The Egyptian singer and actor passed away in Cairo on Sunday 14 August 2011, after a battle with lung cancer. Zein rose to prominence as a singer in the 1970s before becoming a well known actor in the late 1990s
Born in Alexandria in 1955, Talaat Zein moved to Cairo in the mid-1970s. He shared a flat with a vocalist of the Bell Boys, one of the popular Egyptian bands of the 1970s. At the time the Beatles exercised a worldwide influence and many young musicians in Egypt formed bands performing covers as well as original compositions.
Zein’s interest in music started early. What maintained and strengthened it was his friendship with Bell Boys band members. One of the BellBoys, Mounir Nassif, has warm memories of him imprinted in his mind. “He was a lovely person and a very good singer. He did not sing with us, however, because he soon he joined Les Petits Chats,” Nassif refers to the beginnings of Zein’s singing career in perhaps the best known Egyptian band of the 1970s, whose members included the renowned tenor Sobhi Bedair, the composer Omar Khairat, the actor Ezzat Abu Ouf as well as Wagdi Francis, Omar Khorshed and Sadek Kellini.
Zein joined the band after Bidair and Kellini left it. At the time, Les Petits Chats was extremely popular in Egypt and the Middle East, and it quickly placed his voice in the spotlight. Back in the 1960s and 1970s, besides popular interest in Arabic music, many sought out western sounds. They found them in Les Petits Chats, Black Coats, the Bell Boys and other bands, in which singers could flourish, gaining tremendous popularity. For many years, Zein remained faithful to the western repertoire and its influence. Apart from Les Petits Chats, Zein also performed solo or in duets, on stages as well as in Cairo bars.
The singer Mazher Abdel Moneim met Zein at the beginning of the 1970s. “His unique voice and huge stage presence made him the biggest star of western singing in Egypt. I have not seen such a talent until now,” he remembers. “We performed together for three years, in the mid-1980s. It was a wonderful experience to sing with such a remarkable person who at the same time was very humble. He found his way into people’s hearts without any effort.”
Kamal Emile, guitarist and composer, was among the closest friends of Zein. “Before coming to Cairo, we were both living in Alexandria, where we met there. We were attached to the musical field yet our professional paths as musicians did not meet until the end of 1999.” Emile and Zein performed together for ten years in a variety of Cairo locations, in a trio formation.
1980s brought about a significant decline in western music interest, affecting visibility of musicians faithful to this style. “Our generation’s musical culture was shaped by different influences present in our times. We got older and new trends started emerging, pushing away the music we were representing. At certain moment, in the 1980s, there was a slight return to western music but in small formations. Many outlets could no longer provide space for big bands; that’s why musicians started depending on solo performances or performed in duets or trios,” Emile explains how in order to stay visible Zein started looking for a different art form.
In 1995, Zein’s appearance in the Arabic song Raga’in (We are coming back), one of Amr Diab’s popular hits, brought him closer to the expectations of a market dominated by Arabic pop music. Zein himself justified this move as a response to the altered expectations of the audience. “If you want to earn your bread, you have to give people what they want to hear,” Zein remarked in a 2003 interview. Still, he never tired of saying that he sings for the joy of it and to please the audience.
“Zein’s choice to appear in music video was partially due to encouragement from Ezzat Abu Ouf, his friend from Les Petits Chats, who plays piano in the same video, and on the other hand it was an opportunity which could bring visibility to him as an artist,” Emile comments. As expected, Raga’in gave a boost to Zein’s career.
In the late 1990s, Zein started appearing in minor but distinctive roles in Egyptian movies. Among his first and most significant roles was that of Anwar Sadat, the former president of Egypt, in the biopic titled Gamal Abdel Nasser (1998). In 2001, he acted in Africano, an adventure comedy taking place in a safari park in South Africa, followed by appearances in films such as: Qalb Garee’ (Brave Heart, 2003), Ezzai Tikhali El Banat Tihibak (How to Let Girls Love You, 2003), Ahlam Omrena (Dreams of Our Age, 2005), Mateegi Norqos (Shall We Dance, 2006), El-shayatin: El-Awdah (Return of the Devils, 2008).
Emile sees Zein’s acting as a process that was mutually beneficial – for the singer and for the Egyptian cinema. “Films gained an important artist while Zein found yet new outlet for his artistic expression. At the same time it brought him more audience and fans.”
Zein has recorded four albums which include many original songs, in western style as well as later Arabic styles. Zein has also added some covers, known international hits with Arabic words such as the Arabic version of the Macarena. “Many covers sung by Zein, whether in English or Arabic, had his specific personal signature and many audience members were eager to listen to them performed by Zein, classifying it as their favorite version,” Emile recalls.
Talaat Zein is not only remembered as a great voice and an actor in a handful of Egyptian movies. His love for people and friendships he developed along his life path are alive in hundreds of people who knew him. Like Nassif and Abdel Moneim notice, Emile emphasizes Zein’s charisma. “Life was not always easy for Zein, but he was a great fighter. He paved his own way to success and while doing so, he always remained humble. His contagious laughter, his sense of humor and the endless beautiful stories he kept telling pulled people closer to him. Throughout his years, he kept all his relations with people warm and vibrant and he will be fondly remembered by many.”
Zein’s health problems started in 2009 and by December his condition was deteriorating, despite treatments in Egypt and UK. He is survived by wife and two sons, as well as thousands of artists and audiences who loved him dearly as a musician and a man of soul.