Cairo is the supreme gathering point for Egyptian roots, a musical playground of cross-cutting influences and inspiration. It is an organic environment were the leaves of tradition wilt or flourish, and where aging minarets and modern skyscrapers vie for sunlight. The historic seat of the Cairo Congress of Arab Music of 1932, Egypt has maintained a position as an epicentre of Middle-Eastern classical, traditional and modern musical forms. In stark contrast, as the capital of the nation that dominates the Nile and cradles the Suez Canal, Cairo's reach pulls migrants, minorities and their music, from far and wide, to its bustling streets.
Folk music in Egypt still performs a vital role in recording a popular version of history. Saiyidi, the folk music of the upper Nile valley, features the nahrasan, a two-sided drum and the mismar saiyidi trumpet. Among the most renowned saiyidi stars are Les Musiciens du Nil (the ‘Musicians of the Nile’), best known for their saucy hit “Ya faraula” (My strawberry). Omar Gharzawi is also known for his monologues defending saiyidis, who are traditionally the butt of Egyptian humour.
Amble down the narrow walkways of a North African medina past the cafés filled with the aromatic smoke of hookah pipes and hum of local chatter all around. The Rough Guide To North African Café is a musical journey through the bustling backwaters of Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria and Egypt, featuring artists from Algeria’s legendary Maurice El Médioni to French-Tunisian oud master, Smadj. Welcome to North Africa’s most intoxicating sounds. Click here to listen/buy
The folk music sawahili from the Mediterranean coastal area uses a guitar-like stringed instrument, the simsimaya. Famous singers include Aid el-Gannirni and Abdou el-Iskandrani. Traditionally nomads that roamed the Egyptian deserts, the main instrument of Bedouin people is the mismar, a twin-pipe clarinet, enables the player to produce a melody line and a drone simultaneously. Perhaps the best-known Bedouin singer is Awad al-Malki.
Nubian music has its origins in the African south of Egypt and remains traditional, with ritual songs supported by a daf and hand clapping. In Cairo, it developed in new directions, forged by two opposing voices – the late Ali Hassan Kubanand Mohamed Mounir– who mirror the diverging paths of the city’s Nubian migrants. The originator of the urban Nubian sound, Ali Hassan Kuban's music was inspired by overhearing jazz bands in Cairo nightclubs. Although popular amongst Cairo's fellow Nubian, European tours gave him the platform he needed to campaign tirelessly for the Nubian language.
Ali Hassan Kuban successfully transformed the complex rural rhythms and trance-like chants of Nubia – an ancient culture straddling the border regions of Egypt and Sudan – and blended them with elements of Western instrumentation. An extraordinary man with a modest but charming personality, his death in 2001 was mourned by music lovers across the globe.
Mohamed Mounir has produced some of the most sophisticated modern pop music in Egypt. His songs look for solutions to the problems of the wider Arab world, such as the future of the Palestinians and the dilemma of Jerusalem. Hamza el-Dinis synonymous with Nubian music and has collaborated with a number of Western musicians, notably the Kronos Quartet whose arrangement of his “The Water Wheel” is oneof the highlights of their Pieces of Africa album.
The Islamic mystics, the Sufis, helped to nurture Arab music through the ages when all around were doing their best to suppress it. This alliance of music and Islam is displayed at the giant mulids – festivals to celebrate the saint of a mosque – where worshippers and hangers-on gather in defiance of fundamentalists and authorities alike. The union of body and music is encapsulated in the zikr, a dramatic ritual which uses song and dance. The ney (flute), alternates short, two-beat pulses on a simple melody line.
For the practising Sufi clans, the event is a display of clan loyalty, piety and pride. Sufi songs gained a new status from the late 1990s, and young, middle-class audiences now enjoy this genre. Whether curious hangers-on or seekers of spiritual enlightenment, many owe their conversion to the emblematic Yasin al-Tuhami.
A working-class baladi (wedding) in central Cairo is possibly the finest exhibition of spontaneous musical theatre. First comes the Hassabala troupe, bugles and trumpets blaring (a style inspired by imperial British marching bands), who form a circle of thundering wooden drums. Into this vortex of chanting rhythm go the whirling dancers and a stick-cracking folklore troupe from Upper Egypt.
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The new sounds of Egyptian youth – shaabi(a kind of blues-folk) and shababi(Arab pop) – are the music of two social revolutions shaping the nation’s modern outlook.
The humiliating defeat by Israel in 1967 forced Egyptians to face stark reality. They escaped into shaabi, a new ‘light song’ which drew on folkloric themes to reassert a proud Egyptian identity. Singers specialise in the mawal, impressing the depth of his or her sorrowful complaint. Nevertheless, the rousing dance tempo of shababi songs is perfect for wedding celebrations and nightclubs. The first shaabi singer to break into the mass market, in 1971, was Ahmed Adaweyah. His social commentaries proved unpopular with the government who feared Egypt would be portrayed as an uncultured society. The shaabi form has also been “air-brushed” for radio and video consumption by artists like Amr Diab and Hakim – the new mainstream Egyptian popular artists.
In the 1970s, Egyptian pop music – shababimusic – was born. The dance music produced bore the hallmarks of the Arab sound but was performed to a punchy techno-Arab beat. Central to the movement was the Libyan Hamid el-Shaeri, whose 1988 song “Lolaiki” (If it wasn’t for you) became a hit and sold millions. The rags-to-riches story of “Lolaiki” also impressed the back-street entrepreneurs, and the new industry exploded overnight. London-based Transglobal Underground, have immersed themselves in the Cairo music scene and have developed a West-East synthesis. Amr Diab also released a dance-remix album based on his hit, “Habibi”. Ex-patriot Egyptian percussionist Hossam Ramzy lived in Saudi Arabia before moving to England, where he worked as a session musician and collaborator in Latin, jazz and pop styles with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Chick Corea and Robert Plant and Jimmy Page.