Advertisments for CDs in the street

Movie staring Dina

Waiting and listing music


Greetings from Cairo part IV
Published in Ishtar 1/2007

Tunes in Cairo

Music is important!

Without music there is no dance. Dance is expression of music. Dance is an instrument among the rest of the orchestra. All of this has been repeated countless of times. But it's still true in all its simplicity. Us Finnish dancers must learn both dance technique and interpretation of music throughout our path in dance. Arabic music differs completely from our own musical selection, classical as well as popular. In the beginning of the dance career it's good to break the ear in with small doses and leave the mizmar-heavy saidi pieces alone. We consciously learn things about a foreign culture. But how do the Egyptians themselves experience their own music? What do they listen to and why? What matters to them?

The loud streets

In Cairo music is everywhere. People get used to the crossfire of tunes as children. The stereos are blasting in cars, stores, streets, cafés and restaurants. The quality of sound is not that critical. A nice, scratchy, dusty cassette just adds to the atmosphere. The most important thing is to be able to hear the lyrics - what could be better than a singalong. Cassettes are still sold here, I haven't seen one car with a CD-player. One old - old by Finnish standards, but in excellent condition by the Egyptian ones - taxi had a brand new radio that was in a great shape. Meaning that it was just like the ones that come in cars sold in Finland, with a removable front panel you can take with you. After driving for a while the driver began to browse through the selection of music and - surprise surprise - pulled out a CASSETTE. Behind the front panel there was a space for a cassette. Cassettes are cheap here, so they can be purchased more often and with less income. One tape is a little over £E 10 (around 2 €) whereas CD's are many times more expensive.

The Egyptian lifestyle is slow and calm. Although people work long hours often in several jobs - in a government office in the morning, driving a taxi in the afternoon, as a portier in a hotel at night - many hours are still spent waiting around. The manager of a little shop sits at the storefront chatting with neighbors while waiting for customers, the cab driver cruises around Cairo one hour after the other, there is time for tea while ironing shirts at the laundromat. Music is a habit. It nicely accompanies chores. Singing some verses with friends makes time pass better when waiting around just killing the hours. At the same time it puts you in a good mood and allows you to leave any worries to Allah.

The lively parties

Music is an inseparable part of Egyptian celebrations. A wedding party must feature a live band or two playing the hottest hit songs of the moment. In Ramadan there are often musical and folkloric dance performances on streets and parks at night. Moulids have an atmosphere of a carnival. Certain songs and rhythms belong in certain celebrations. They create a festive mood and get people in good spirits. The main thing is that the volume is up.

The daily concerts

While cooking and doing their housework the women like to chat and listen to the radio. Cooking can easily take several hours, so music alleviates the monotoniousity of the work. The television is on often all day long and there are many music channels. Movies are also a popular choice. In the evening it's nice to sit with the family after dinner, talk about the events of the day and at the same time watch the work of famous actors. The range of movies shown is wide. There are old black and white films, productions from the 60's and the 70's and motion pictures of the 21st century. The entire history of Egyptian cinema can be reached by just pressing a button. Music and dance have been an unseparable part of movies since the early days of the film industry. These productions, filmed throughout the decades, are watched in Egyptian homes daily - over and over again.

What would you like for music?

The Western mainstream preference for music is scattered and divided into more and more subgenres. Different audiences have distinct profiles, and one star is no longer sold to the entire population. Big names such as the Beatles or Elvis are extremely difficult to create nowadays, and old stars aren't good enough for the new generation.

On the contrary, the Egyptian (and overall the Arabic) taste in music is very homogenic. They all love the same singers and songs regardless of age and gender. I asked several Egyptian acquaintances what kind of music they like and why. They all answered alike. They all named the same two singers: Umm Kalthom and Abdel Halim Hafiz are stars above all others. Ana Fi Intizarak and Ganal Howa make all listeners sing along with emotion. This theory has proven to be correct at many of my dance gigs. When the audience hears the first notes and recognizes the songs, smiles broaden and hands rise to clap to the rhythm.

All the arguments for the musical preferences presented by my friends were very similar. Old songs were said to have meaningful lyrics, to tell a story. These songs were filled with feeling and life. Listeners could reflect their own lives to the words of the songs. In different situations and moods they wanted to hear different singers. Old singers' vocal technique and their songs ranging from half an hour to almost an hour were appreciated aswell. However my younger friends considered any song that lasted more than fifteen minutes a bit too long.

There are other beloved singers besides Umm Kalthom and Abdel Halim Hafiz, but opinions on them weren't as identical. For instance Farid El Atrash was seen as a little old fashioned. Similarly today's music was considered very superficial, easy and meaningless. What was interesting is that Egyptians in general know numerous singers and their songs.

About the music industry

Selling music is a big business in Egypt. Although individuals don't have too much money to spend the quantities sold are huge. There are so many consumers. The lifespan of a song can be very short. Egyptians are very trend conscious. At its peak a hit song can be heard everywhere, all the time. But after a while some other song takes its place. Many different factors affect the lifespan and the popularity of a song: the singer's rating at the moment, the success of the music video, the other marketing and Allah. But the most important factor is money. The more money is spent on broadcasting the video clip on music channels or playing the song on the radio, the more likely people will jam to that particular beat. Combining movies with music creates hits. El Enab from a movie starring Dina and Saad el Soghayer is playing everywhere at the moment. Dina does not sing in the movie, but Saad is a famous shaabi singer. These days the majority of the top singers are Lebanese, like Nancy Agram. The singers' appearance is really important and most of them, especially women, have undergone improvements on the surgeon's table. Singers are associated with an image which is sold beside the music. At the end God only knows what will succeed and what will not.

My world of music

I have learned a lot about Egyptian music here. Many singers have become familiar to me and many songs have opened up in a whole new way. Deeper knowledge of music also strengthens the interpretation in dance. I encourage every dancer to listen more to Egyptian songs, especially old classics - original versions in particular, those nearly an hour long. And definitely have the lyrics translated. Many songs have English translations on the internet, so it's really up to you to make the effort.

I'd like to thank all my friends for the enlightening conversations.




Photo by Päivi Arvonen

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