Sonntag, 27. Dezember 2015

The History of Shaabi Music

 Randa Kamel

The History of Shaabi Music
© Amina Goodyear

In the 1970's after the introduction and popularization of cassette tape recorders and their accompanying boom boxes, musicians and singers all over the world were able to sidestep the corporate world and self-produce and self-promote. There were several movements throughout the world that seemed to simultaneously create music in the genre called "cassette culture". Most notably this type of music was evident in England and the U.S. with punk music, in Jamaica with Reggae, in Algeria with Rai and in Egypt with Shaabi music. The literal origin of the word Shaabi (Sha’bi) in Egyptian Arabic is "of the common people". Here we will refer to it as music created by working class people, mainly of the younger generation.
Gamal Abdel Nasser, Egypt's president who gave Egypt back to the Egyptians died in 1970 and some of his nationalism died too.The policies of the government that followed opened the doors to the West. The working class people (Shaabi) with their rural roots were finally able to enjoy a little economic relief. Thanks to the newly oil rich Gulf Arabs hiring Egyptians and thanks to their tourism in Egypt, money flowed enough to make owning cassette players and boom boxes a staple in their homes. But in the 1970's Egypt also lost three of it's beloved singers - Farid al Atrache, Om Kalthoum and Abdel Halim Hafez. All this marked the end of Egypt's Golden Age and the era of pure love, unattainable love and repressed sexuality. It was time to move from fantasy and dreams to reality. The people needed to move on and were ready to declare war against the monied society and its conservative codes, the government, politics, corruption and just the general state of affairs in their miserable lives. True, there was a little more money flowing, but only enough to let them know that there really wasn't enough. With the readily available cassettes - commercially made, homemade and bootlegged - the Shaabi people were able to sustain a voice and it was no longer ruled by that Egyptian monopoly, RCA, the so-called " voice of the people".
The first well known Shaabi singer is undeniably Ahmed Adaweya. I like to call him the godfather of Shaabi music. He used his voice to sing songs of protest to various social injustices and veiled commentaries on the government and its policies and the cassettes he made spread the word. He was born in the mid 1940's in a working class (Shaabi) "hood" (harah) in the outskirts of Maadi, a district in the southern part of Cairo. He eventually moved to Mohamed Ali Street (also known as Shariaa al Fann -Street of the Artists) where he changed careers and gave up plumbing to work as a waiter in a café. There he was able to present folk songs and his popular mawaweel (pl. of mawwal or vocal improvisations, usually heart-wrenching). By the end of the 1960’s he went from singing at mulids (religious festivals) and street weddings to high-class weddings in hotels. In the early 1970s he was singing regularly in the clubs on Shariaa al Haram (Pyramids Road) and his popularity and his new sound sold millions of cassettes. With his baladi roots, his shisha smokers' raspy voice, his memorable mawal and sometimes satirical lyrics, his combination of modern and traditional instruments, and just his general gruffness and way of life, he provided a template for the Shaabi singers who followed him.
Shaabi music is the sound and voice of the working class people. Many of these people are first and second generation from the countryside and they brought their baladi sounds with them to the city. They combined the Egyptian folk music and traditional instruments with the urban classic or art music and modern western instruments. Although it may seem that there is disregard for the traditional and cultural in their songs, quite the opposite is true. Their music is actually more versed in the Egyptian vernacular than the music and songs of the upper class modernized and westernized Egyptians. (Our beloved Mohamed Abdel Wahab's music was quite influenced by European and Russian composers. His music probably gave permission for others to follow along the same vein. Some of Farid al Atrache's songs are good examples.)
The singer's voice, besides being emotional almost to the point of tears, quite often has a low, raw and raspy almost gruff edge. The singer may begin many of the songs with a plaintive mawal. This vocal improvisation like much of the mawaweel of traditional Egyptian songs may sing of love, but often will be couched with references of disdain for the government, corruption and the establishment and other social issues.The mawal usually does not have a rhythm, but it may be accompanied or answered by the traditional nai, or the modern accordion, saxophone or keyboard.The mawal tells of the beliefs and feelings of the singer and sets the emotional stage for the actual song. Ahmed Adaweya, Hasan al Asmar and Shaaban were known for their mawaweel (pl) and many times their mawal would be the song. Following the mawal and preceding the actual song and melody is usually a fast upbeat tempo (such as maqsoum saeria- double time maqsoum) played by the tabla.The song, short and fast, can sometimes be shorter than the mawal and can broach many subjects. The lyrics are usually simple, contain slang or street talk and may complain of many things such as the use or non-use of drugs and alcohol, poverty, work and money, love and marriage, food (which is usually used as a metaphor for sex) and just the general hopelessness of living and life in general. More recently the state of economy has brought about even more depression and many of the songs also appeal to a greater power.
These songs, used as a popular form of resistance, using humor, irreverence and street talk to mask the true meanings, are often censored in the governmental supported media. Through the cassette culture cottage industry, they are passed on from person to kiosk, to taxi drivers and microbuses, and on to the general popular public. More recently Shaabi styled artists such as Hakim and Saad have been "discovered" and their music, although sometimes censored locally, has nevertheless been promoted worlwide as the music of the youth "in-crowd" or the "hood" - music like hip hop and reggae - slightly bad, so it's really in.The cassettes are a cheap and easy way to distribute the music. Even the stars such as Hakim and Saad don't seem to object to their music being bootlegged because the sales and thus, their popularity, can eventually lead to big gigs in large venues - and this translates to big money.
Another newer method of passing on the Shaabi music has been through the more modern tools that are virtually accessible to all. This is the mobile phone and the internet. In the late 1900's the saying was "telephone, telegraph, tell an Arab". Now in the 21st century that funny little joke is a reality as the mobile and the internet indeed quickly spread the lyrical word.
Also there is a slew of new Shaabi musicians using the nomenclature DJ Mulid and DJ Sufi. They hang out at mulids (religious festivals) and remix songs for the youth to dance to. Many of these Shaabi songs latch onto the rising conservatism of the times.The songs of love and money and the lack of both, seem to focus more on social injustice, poverty and giving up drugs and alcohol.The melodies and remixes can be hypnotic and trance-like (as in a dhikr -repetitious invocations) and often invoke the aid of a higher being.This new music is quite popular in Shaabi weddings as the repetitive rhythms and lyrics pull the audience in and are quite danceable.
This modern urban musical style with its rural roots combines a very eclectic range of instruments from the most classic and traditional such as the riq, cymbals, large and small (tura and sagat), the nai and the kanoun to the western violins, accordion, saxophone, trumpet, electric keyboard and now the digital sounds of the computer.
Since the turn of the 20th century Mohamed Ali Street was the main Shaabi center of these urbanized baladi artists - artists who had their roots in the country. Today, thanks or no thanks to the gentrification of the historic parts of Cairo and the economic neccessities to move to the outskirts of Cairo such as to Feisal Street and Pyramids Road (southeast towards the pyramids and Giza), the new main Shaabi center for the baladi artists - the musicians and singers - is the mobile and the internet. The Shaabi neighborhoods are now linked - almost as in a virtual Shaabi center.




I am NOT the author. I just collect and share bellydance knowledge.


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