Western-style music bands losing popularity in Egypt

Sunday 02/07/2017
Ray of hope. Veteran singer Amr Yehia performing on stage. (Amr Hussein)

Cairo - “It’s a struggle.” The com­plaint is common among frustrated Egyptian singers who choose to perform in a language other than Ara­bic, which has limited their popu­larity and chances of finding work.

International genres, which were once popular in upper- and middle-class circles, are gradually being outstripped by Arabic music.

“The general taste is so different from what it used to be in the 1970s when international live music dom­inated nightclubs,” said Shehab Kasseb, a singer who rose to fame 15 years ago as the front man of popu­lar rock band Screwdriver.

“Rock bands were the main at­traction and Arabic singers and dancers were only given short per­formances but now international music fans have become a minor­ity,” he said.

Western and other foreign music is rarely played at Egyptian wed­dings because Arabic songs “get the party going” more than other gen­res. People favour the music for­mula introduced in the late 1980s, which features hand claps and per­cussion in every Arabic song and style.

Bassist Ezz Shahwan said inter­national songs lost their popularity in Egypt because few people spoke foreign languages.

“This has affected the general music culture,” Shahwan said. “Simple people are the vast major­ity of Egyptians. They don’t speak English, so they will not under­stand the lyrics and, even if they did, they will not relate to the top­ics of the songs.”

This led Shahwan to shift his fo­cus and play songs with the famous Arabic band Salalem. Countless other singers face a similar chal­lenge: They strive to perform in for­eign languages but find very little demand for the genres. Some end up singing in Arabic and the result is rarely impressive.

Kasseb’s band occasionally per­forms at weddings during which he sings jazz at the request of brides and bridegrooms but most Egyp­tians are not familiar with the gen­re.

“This is why I have to add my own touch,” he said. “I sing more modern songs by rock bands like Bon Jovi and Oasis but in swing or bebop styles and people enjoy that because they know the songs.”

In some of these venues, how­ever, Kasseb is asked to play Arabic songs.

Kasseb does not sing in hotels an­ymore because, he said, his band is underpaid, poorly appreciated and discouraged by hotel managers.

Instead, the hotels prefer to hire female singers who wear short dresses and sing in Arabic and Eng­lish to perform in lobby bars, re­gardless of their artistic standards. “In the old days, managers knew a lot about music and some even were musicians, so they knew how to choose performers and also how to treat them,” Kasseb said.

Even agents fail to get artists like Kasseb good deals, focusing instead on Arabic singers.

Artists such as veteran singer Amr Yehia still see a ray of hope. Yehia, who emerged in the 1980s and be­came one of Egypt’s best vocalists, sings rock and pop with Amr & the Big Bang Boogie Band, and jazz with the Cairo Big Band Society.

He said it was unfair to expect those who sing in foreign languages to be as popular as those singing in their mother tongue.

“We can’t deny that Egyptians have a good ear for music and ap­preciate quality,” Yehia said. “For instance, Julio Iglesias was very popular here despite singing in languages most Egyptians didn’t speak. People felt the sincerity in his singing, which proves that if you sing with real feelings you will be listened to, regardless of the lan­guage.”

He acknowledged, however, that finding regular contracts is not easy, even for Arabic singers com­peting over attractive venues.

The shrinking of the Western-inspired middle class in Egypt is largely linked to the drop in popu­larity of Western music, music spe­cialists said.

Years ago, each of Egypt’s venues had to have a band that played pop, rock, jazz, blues and even Broad­way show tunes. That lasted until the late 1980s but gradually prefer­ences changed with the dwindling of the middle class. By the end of that decade, rock bands were al­most non-existent in nightclubs.

Yehia, however, said he tries to perform as frequently as he can. He sings at weddings.

“This shows that some people are still willing to listen to international music on their very special occa­sions,” he said.