It kind of grows out of traffic. The staccato hiss of an exhaust pipe begins to sound like record scratching. Skidding and braking, the vehicles resume their car horn concerto. Braying, bawling, crashing, farting, fortissimo hustling cut in. Then comes the imperious vroom of a makana – the Arabic corruption of the Italian word for ‘machine’ – as a motorcycle is called on the streets of Cairo…
That staccato hiss is how the city breathes while you’re bumping along on your feet. You’ve been taking in toxins, dodging potholes and garbage mounds. As you slip in mud, now, you catch the tail-end of something rough and magnificent that’s just gone past your ear. It must be playing inside that Speed-like murder motor there, not a mini but a micro bus: fatalistic transportation of the poor.
You almost fell on your side as it charged, with all those bodies tripping over you and each other in the metal-rubber-and-asphalt cruelty of its passage, the punishing heat and no room to walk. Yet you listen hard as you balance on the curb, leaning back to make way for a huge wicker board piled with bread and balanced on the head of a cyclist pedalling barefoot and unperturbed.
It’s a hit you recognise: an old sound by the urban folk legend Ahmed Adaweyah (b. 1945), a waiter by trade. It dates from the mid seventies, pretty much when you were born. So you don’t know if the city was as it is when it was made, but this Cairo breathes through it exactly as it should: beautifully.
You want to heave a nostalgic sigh – just as your lips part, a fresh discharge of exhaust blows in your face. So you light a cigarette instead. Round the far corner there’s a kiosk that sells chilled green bottles of the local Stella beer. They come wrapped in crinkly black bags so the pious sons of bitches don’t know what you’re drinking – more seriously, so they know you know they don’t want to know what.
The kiosk owner smiles as he recognises your face. He’s playing a Darth Vader-sounding Saudi recitation of the Quran on his little stereo, the hypocrite. You ask if he’s got any Adaweyah for your sake and, crouching in the shadow of the plywood structure with the yeasty fizz in one hand, you begin to take long, smooth swigs while he’s waiting for the holy verse to end before turning off the appliance. You perk up as you hear him laboriously switching cassette tapes.
You can reclaim your melancholy here, with ‘El Marassi’, one of the master’s lesser known numbers. Like nearly all Adaweyah’s hits (as you find out), it was written by the down-and-out lyricist Hassan Abu Etman, composed by the accordionist-on-demand Mohamed Asfour, and produced for cassette by the small-time businessman Atef Montaser. Its title is the Arabic word for ‘docks’ because ‘docks’ rhymes with so many other words: ‘groovy’, ‘chairs’, ‘cruel’.
As the lager moistens your gut, the shade winding you down, Adaweyah’s lyric tenor – full-bodied, clarion, gravelly at the high ends – transports you back to Cairo, a city very like the jerkwater megalopolis you just came from but infinitely more euphonic for the ultra-urban tarab of the voice. Tarab: the participatory aesthetic register of modal singing, translated as ‘enchantment’ though it really can’t be translated. Adaweyah’s is one of the rawest examples of it you’ve heard in any genre.
So you’re still on the street but you’re somewhere else at the same time, and it’s a place you kind of want to be:
We tried to get away
They told us to sit down,
(‘we’ being the heartbroken lover, ‘they’ the stone-hearted beloved)
We tried to sit down
They pulled the chairs from under us…
It’s like someone invented a noise filter that doesn’t keep out the heartache.
At five- to ten-minute stretches, this magic echo chamber morphs the short, hard sounds of the street into folk beats from the provinces. It strings accelerated oriental bars out of the softer, longer-lasting ones. Just as a physical theatre performer’s ordinary movements subtly transform into dance, the horns drowned in grey noise-turned-percussion metamorphose into a keyboard melody.
It is nothing like oriental (so called Arabic) music – symphonically influenced tarab that, with people like Mohamed Mounir (b. 1954) and Amr Diab (b. 1961), thanks to jazz and then rock, was later to develop into globally inflected Egyptian pop – the kind of thing you can picture head-covered people in the late sixties still bringing transistor radios to their ears to listen to on humanely busy streets with room on the sidewalks, a little clean air, and public buses that don’t look like bulging Coke cans. No microbuses yet and, in this kind of sound, no irony.
The sometimes hours-long pseudo-arias and quasi-chanties of romantic love and anti-imperialist patrimony survived well into Adaweyah’s heyday, but his work – for a long time looked down on by the intelligentsia – was as different from them as reggae is from fado. Until Adaweyah emerged on the scene, ‘Arabic music’ was Turkish-flavoured modal improvisation evolved. It had tremendous resources going for it but evidently no way of living on past the last quarter of the century.
It had lyrics by high-brow poets (even when they were written in dialect as opposed to standard Arabic, and most of them were). It had large ensembles with oriental instruments inside western orchestra formations. It had phenomenal stars: the all-time diva Omm Kulthoum aka the Star of the East (d. 1975), the perennial composer Mohammad Abdel Wahhab aka the Maestro of the Generations (d. 1991), and the sixties heartthrob Abdel Halim Hafez aka the Nightingale (d. 1977), a lesser talent by far.
They begat a younger generation of soloists who sounded more and more out-of-date as they stuck with the style of the Golden Age of President Gamal Abdel Nasser (1956-70). Ludicrously, that’s still referred to as ‘the age of beautiful art’. Because it was somewhere else that the traffic of life was heading under republican Egypt’s second dictator:
Anwar Sadat (1970-81) immediately softened state control to open up the economy, staging a ‘corrective revolution’ in 1971. In the process he disinherited what post-independence, military and bureaucratic bourgeoisie had formed since Nasser took over from the British-controlled monarchy in the fifties. Nasser had built an ambitious totalitarian system, keeping an iron grip on every aspect of life only to have Sinai taken by Israel in the humiliating war of 1967, his socialist-cum-nationalist edifice crashing down.
The Nasserist bourgeoisie were obsessed with education as a prerequisite of social mobility. Despite their talk of the dispossessed, they continued to look down on manual labour and despise the cultural substance of the provinces. Moralist party hacks at heart, they were conservative, anti-decadence. They could only see Sadat’s realism – peace with Israel, for example – as a betrayal of principles, one that Adaweyah’s onomatopoeic baby sounds in the track ‘Elsah Eldah Embo’ would loudly, insolently echo.
Skidding and braking, enter the Savage Seventies. With Lebanon at war, the nightclub scene servicing oil-rich holiday makers from the Gulf countries becomes a kind of little Las Vegas.
Theatre is being reduced to star-driven cabaret-style comedy; and only the B-movies known after their producers as ‘contractors’ films’ can be financed. These typically involve a comedian, a belly dancer and an urban folk singer in a kind of romantic comedy with a moral; Adaweyah appeared in twenty-seven of them.
There rises, alongside the gaudy Gulfies and their curvy courtesans, a provincially rooted nouveau riche of artisans turned entrepreneurs, more-import-than-export types as contemptuous of socialism as they are of education and bureaucracy. They are the ones with the money, and they have coarse and carnal tastes.
Suddenly the patrons of tarab are less interested in Omm Kulthoum looking like a slab of rock on stage as she delivers one of her nearly incomprehensible classic love poems than something vaguely electronic to which a belly dancer can perform, stripper like, in one of the expensive establishments lining the Pyramids Road. Only the lighter side-kick of ‘Arabic music’ has any chance in the new market.
By lighter side-kick I mean the formalised ballad-type stuff based on folk tunes and performed by vocal giants who had operated alongside the idols of the sixties, people like Mohammad Al Ezabi, Mohammad Abdel Muttelleb, and Mohammad Roushdi – from one of whose songs, ‘Adaweyah’, the legend reportedly got his stage name. This music was called shaabi (or folk), but it wasn’t indigenous shaabi like the shaabi that uses all-Egyptian instruments, relies on very simple tunes and, like rai, stresses not tarab but vocal force.
It was shaabi-flavoured oriental, almost as popular as oriental proper, but its champions never commanded the kind of kudos given to the state-stamped talents of the Golden Age. Unbeknown to Abdel-Halim Hafez wannabes, it was amongst these, less glamorous types that the next big thing was born.
With a tune by a Cairo Conservatoire graduate and early pop musician, Hani Shenoudah, ‘Zahma’ (or ‘Crowded’) was Adaweyah’s first and arguably his all-time prototypical hit.
Its accordion-and-studio liveliness, counterbalanced with moving ney solos, made it artistically as well as commercially viable:
It’s crowded on my way to him
And I’m hemmed in by the crowd
Have stuff to say, need him to hear me out
This way none of it will get to him
Finally he gave me a date
And I’m going to miss my date…
Together with Abu Etman’s street cant, the wryness of its melodic phrases played with and parodied the oriental love song. The sheer poignancy of its tempo, no less moving for being fast, belied all that bullshit about ‘authenticity’ and high culture.
By the time it came out in 1972, shaabi no longer meant folk, which is now generally referred to using the complete phrase al musiqa al sha’biyya (‘folk music’). Shaabi meant urban folk – the same arresting sound that drove you to that Stella-dispensing kiosk some time in 1998 when, taking in toxins, balancing and slipping in the ground, you were bumping along on your feet. Cairo breathing:
Crowded, my world, you’re crowded
Crowded, and I’ve lost my loved ones
You’re crowded and there’s no mercy
No saint at this saint’s anniversary…
It is music – here’s the thing – that breaks through Nasser’s cultural traffic jam. Like the nineties’ literary prose poetry that would be partly inspired by it, it is candid and physical and everyday. It mimics life as it is, without value judgements, never trying to make things look like they’re supposed to to bring them in line with an abstract idea. In sound as in meaning, it keeps away from theory, let alone dogma.
Shaabi stands in contrast to the Student Movement’s best known anthem-making duo, the poet Ahmad Fouad Negm (d. 2013) and the blind composer-singer Imam Eissa (d. 1995). Their work might be emotionally compelling but it was so musically and culturally traditionalist, with the benefit of hindsight you could reasonably call it putrescent.
Unlike Negm-Imam’s underground patriotic, urban folk dismantled political grand narratives about the rich abusing the poor and showed up rhetorical morality for the laughable lie it is. Even before Sinai was recaptured in the 1973 war, shaabi not only celebrated wisecracking and eating with a spoon (as opposed to a knife and fork), it deemed song-worthy even the bastards who beg professionally for a living.
Without paying lip service to ‘the people’, it toasted the illiterate intersection.
‘Zahma’ set a standard for the kind of love song that isn’t really a love song – or, dealing with romance experientially, world-wearily, the kind that really was about love in this and no other city: the overcrowded and merciless jerkwater megalopolis. It brought the emotive cliches idealised in the Nasserists’ by now untenable heavens back down into Sadat’s quivering asphalt – salutary.
In the course of one, partly improvised track, Adaweyah takes the title phrase of a classic Abdel Halim number – ‘Nar ya habibi nar’ (or ‘Fire, my love, fire’) – and, instead of repeating it as Abdel Halim does in the original, cites a working-class menu item that rhymes with it for no apparent reason: ‘Ful bel zeit el har’ (or ‘Beans with linseed oil’).
This, not the dogmatic rhetoric of Nasser’s one-party system – nor the seventies activism that tugged at its end like a child drawing out an infinitely long booger – was progressive, equitable discourse: revolutionary. Notions of engagement and commitment, the kind of thing that informed anti-Sadat and anti-peace activism as well as singing: it truly fucked them in the ass. And it had a good time doing it, too.
Shaabi lived on past the Inane Eighties and through the Nervous Nineties – the time when Sadat’s Cold War policy of propping up political Islam to fight Nasserists and ‘socialists’ boomeranged and led to his own assassination. Besides that, it cost the country a decade-long war against terrorists under the third dictator, Hosny Mubarak (1981-2011). It would cost a lot more once Mubarak was ousted.
In that time, shaabi branched off into sub-genres, all of whose champions recognised Adaweyah as godfather.
Shaaban Abdel Rehim (b. 1957) chanted a basic flow to a simple melodic rhythm, always the same, to create a kind of hip hop shaabi.
Hassan Al Asmar (b. 1959) focused on the mawwal (or ballad) to which the genre had blood relations, handing down longish confessionals like ‘Book of my life’ – blues shaabi.
Hakim (b. 1962) amphetamine-ised the cheerful side of the music to make viable dance shaabi.
There have been many others besides those three.
Braying, bawling and crashing are the raw material for the rough, magnificent thing you’re playing on your iPod as, in 2013, you drive through the streets of Cairo. It’s been fifteen years since you first rediscovered Adaweyah, three since the Revolution that toppled Mubarak so unexpectedly it looked miraculous, and you’re reviewing the fate of someone who seems both essential and totally irrelevant to events.
Over two decades starting in the mid-seventies, while pop was insidiously preparing to overshadow everything else, dozens of shaabi stars had shorter or longer twinkling spasms. But your man remained at the wheel until a passing affair nearly killed him in 1998 – by uncanny coincidence, the year you made your rediscovery:
Some Kuwaiti prince – later executed for drug dealing in Kuwait – was apparently so pissed off with the singer’s intrusion on his harem that he spiked Adaweyah’s drink with a speedball at one of Cairo’s five-star hotels. For a long time the claim was the prince then had a Swiss surgeon expertly castrate the singer, but it’s now generally accepted that it was just a stroke. It kept Adaweyah out of the public sphere for over a decade. As a performer he was never to recover from it.
With a grimy towel, another troll is making a show of wiping your windscreen so you’d have to hand over some coins while the traffic stalls. You blow your horn preemptively to tell him you’re not interested. And, as he spits on the tyre, shuffling menacingly before he moves on, you suddenly see how little ‘revolution’ has affected the ugliness that while not necessarily brought about, was definitely uncovered by Sadat.
You see it in the pollution and the garbage, the pointless and hopeless rush, the hawk- and leech-like behaviour of peddlers, the impossibly inconsiderate attitude of drivers to one another, the chaos, the deafening microphones playing bad shaabi and Quran, the ultimate paralysis of motion.
It’s ugliness that Mubarak – busy managing terrorists, then hogging the yield of slow privatisation à la crony capitalism – made no effort to control. But had he done, would it have made much difference?
Just as the sound crescendoes and you’re awed – ‘My heart is not a theatre/for your acting hobby’ – it occurs to you that Adaweyah is to these streets exactly what the original folk balladeers were to Upper Egypt. His voice is so awesome it ‘stops the birds in the sky’, as it used to be said of that extinct real thing.
The most famous of these was immortalised in a latter-day mawwal (and sixties film) that tells of how Hassan the Singer – a real life character from 1910s Minya – was beheaded by the brothers of the girl who fell in love with him on hearing him (from the window) at a wedding in her village, Naimah. When Naimah leaves the sanctity of the home and goes over to Hassan’s in his village, he chivalrously protects her innocence, placing her in the same room as his mom. But the gentile maiden’s association with a common singer has marked her landowning family’s reputation with a stain only blood could remove.
It kind of resonates with the Kuwaiti-prince debacle that effectively killed Adaweyah’s career, considering the father of all shaabi, like Hassan, ‘sang – art all through the nights/and was invited to entertain at wedding nights’.
When he embarks on one now in the car speakers – ‘I’m the one who cast the dice and they did not reward me once’ – you remember Adaweyah never gave up the mawwal even as it was the short fast tracks that consolidated his reputation. The mawwal remained the more taxing test of his voice, and no true singer would balk at the prospect of being tested, would they? You feel like you’re on the verge of a great new idea about the meaning of this music.
But already you’re negotiating your way past three masses of traffic moving at the same time in three different directions, a guttersnipe is clinging to your window, pushing a huge odourless rose in your face – the contrast between his face and the rose recalls Jean Genet, suddenly – and a pedestrian whose foot you apparently brushed is slamming the hood of the car with all the force of two fists furious with car owners. Braking for a moment until the horns urge you on, you shut your eyes and hand yourself over to the voice.
The power and beauty of the voice was something no one stressed in the early debate on Adaweyah’s validity as an artist, though Abdel Wahhab and Abdel Halim both acknowledged it on hearing him. In this moment of darkness, bedlam clanging, you realise there is something supra-musical about the timbre – aside from sheer hoarseness, I mean, the reverberating depths and shingly shores – something that, just as the music itself is traffic noise transformed, makes a persuasive case for rarefied groaning.
As you finally ease your way into an empty stretch of corniche, a cool breeze blowing in through the window and another mawwal ringing in your ears, it’s clear the idea you just got about the meaning of Adaweyah’s music has something to do with the pain embedded in the timbre of his voice. But you still have no way of articulating it.
Now while raising the volume of this new mawwal you accidentally put the iPod on shuffle, and the next sound that trickles into your ear space is not Adaweyah nor even shaabi but something close enough. It is a mahragan, the post-2000 genre you’ve often thought of as the shaabi song’s worthiest heir, practically invented by two very young uneducated men from the slummy suburb of Amireyah, Oka and Ortega.
Basically urban folk on a synthesiser, the mahragan is shaabi’s post-pop comeback. The word means ‘festival’, a reference to its earliest use as dance music at shanty-town weddings. It is an R&B-like electronic fusion of rap and blues that uses basic modal tunes, hugely improving on Shaaban Abdel Rehim’s flow to conduct a kind of dialogue between the two performers’ voices, whether amplified or pitch-altered.
Like Adaweyah’s best, the mahragan is a celebration of the real: social commentary sans commitment. It adds to the street noise from which shaabi was forged all the electronic sounds incorporated into life since the seventies, and it speeds things up in tandem.
Pulling over near an old woman who serves tea by the water – comparing the mahragan to shaabi, the Sadat era score – you’re thinking Oka and Ortega are not so much the soundtrack to Mubarak as to the Arab Spring: music’s own revolution. This is the forlorn, bouncy whimper with which Egypt’s first experiment in nation building ends.
Then comes the vroom of machinery – so overpowering it forces even the Nasserists still complaining about Adaweyesque decadence to recognise Adaweyah himself as an heirloom of ‘the age of beautiful art’.
Before Oka and Ortega have appeared on the scene, they’re reading principled ideology into Abu Etman’s slangy lyrics. The 1969 track ‘Get well, Ommo Hassan’ speaks of an elderly woman (Hassan’s Mama, as she’s called) struck by both ‘the flu that’s going around’ and the evil eye. Does this woman, they’re asking, stand in for Egypt in the throes of defeat? Was Adaweyah subliminally rallying the forces of the wounded motherland? Could it be that, all along, he was actually part of the struggle?
Nothing could be more ridiculous, but still it strikes a chord. In a sense Adaweyah was a product of the mass immigrations into Cairo from the provinces made possible by Nasser’s ‘progressive’ policies.
If not for Nasser cutting short the monarchy’s late attempt to build a modern European-style city in the empty space between the earliest two Islamic settlements, Misr and the Fatimid Qahirah, the marriage of oriental to folk music could never have happened. If not for the resulting encroachment of provincial decay on the nascent urban space, shaabi would never have been born of that marriage.
This, then, is the idea that’s been dogging me about the meaning of Adaweyah’s music, its implications for postcolonial nation building. As much as a smear on a certain kind of postcolonial idealism, Adaweyah is among the positive, unintentional consequences of that idealism in practice. As much as nationalist high culture’s scourge, he is the culture of nationalism. The Cairo that speaks through Adaweyah is, after all, neither the slick metropolis attempted by the Khedive Ismail Pasha (1863-97) nor the architecturally rich Islamic city the pasha inherited.
Nor is that Cairo quite the grassroots provinces that have so hideously usurped it. That magic pain in Adaweyah’s voice – the hoarseness that makes it so distinctive – it grows specifically out of traffic: the provincial predicament in an urban space, distress and dysfunction. Cairo groaning:
It is the pain of centuries of suppression that Nasser’s heroic cry in the dark failed miserably to lift, the pain of the loss of both Turkish-flavoured modal improvisation and the indigenous music that uses all-Egyptian instruments, the pain of knowing that this is as kind as the motherland will ever get. Nor will it be just these things any longer.
When, in 2011, the young, web-savvy activists led the masses onto the city centre in an unprecedented act of protest to dismantle the republic founded by Nasser – to what ultimate end, we have yet to find out – the conflicts of which Adaweyah was part, socialism vs. capitalism and moralism vs. realism, could no longer matter.
The only thing that could matter was the ‘second republic’ promised by the ouster of Mubarak. And, whatever it is going to look like, whatever it’ll do to music, the second republic will make ‘Zahma’ sound like the relic of something old and awesome and no longer attainable. It will make shaabi a stage in the development of ‘Arabic music’.
Already, by the time you fell in love with him in 1998, Adaweyah was nostalgia in the making.