Egypt tunes into nostalgia for golden age of Arab song

CAIRO (AFP) – Standing before a rapt crowd, Ahmed Adel oozes charm with his passionate performance of an Egyptian classic, evoking a romantic nostalgia for Arabic songs of the past.

After a melodious introduction on the Oud, the famed oriental lute, Adel croons his way through a “Mawal”, a traditional melody boasting long vowels.

Ya leil’ (‘O night’), he sings, with the dreamy languor of the original performer, Egyptian legend Mohamed Abdel Wahab.

With cheers, the mesmerised audience shows its appreciation.

“Modern songs are a hit for a day or two, a month, or maybe a year, but then we do not hear about them any more.

“But Abdel Wahab and (Egyptian diva) Umm Kulthum have lasted until today,” said Adel, before his performance in the tiny Mamluk-era hall at the Arab Music Institute.

Egypt, a cultural powerhouse in the Arab world, has long enjoyed a booming music industry.

In the past, the rise of revered singers, such as Umm Kulthum, Abdel Wahab and another Egyptian Abdel Halim Hafiz among others, saw Cairo billed as the Hollywood of Arab song, attracting talent from across the region.

Egyptian classical Arabic music singer Ahmad Adel performs a song by celebrated 20th Century Egyptian composer Mohamed Abdel Wahab at the Arab Music Institute Theatre in Cairo. – PHOTOS: AFP
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But in the 1990s, Gulf countries vying for cultural dominance emerged as rivals to Egypt’s music industry, and Rotana, the Arab world’s largest record label, was formed in 1987.

The company is currently owned by businessman and Saudi prince, Al Walid bin Talal.

The 2011 uprising in Egypt that plunged the country into political and economic chaos also saw a downturn in the domestic music industry.

Yet the Egyptian metropolis remains alive with the sound of music.

Every day, in local cafes and homes the melancholic songs of Syrian-born star Asmahan and the tender rhythmic melodies of Egyptian singer Najat al-Saghira mix with animated conversations, modern pop music and Islamic chants.

Torn between stage fright and joy, Adel performs regularly at the Arab Music Institute paying tribute to his music idols.

During events such as the Khulthumiat (the music of Umm Kulthum) or Wahabiyat (the music of Abdel Wahab), organised by the 100-year old institute, Adel is often the lead singer with an entire troupe from the Cairo Opera House accompanying his powerful vocals.

“These events are very successful,” said Jihan Morsi, the seminal director of the opera’s Oriental Music department.

And to soar above Cairo’s 24-hour cacophony, she doesn’t just look to golden oldies.

“I bring (pop stars like) Angham, Saber El-Robai, Wael Jassar. They are beautiful voices that have an audience among the youth,” said Morsi.

Music production companies are also seeking to preserve the country’s music heritage through younger generations.