A couple of years before the first Palestinian Intifada against the brutal Israeli occupation in 1987, Naji Al-Ali, a famous Palestinian cartoonist, produced one of his finest cartoons motivating Palestinian children to resist occupation by drawing. Accompanying the cartoon were couple of verses encouraging kids to reject occupation by drawing their little family groves, their homes and country. Naji Al-Ali was assassinated in London in August 1987, and this particular cartoon became A symbol of the Intifada.
In 1988 a Libyan artist turned Al-Ali’s few verses into finely a tuned song glorifying the Palestinian struggle giving the cartoon a new lease of life as a song that will be listened to for years to come. Decades later the new Palestinian star singer Mohamed Assaf performed the song a cappella n a Ramallah radio studio.
That Libyan artist is the late Mohamed Hassan who passed away on 17 December 2017 leaving behind over 500 songs including dozens of expressing hopes for Arab unity, liberation while celebrating Libya’s rich and diverse folkloric poetry.
Mohamed Hassan’s death marked an end of an era of music in Libya as it will be very long time before anyone could replace him. He was to Libyans what Umm Kulthum is to Arabs.
Hassan, born in the town of Khums, east of Tripoli, in the mid-1940s, to a poor Bedouin family went on to build his artistic career spanning over four decades of composing, singing and training dozens of younger singers. Hundreds of people attended his funeral last year to pay their respect to the man who sang for love, motherhood, friendship and above all his country. A man who helped turn Libya’s rich colloquial poetry into modern day rhythms and tunes enjoyed by generations of Libyans.
When Hassan first appeared on the music scene in Libya in the 1960s, he was member of the newly founded choir of the Libyan radio company, established by the recently independent country. No one expected him to become a star in his own right.
In 1969 a young military officer deposed the country’s monarchy and changed its name and political system into a republic. This man is the late Muammar Gaddafi who immediately became a role model for many young Libyans, including Mohamed Hassan, who saw him as a liberator and a proud patriotic leader. Their paths somehow intertwined until death separated them, this is in spite of the fact that Hassan never worked for the government.
While Gaddafi worked to modernise the country eventually transforming it from a Bedouin, poor and primitive society into a developed vibrant one, Hassan helped him by producing songs that glorified his achievements. It was not Hassan’s intention to provide propaganda but he viewed singing for his country as a patriotic duty. Indeed, Libya for the first time in its history, freed itself from foreign denomination when Gaddafi expelled British and American basis from the country in 1970.
Hassan seized the moment and produced his first political song. That song, first broadcasted in June 1970 became one of his classic singles aired on each anniversary of the expulsion.
As he perfected his tunes becoming more selective in choosing his song writers he actually pioneered one particular type of song; the kind of politically charged songs which connect the masses with major issues including Pan-Arabism such as Arab unity and the main Arab cause of Palestine.
Mohamed Hassan became synonymous with Libyan folklore in its modern manifestation. He always wore Libyan traditional clothes while holding concerts in a tent surrounded by his band of musicians. The tent resembled the famous tent Gaddafi used to receive his visitors, and was famously setup in Paris, New York, and many other capitals he visited.
In its glory days Hassan’s tent was pitched in distant and renown places. In 2002 he amazed his fans by performing his best songs non-stop for three hours in his tent inside the Royal Albert Hall. He tent was setup in Paris, Tunis and Casablanca in Morocco and a host of other cities.
Hassan also trained new generatiosn of Libyan artists who became famous in their own way thanks to his teaching. Khaled Al-Azwawe describes him as his teacher. In paying tribute to his late teacher Al-Zawawe told MEMO: “I was close to him. Our relation was more than just a singer with composer as he was like a father. He helped every Libyan singer of my generation.”
Omar Ramadan, one of Libya’s top poets and song writers described Hassan as a “legendary and prolific singer producing over 500 songs in his long career.” Ramadan points out that the late singer was famous for “re-performing Libya’s rich colloquial poetry turning it into nice songs easy for younger generation to understand.” Hassan was also famous for songs which were three hours long at times and performed by groups of singers.
In the wider Arab music scene Mohamed Hassan has written music for some iconic Arab singers including the late Algerian Warda Al Jazairia, Latifa and Thekra from Tunisia and many others. He also performed the lyrics of Ahmed Mattar and the famous late Arab poet Nizar Qabbani.
After the Gaddafi government was toppled by NATO supported opposition groups in October 2011, Hassan did not appear in any concert. New Libya associated him with the former regime as it sought to eradicate any symbols of that era. However, he was respected and was neither detained nor forced into exile like many other high profile figures who supported the Gaddafi regime. He made a comeback in 2013 with another patriotic song, written by Omar Ramadan, calling for unity and reconciliation among his countrymen. It became an immediate hit.
One of his great fans, Muftah Gahnem, described him as a “national symbol that represents Libya’s glory days and will always be remembered as such.” Another fan told me: “Mohamed Hassan cannot be separated from us, the ordinary Libyans. He will always be our artist and will always be remembered for his rejection of foreign interference in Libya in 2011”
After his death a well-known broadcaster, Attieh Banny, paid attribute to Hassan in a three-hour TV special in which poets, singers, fans and musicians paid their respect to him. The government has however yet to take steps to honour him.
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.