For nearly a century, Egypt had an exceptionally large and varied musical output that established Cairo as the capital of entertainment in the Middle East. The period extended from the late 19th century into well into the 20th century. Although it has fallen on hard times in recent years, Egypt continues to live on a reputation gained in an era that is affectionately referred to as la belle époque.
To this day, songs from that time continue to dominate popular music across the Arab world. Watch Arab Idol, The Voice or any other TV talent show and you cannot fail to notice that a big portion – if not the majority – of the songs chosen by the young contestants are from that tradition.
Like much else in Egyptian social and political life, it was the encounter with Western culture that sparked a period of unprecedented musical efflorescence. Egypt was briefly occupied by Napoleon Bonaparte (1798-1801), then colonized by the British for more than seven decades (1881-1956). The encounter, although oppressive and violent in some respects, eventually gave rise to a new kind of musical expression, and instruments such as the violin, piano, contrabass, trumpet and accordion were introduced to the traditional orchestra.
New genres and styles were adopted and adapted such as the waltz, tango and samba, creating an exciting fusion that appealed to the Arab ear. One of the early innovators, the prolific Mohamed el-Qasabgi (1892-1966), copied extensively from Western music.
One of his best known songs was ‘Ana Albi Dalili’, an Oriental waltz composed for the diva of her time, Leila Mourad. The song is still popular. Like many of these songs, this too was composed for the burgeoning film industry.
Waltz was also the style of choice for another hit from the same era, ‘Layali al Ouns fi Vienna’, composed by Farid al-Atrash (1917-1074) for his sister Asmahan, a big star at the time. The fusion of traditional Arab singing (known as tarab) and Western melodies is unmistakable.
The man widely acknowledged as the father of this revolution is Sayed Darwish (1892-1923). He was a day labourer before becoming a bohemian composer and singer in the cabarets and clubs of Alexandria, which was at the time a cosmopolitan hub that attracted talent from all over Europe.
He is credited with revolutionizing the sound of Arabic music by taking it out of the palaces of the rich and making it of and about the people. Professor Frederic Lagrange of Sorbonne University in Paris wrote about him, ‘In the modern Arab historiography of music, Sayed Darwish has become an icon symbolizing Progress, Modernity and the shift from the ”Oriental music”, an elitist music made for Pashas and still bathing in the original Ottoman matrix, to “Egyptian music”, the first figuralist expression of a people’s soul and their nationalist demands.’
While before him songs were restricted to two major themes, love and religious chanting, Darwish introduced totally new themes. He sang about the country life of peasants and itinerant labourers, and he even championed the cause of Egyptian women. This was accompanied by a large collection of traditional songs about hopelessly unrequited love, which he composed and sang with a great deal of wit and wanton abandon. His songs also exemplified the political awareness of the time as Egypt struggled to rid itself of British domination, a struggle with which he became closely associated through his art. His song ‘Beladi’, the lyrics of which are based on a speech by the nationalist leader Mustafa Kamel, has become Egypt’s national anthem.
Several of his songs continue to be popular among young people and have become almost synonymous with Arab folklore, even though they are very Egyptian in vocabulary and spirit. These include ‘El-Helwa Di Amet Tegen’, a song dedicated to the Egyptian peasant and the beauty of rural life, and ‘Salma Ya Salama’, composed to celebrate the return of Egyptians who were conscripted to fight alongside the British in the First World War. Here is an interpretation by Fayrouz, the great Lebanese singer, of ‘Teleet Ya Mahla Nourha’, a song about the simple peasant life.
Darwish died prematurely at the age of 30, from causes that have never been clear. However, the momentum for change had been created, and several of his contemporaries continued what he had started. Foremost among them were the composers Riad al-Sounbati (1906-1981), Mohamed el-Qasabgi (1892-1966) and Mohamed Abdel-Wahab (1902-1991). In fact, the musical scene for much of the 20th century was dominated by Abdel-Wahab, who was a prolific singer and composer well into his eighties. He left behind him a huge musical repertoire, the majority of which was made up of songs composed for the stars of the time such as Abdel Halim Hafez, Fayza Ahmad, Sabah, Warda and Nagat el-Saghira. Most them were love songs, but a few were also nationalist in tone.
Alongside Abdel-Wahab was a younger generation of composers – including Kamal el-Taweel, Mohamed el-Mougi and Baleegh Hamdi – whose melodies have survived them by decades and are still extremely popular. But it was not only the composers who made this musical renaissance possible. In fact, what made this era exceptional was the fortuitous coming together of great musical talent – composers, singers and lyrical poets/songwriters. Together, they propelled this artistic engine and left a great legacy behind.
At the top of the musical tradition of la belle époque is the Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum (1898-1975). Although an impressive singer by all accounts, it is arguable whether she could have become the towering figure she did across the Middle East without the lyrics by poets such as Ahmad Rami, Beiram el-Tounsi or Kamel el-Shenaoui, or without composers like al-Sunbati, el-Qasabgi and Abdel-Wahab.
Although she passed away well over 40 years ago, her songs have become part of the soundscape of contemporary Egypt, second only to that of Koranic recitation.
The first song Abdel-Wahab composed for her in the 1960s, ‘Inta Omri’, is a modern classic that has crossed the cultural and, crucially, the political divide. This rendition is by the Israeli singer Sarit Hadad.
Although la belle époque was largely an Egyptian phenomenon, some of the great composers and singers were not from Egypt. Major talents moved to Egypt from the Levant and North Africa. For instance, Farid al-Atrash and his sister Asmahan were Lebanese; Warda, an Algerian, was among the best and best loved singers and is an integral part of this musical heritage.
Nothing exemplifies the reach and endurance of this tradition better than when young singers on today’s talent shows choose to display their musical prowess by performing a song by, say, Umm Kulthum, Leila Mourad or Sabah.
Here, for example, a young Lebanese girl overwhelms the audience and judges alike with her near-perfect rendition of a Leila Mourad classic.
Another performance that particularly stands out is this one by five young men – Saudi, Iraqi, Palestinian and two Egyptians – singing Abdel-Wahab’s Oriental tango ‘Balash Tebosni fi Einayya’.