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Egypt tunes in to nostalgia for golden age of Arab song

China Daily | Updated: 2019-02-12 09:42

Singers warm up in a recording studio in the Egyptian capital Cairo on January 29. MOHAMED EL-SHAHED/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

CAIRO-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 of "Allah!", the mesmerized 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 Mamlukera 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, saw Cairo billed as the Hollywood of Arab song, attracting talent from across the region.

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.

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.

Luring the young

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), organized 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.

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

Sawt al-Qahira, or Sono Cairo, a historic record company, is betting on the internet, despite financial setbacks and ongoing legal battles over the copyright to Umm Kulthum songs.

Younger generations have also shown a renewed interest in the classics thanks to popular televised talent shows.

"Arab Idol, The Voice and others show people singing old songs," said Doaa Mamdouh, the company's internet services head, adding this has prompted many fans to dig out the original versions.

ASSPCIATED FRANCE - PRESSE

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