Lesson 10: Egypt

This week we’re going to travel to Egypt, a true cradle of human civilization that for over ten thousand years has continually found a way to develop, build, learn and, even after so much time, still surprise us all. Early Egyptian scientists, mathematicians, astronomers and architects used written language and a base-ten system of numbers to pioneer or at least greatly further their fields. As we know, Egypt is going through substantial political changes and is experiencing a very difficult moment in its long history.

When historians of music say Egypt has always been at the musical forefront in the Middle East, they may as well mean always–according to ancient Egyptians, the god Thoth invented music and the god Osiris used it as a tool to help him civilize the world. Egyptian music may not have originated at the dawn of time, but it certainly did begin a long while ago–fifteen hundred years or more–as we know from the remnants of ancient Egyptian rhythms and melodies still present in ancient Sufi Muslim dhikr rituals. Dhirk rituals take place at Muslim and Coptic traditional celebrations called mulids, which are held to celebrate particular saints. (Watch this Sufi Muslim dhikr ritual at a mulid, or try this performance by Sheikh Ahmed Al Tuni, one of Upper Egypt’s most accomplished ritual singers). Egyptian Bedouins also still perform music from centuries past, as do Coptic musicians, who chant ancient liturgical hymns, as well as performers of Saidi music, from Upper Egypt (enjoy a little saidi music here).

Primarily hailing from southern Egypt and northern Sudan, though also present in communities all over North and East Africa, Egyptian-Nubian musicians have become known worldwide for blending ancient Egyptian folk with contemporary forms. Ali Hassan Kuban (more about him below) and Hamza al Din are known and well-respected on the “world music scene,” though in recent years Mohamed Mounir has become the most popular Nubian musician in Egypt because of his outspoken support for the Egyptian pro-democracy movement.

— Watch Hamza Al Din performing live with his oud
— Watch Mohamed Mounir performing “Hela Hela” live in a studio | performing on stage with a great band (Mounir comes out about 2 minutes into the video)

Cairo is at the center of Arabic popular music and has been since the early 20th century when a music industry developed in conjunction with the emergence of the Egyptian film industry. Early Egyptian popular music stars like Sayed Darwish, Abdel Halim Hafez, Mohammed Abdel Wahab, and especially Umm Kulthum, who we’ll meet in the section below, respected their classical traditions while still using their music to communicate with listeners, in direct emotional terms, about important social and political issues of the day. A bit about Sayed Darweesh and Adbel Halim Hafez:

Known as “the father of Arabic music,” Sayed Darweesh began his artistic career in the 1910s as a humble laborer and reciter of the Qur’an. His innovative fusion of Arabic and Western music laid the groundwork for the formation of a Cairo-based popular music industry at a time when Egypt was coming into its own as 20th century world power. RockPaperScissors describes Darweesh as, “a complex character that might be described as equal parts Verdi, Jim Morrison, religious scholar, and bricklayer.” He died (of a heart attack? of an overdose?) in 1923 at the age of 31. Listen to Darweesh’s original music as recorded in 1917 | Listen to this rockin’ modern interpretation of “Dinghi Dinghi” by Issa Ghandour and the Madina Band

Known as el-Andaleeb el-Asmar, “The Great Dark-Skinned Nightingale,” Abdel Halim Hazez (1929-1977) is an iconic Egyptian musician who, says Wikipedia’s entry on Halim, was “also an actor, conductor, business man, music teacher and movie producer.” Watch a handsome, and apparently a very busy young Hafez perform one of his greatest hits, “Ahwak” and a still-handsome though slightly older Hafez sing “Gabber” (the song starts at about 1:20). Both show Hafez with a superb and voluminous band. Also according to Wikipedia, other nicknames for Abdel Halim Hafez are, “King of Arabic music”, “The voice of the people”, “The son of the revolution”, and “King of emotions and feelings.”

A prolific and popular composer, singer, theater actor and film star, Mohammed Adbel Wahab (1907-1991) may have been controversial in the Arab music industry for embracing Western genres and instrumentation, but the Egyptian people respected him for being able to expand Arabic music Westward while still basing his songs on Arabic traditional foundations. The Al-Mashriq biography of Wahab describes him as the inventor of the Arab film musical and says he was known as “the Singer to Princes and Kings.” Listen to “the Best of Adbel Wahab.”

Today’s Egyptian pop music industry is still growing, attracting forward-thinking musicians from all over the region. Egyptian pop comes primarily in two styles: shaabi and aj-jeel:

— SHAABI: “music of the common people”
In the 1970s when recordable cassettes made popular music accessible to people who had little money, several genres of “cassette culture” music developed around the world–punk music in England, for example, rai in Algeria, Jamaican reggae and, in Egypt, shaabi (translated as “music of the common people.”) Three singers of the “golden age” of Egyptian popular music, Umm Khaltoum, Farid al-Atrache (who we met in our featured country e-mail about Syria) and Abdel Halim Hafez had just passed on, as had nationalist leader Nasser, and while Sadat’s economic reforms gave the working class a bit more money, they realized they were able to afford a cassette player, some cassettes and little else. At this moment the vocalist Ahmed Adaweya seen here singing his trademark wailing “mawaal” and wearing the best shirt ever, product of a working class neighborhood, engrossed the nation’s youth by singing songs full of satirical social commentary about the realities of Egyptian life. Today’s famous shaabi singers, like Shaaban and Hakim, about whom we’ll learn below, continue this tradition by using their lyrics to skewer politicians and confront social problems in an artistically direct way.

More information:
Read this excellent history of shaabi, called “Shaabi Music: Underground Music That Really Isn’t,” complete with links to YouTube videos of the top shaabi performers | Shabaan sings tongue in cheek political songs with lyrics like, “Oh people, hopefully Obama will not be like Bush” and, to the exact same tune, a lament about swine flu. And, to the exact same tune, a song about war in Lebanon. And, to the exact same tune, a song about the Danish cartoons portraying Muslim Prophet Mohammed….

— AL-JEEL: (“the new wave”)
Al Jeel was the lighter, more slickly polished cousin of shaabi, that rose parallel to it in the late ’70s and ’80s. Known as “the new wave,” al-Jeel performers connected with the youth–though not with highbrow trained Arabic musicians–by singing in simplified Arabic classical forms and using Western electronic production. The music was energetic and danceable. The genre’s top star is Amr Diab, who has been popular since the ’80s and has now entertained an entire generation of “the young generation.”

More information:
Afropop.org on Al-Jeel | Amr Diab clearly pleases a crowd in 2003 with “Amarain” (two moons) and in 2004 with his bare biceps and “Leily Nahara1” | Amr Diab popularized the song we sing in class known as “Ya Leyl,” which he released as “Alby Ekhtrak.” Hear Diab perform song in Arabic then, at about 1:00, an Indian version. (and here is the song ready for karaoke)

Egyptian popular music also played a substantial role in the 2011 “Arab Spring” ouster of long-time president Mubarak. During the pro-democracy protests not only did well-known performers like Mohamed Mounir musically challenge the government , but obscure-but-quickly-well-known artists like Ramey Essaam became immediate YouTube sensations because of their political songs. Watch a million people in Tahrir Square sing Essaam’s song “Leave” that pleads with Mubarak to resign: “All of us are standing together asking for one simple thing, Leave….Leave….Leave….Leave…. Down down with Hosny Mubarak.”)

More information:
NPR’s report on “The Songs of the Egyptian Protests” | “Hawgblog,” the blog of a University of Arkansas Anthropology Professor, provides us with several examples of music that was part of the Egyptian revolution

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