ya Zaree Al-Ward” (Grower of Roses) — the title song of which was a fixture on Saudi radio at the time. He quickly became one of the most popular singers of the era, along with artists including Muhammad Ali Sindi, Fawzi Mhasson and Abdullah Mohammed.
Maddah was the first singer to perform on Saudi television, and the first to have his performances from Europe broadcast on TV in his homeland.
Over the course of his career, he released more than 80 albums and composed songs for a number of other renowned Arab singers, including Mohammed Abdo, Warda Al-Jazairia, Faiza Ahmed, Samira Said, Raja Belmalih, Abadi Al-Jawhar and Etab. He even tried his hand at acting, starring in the 1965 movie “Fog Street” alongside Lebanese singer and actress Sabah.
Maddah died aged 60 in August 2000 following a heart attack during a live performance on the Saudi TV show “Al Methafa.”
Speaking to Arab News, his son Abdullah Maddah said his father’s career was made special by his fans’ love for him.
“That’s the most distinguished element, but it’s not the main element of his success — that was his voice,” Abdullah told Arab News. “But people’s love for him, (was because of) the way he treated his fans and the way he treated people around him. That made a huge difference.”
Abdullah, who helped his father with his work at various times, said Talal was famed for being humble and down to earth.
“It was his nature; he was a simple person. His life was dedicated to art,” he said. “Maybe this is why his fans’ love for him was (so great).
“To me, no matter what, I will always see him as my father first. Then, I will look up to him as an artist. It’s so hard for me to judge his art. I grew up listening to his music,” Abdullah continued. “What we always noticed was that he always wanted to perform his best, he always wanted to please his fans, even if (it exhausted) him. He would say: ‘These people are here to listen to me, so I need to present my best.’”
Abdullah was always interested in Western music, he said. It was his father who taught him how to play Arabic instruments and made him listen to Arabic music.
“Even the musical instruments I learned, like the oud or violin, I learned them for him, because he played those instruments. He was the reason I loved music and art,” Abdullah said. “The best thing I learned from him was to learn. ‘Learn everything, have background knowledge in everything,’ he would say.”
Talal himself remained an eager student throughout his life, learning various schools of oud playing — Arab, Turkish and Iranian.
“He listened to them all. He always (wanted to develop) his skills,” Abdullah added. “Maybe this is one of the things he instilled in us, to keep developing.”
Maddah’s memory is still honored among Arabs today. A concert in Riyadh on Feb. 1 saw 43 major artists from across the Arab world (“the largest gathering of Arab artists in the Middle East,” according to a press release) — including Saudi singers Mohammed Abdo and Rabeh Saqr, Kuwaiti singer Nawal Al-Kuwaitia, Emirati star Ahlam, Syria’s Assala Nasri, Egyptian icon Hany Shaker, Tunisian crooner Saber Al-Rebai, Lebanon’s Nawal Al-Zoghbi, and Egyptian superstar Angham — take to the stage to perform some of Maddah’s songs.
The star-studded event, organized by Saudi Arabia’s General Entertainment Authority and broadcast live on more than 40 channels across the Arab world, saw some of the singers, including Abdo, sing duets with the late star, accompanying videos of him singing on the screen behind them.
The concert made Maddah’s family feel “honored and proud,” Abdullah said. “To me, all the artists were exceptional. They all presented their best. As the chairman of the GEA, Turki Al-Sheikh, said, it was ‘an exceptional night.’”
The event included a documentary in which poets, musicians and singers who collaborated with Maddah discussed their experiences with the late singer. All of them praised his humanity, and his ability to get along with everyone.
Some of Maddah’s most precious ouds, his sheet music and passport were also on display. Saudi singer Abadi Al-Johar, whose talent was first discovered by Maddah, played one of his ouds during the concert.
Abdullah told Arab News that many of his father’s songs have not yet been released and that if an artist approached them with their interpretation of one of Talal’s compositions “we for sure would want to share it with the audience.”
He said: “There is no reason to keep it on the shelf,” he said. “During his life, he presented everything he could to his audience, so we would love for his fans to hear these songs.”
We may not have heard the last of ‘The Earth’s Voice.’