Western-style music bands losing popularity in Egypt
Pop and rock singers are forced to shift to Arabic singing to be able to work.
Ray of hope. Veteran singer Amr Yehia performing on stage. (Amr Hussein)
2017/07/02 Issue: 113 Page: 23
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.