Prior to his upcoming concert with Ghalia Benali, Ahram Online talks to Fathy Salama about his plans and explores his views on music in Egypt, looking into what he calls ‘wrong’ concepts that rule the underground scene
Published in Ahram Online and Al Ahram Weekly
As per tradition, the Cairo Opera House adds its share to Cairo’s Ramadan calendar in the city. Yet this year the Opera’s share is smaller limited to one location: the Open Air Theatre. With less variety on offer, the Ramadan Evenings nonetheless come with a fair selection of Egyptian artists, troupes from Indonesia and Sudan. Among the names performing are Mohamed Mohsen, violinist Hassan Sharara and guitarist Emad Hamdy, the Oriental Takht troupe, Nesma Abdel-Aziz on marimba and the Eskenderella band, among others.
Joined by the Belgium-based Tunisian singer Ghalia Benali, Fathy Salama will take the stage on 14 July. A Grammy and BBC award winner, Salama is a well established in Egypt and internationally recognised. This is not the first time he has collaborated with Benali.
Nor is this Benali’s first appearance in Egypt. According to Salama, this is but one of step in a cooperative process hopefully to conclude with an album production. Through his decades-long career, Salama has cooperated with numerous artists from Egypt and the region.
His biography includes a long list of artistic activities, all testifying to creative dynamism: composition, arrangement of music for the best-known Egyptian singers, movie scores and collaborations — with the Senelagese Youssou N’Dour, Cesaria Evora — the “Barefoot Diva” from Cape Verde, acclaimed American jazz guitarist Al Di Meola and Norwegian jazz musician Trygve Seim, to name but a few.
In Egypt and beyond Salama’s name is also synonymous with several projects, the Sharkiat band being one of the most important among them. Indeed it has become an essential component of Egypt’s contemporary music scene, described by critic Rabah Mezouane as music that interlaces the popular and the oriental, the funky and the jazzy, resulting in “the rush of a merry mixture, rich in tones and explosive in tones.”
Apart from exploring boundless terrain of jazz, Salama also uses electronic music and traditional Egyptian sounds, interweaving Western and Oriental cultures into one vibrant musical melting pot, further enriched by collaborations. Salama is also known for the series of music workshops which for over the last decade have contributed to the creative development of several Egyptian musicians and bands: Wust El-Balad, Amir Eid from Cairokee, Masar Egbari, Dina El-Wedidi, among others.
Though he maintains links with the young breed of independent musicians, Salama sets his expectations high. His seemingly harsh remarks about Egypt’s independent music scene might raise the eyebrows of some listeners and gain the quiet approval of others but they will no doubt leave the devoted followers and supporters of the music in question frustrated. Salama does appreciate individual talents, and he concedes there are many of them, too — he mentions Dina El-Wedidi as an example — but he feels the overall direction of independent music is wayward, with the concepts informing underground music being often (as he puts it) wrong. “What is the underground?” Salama asks rhetorically.
“The underground scene furnishes new ideas, which have not made it to the surface yet. But most – I don’t want to say all – Egyptian independent musicians sound pretty much all the same. The underground introduces new ideas or gives new directions and none of that is the case today. Wust El Balad band used to be underground, before they went commercial, while the multitude of bands that followed are simply variations of Wust El Balad; with the possible exception of Cairokee, since they are more rockish. Most of Egypt’s bands use the same chords, a little bit of country, bluegrass, mild rock topped with a lot of easy listening and Western pop elements.”
Salama cites the genre known as Mahraganat as probably the only true novelty in Egypt’s independent music, linking its beginnings to the true underground spirit. “Mahraganat is an Egyptian version of hip-hop. Emerging from poor neighbourhoods, it is very natural, and likewise different. On a technical level, they’ve replaced typical hip-hop rhythms with maqsoum [the rhythmic pattern characteristic to Middle Eastern music], translated into hip-hop traditions. This resulted in an interesting fusion. Though I might have critical remarks about the directions it took later on, becoming – again – quite commercial, the moment it emerged, Mahraganat was a classic example of what can be called underground.”
Not only does Salama question the principles that control the underground or independent scene in Egypt, he also suggests that especially during the months that followed the revolution, many young musicians fell under a false impression that there is a sustainable demand for their productions. He points to an audience – in Egypt and internationally – characterised by thirst for political commentaries.
“This music is easily digested and extremely repetitive. There are no melodies, however, and as such people do not listen to the music itself. What people want to listen to are the lyrics – spoken words, lyrics over a tune – all provided in some sort of a musical ambiance.” Salama explains that even if some of those musicians find substantial interest in the international arena, this interest results more from curiosity linked to political developments, a good selling point. “The existence of those musicians is a one-time thing because it is connected to a specific situation, which actually is finished,” and so these young musicians’ fame will be very short-lived.
Looking into the flavours that the bands in question are employing, what is more, Salama seems puzzled by the contradiction between the motivation behind a given number and the tools used to perform it. “I am very confused when I listen to a musician who sings lyrics attacking the west or about the grassroots Egyptian revolution using western music. You end up with western chords and someone singing Arabic lyrics. Those songs have nothing to do with the country; they do not speak to the Egyptian street.” He goes on to point to the supposedly popular underground musicians whose fan base, “despite their own convictions… remains very limited. Think about the crowd attending the concerts, the fans following those musicians. Let’s say they are five, six, seven thousand — or even more. This is still a very limited circle,” Salama explains, indicating that in a country of over 80 million, this music reaches a tiny fraction of Egyptians.
As a devoted promoter of music education, Salama underlines that though some young people have talent and (some) ideas, “talent is not enough to sustain a valuable musical journey. This is where education should step in. Most of the so-called independent musicians do not do their job, they are too busy making money and running after popularity and, by the way, this very attitude is exactly the opposite of what ‘underground’ means.”
Salama sees this confusion in the context of the many difficulties that the country is going through. He does not limit his analysis of the difficulties to the last three years, but also looks into the many decades of modern Egyptian history. “When nobody works on the education, it is natural that everything will eventually come down. Culture is the identity of the country. This culture will not come from a vacuum. The country is suffering and music is only a small part of a bigger whole. Remember that there are always strong reciprocal relations between the audience (the people) and the artist. The people represent what is happening in the country, and artists are part of the equation.”
Individual talents are all very well, but “we are country of several dozen millions”, and it will take a long time for the situation to improve. “Culture will not improve unless everything improves. This needs a huge amount of time, work, dedication, clear long-term planning and a very efficient government. As the proverb says, ‘Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.’ Until now, we, Egyptians, are very short-sighted,” Salama says. And narrowing those thoughts to the music field, he goes on to say that “music is a responsibility, it is a job like any other job that one needs to learn, practice and develop.”
The continuity embedded in those values, he explains, is one of the most important elements of musicianship. Any successful musician’s life begins with talent that is then shaped by dedication, education and hard work. “If you want to be a good musician who masters the musical craft, you need education; there is no way around it.”
And that is perhaps why Salama is involved in workshops he conducts single-handedly or in collaboration with other musicians, in Egypt and internationally. In the workshops held in Egypt, Salama likes to use the material provided by the participants, since some musicians come with their own songs. He shows them how to take the arrangement further, how to produce the finished song, and in this process he tackles many theoretical issues, deepens the attendees’ knowledge about arrangement, form etc.
One of his ongoing educational endeavours is teaching under the Talents Development Centre at the Cairo Opera House. And a part of his project with Ghalia Benali, Salama’s upcoming commitments include concerts in Egypt as well as the USA and Norway as well as plans to perform in other European countries.