Egypt tunes into nostalgia for golden age of Arab song

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Younger generations have also shown a renewed interest in the classics thanks to popular televised talent shows. (AFP)
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Music production companies are also seeking to preserve the country's music heritage through younger generations. (AFP)
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Egypt, a cultural powerhouse in the Arab world, has long enjoyed a booming music industry. (AFP)
Updated 11 February 2019
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Egypt tunes into nostalgia for golden age of Arab song

  • Gulf countries vying for cultural dominance emerged as rivals to Egypt's music industry
  • The 2011 uprising in Egypt also saw a downturn in the domestic music industry

CAIRO: Standing before a rapt crowd, Ahmed Adel oozes charm with his passionate performance of an Egyptian classic, evoking a romantic nostalgia for Arabic songs of the past.
After a melodious introduction on the Oud, the famed oriental lute, Adel croons his way through a "Mawal", a traditional melody boasting long vowels.
"Ya leil" ("O night"), he sings, with the dreamy languor of the original performer, Egyptian legend Mohamed Abdel Wahab.
With cheers of "Allah!", the mesmerised audience shows its appreciation.
"Modern songs are a hit for a day or two, a month, or maybe a year, but then we do not hear about them any more.
"But Abdel Wahab and (Egyptian diva) Umm Kulthum have lasted until today," said Adel, before his performance in the tiny Mamluk-era hall at the Arab Music Institute.
Egypt, a cultural powerhouse in the Arab world, has long enjoyed a booming music industry.
In the past, the rise of revered singers, such as Umm Kulthum, Abdel Wahab and another Egyptian Abdel Halim Hafiz among others, saw Cairo billed as the Hollywood of Arab song, attracting talent from across the region.
But in the 1990s, Gulf countries vying for cultural dominance emerged as rivals to Egypt's music industry, and Rotana, the Arab world's largest record label, was formed in 1987.
The company is currently owned by businessman and Saudi prince, Al Walid bin Talal.
The 2011 uprising in Egypt that plunged the country into political and economic chaos also saw a downturn in the domestic music industry.
Yet the Egyptian metropolis remains alive with the sound of music.
Every day, in local cafes and homes the melancholic songs of Syrian-born star Asmahan and the tender rhythmic melodies of Egyptian singer Najat al-Saghira mix with animated conversations, modern pop music and Islamic chants.
Torn between stage fright and joy, Adel performs regularly at the Arab Music Institute paying tribute to his music idols.
During events such as the "Khulthumiat" (the music of Umm Kulthum) or "Wahabiyat" (the music of Abdel Wahab), organised by the 100-year old institute, Adel is often the lead singer with an entire troupe from the Cairo Opera House accompanying his powerful vocals.
"These events are very successful," said Jihan Morsi, the seminal director of the opera's Oriental Music department.
And to soar above Cairo's 24-hour cacophony, she doesn't just look to golden oldies.
"I bring (pop stars like) Angham, Saber El-Robai, Wael Jassar. They are beautiful voices that have an audience among the youth," said Morsi.
Music production companies are also seeking to preserve the country's music heritage through younger generations.
Sawt al-Qahira, or Sono Cairo, a historic record company, is betting on the internet despite financial setbacks and ongoing legal battles over the copyright to Umm Kulthum songs.
Known as the "Star of the Orient," Umm Kulthum's voice is still considered the Arab world's finest, more than four decades after her death.
And with its wide variety of classics, the record label has struck deals with YouTube and other mobile application companies to keep this heritage alive.
Younger generations have also shown a renewed interest in the classics thanks to popular televised talent shows.
"Arab Idol, The Voice and others show people singing old songs," said Doaa Mamdouh, the company's internet services head, adding this has prompted many fans to dig out the original versions.
Classic black and white music video clips struggle, however, to compete against today's torrent of slick, ultra-modern videos.
Rising artists from such places as Lebanon, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates harness millions of views on YouTube, usually singing in their own dialects.
Egypt's music scene remains vibrant, including electro Shaabi music, an exuberant popular blend seen by purists as too raucous.
And there is a new genre known as alternative, or "underground", which has emerged in recent years.
The band Massar Egbari, which roughly translates as Compulsory Detour, rose to fame with a relaxed style of rock and a distinctive performance of classics, such as by Sayed Darwish often called "the father of modern Arab music".
Although the rock stars say they are influenced by classics, they don't want to live in the past.
"Nowadays you can record something at home at a low cost," said bassist Ahmed Hafiz. "After every era, something new appears, these are phases."
The band, whose style its guitarist and vocalist Hani el-Dakkak describes as a blend of Sayed Darwish and rock band Pink Floyd, is also trying to distinguish itself through its message.
"We try in our lyrics to talk about social problems or things that nobody else will speak about," said el-Dakkak.


With Saudi roots and an Indian heart, Al-Kazi is an act the stage will never forget

Updated 21 February 2019
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With Saudi roots and an Indian heart, Al-Kazi is an act the stage will never forget

  • Though an icon in India, few people know about Al-Kazi’s Saudi roots

JEDDAH: India has always been a hub of art and culture. Over the last century, movies emerged as the most expressive cultural medium, and the Indian film industry — commonly known as Bollywood — has since become a powerhouse of world cinema.

One can never do its history justice without mentioning Ebrahim Al-Kazi.

A renowned director and drama teacher, he worked as the director of the prestigious New Delhi-based National School of Drama (NSD) from 1962 to 1977, teaching many well-known future actors and fellow directors, including Om Puri, Naseeruddin Shah and Rohini Hattangadi. He also founded the Art Heritage Gallery in New Delhi.

Though an Indian icon, however, few people know about Al-Kazi’s Saudi roots. His father, Hamad bin Ali Al-Kazi, was a trader from Unaiza in the Kingdom’s Qassim region, who subsequently settled in Pune, India, where Ebrahim was born in 1925. 

Early on in his career, Al-Kazi worked with the Bombay Progressive Artists Group, which included M.F. Husain, F.N. Souza, S.H. Raza, Akbar Padamsee and Tyeb Mehta, who would all later contribute to the design of his sets.

He worked in India, the US and Europe before becoming the director of the NSD, and later of the Asian Theater Institute, and is credited with staging more than 50 plays in his lifetime. He also contributes to the preservation of Indian cultural history through his Al-Kazi Foundation for the Arts.

In February 2015, Al-Kazi was honored at the second Saudi Film Festival in Dammam. He was later quoted in Arab media sources on his Saudi upbringing: “Our father was a firm believer in our cultural roots that went back to Saudi Arabia, and we spoke only Arabic at home. We had a teacher of Arabic and Islamic studies who came from Saudi Arabia, and lived as part of our family.

“Arab families (in India) did not mix very much with others, but my father had close ties with people other than Arabs,” he added.

Al-Kazi has also won many prestigious Indian awards. He was the first recipient of Roopwedh Pratishthan’s Tanvir Award in 2004 for his contribution to Indian theater, and in 1966 received the Padma Shri award. He won the Padma Bhushan award in 1991, and was given India’s second highest civilian award, the Padma Vibhushan, in 2010.