Let’s Listen To Abdel Halim Hafez & Jay Z At The Same Time

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Among the most popular Arab singers of all time (maybe even to be included into the club of the Great Four of Arabic music), Abdel Halim Hafez was and still very much is an icon. That kind of ‘icon’ whose songs influence revolutions, like the 2011 Egyptian revolution – 35 years after his death.

His early life and music career could have been that of a Edith Piaf – only he was an orphan living in extremely poor Cairo, and not Paris.

Abdel Halim Hafez, 1929 – 1977

Like Piaf, Hafez was rejected for his style of singing in the early days of his career but moved on to become enjoyed by all generations. Unlike the French icon, the ‘King of Arabic Music’ never or rarely recorded a studio album, always performing in sold-out arenas and stadiums; sometimes with him playing many different instruments as well.

You have heard him – not just on your trip to any part of the Middle East. You wonder when? Whenever you listen to Jay Z’s ‘Big Pimpin’, know that producer Timbaland used two complete bars from Hafez’ song ‘Khosara’. (In fact, Jay Z is currently facing legal drama over this.) Listen below.

You know I, thug em, fuck em, love em, leave em. Cause I don’t fucking need em“: The ode to the ‘pimping’ lifestyle, meaning sex with girls without becoming emotionally attached to them – I’m quoting rap genius – Jay Z’s ‘Big Pimpin’ is not unfamiliar to your ears.

Hafez used the same melody decades earlier. I translated (and summed up) the lyrics for you. Let’s see what meaning he gave to the song as opposed to his admirer. Listen below.

What a loss, what a loss
Your separation, oh neighbour
My eyes are weeping for you with bitterness
What a loss
Every day I’ve been searching for you
Only to find out that I see life through you
My eyes are sleepless
My tears are bewildered
What a loss, what a shame

We forgive Jay Z though. Jay has reportedly expressed embarrassment for and disclaimed the song’s subject in years since: “I can’t believe I said that, and kept saying it. What kind of animal would say this sort of thing?” Hafez certainly wouldn’t.

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The Paris Of The Middle East

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In the period after World War II a number of artists emerged in Beirut, a fulcrum between oriental and occidental, most famously Fairuz, Sabah, Wadih El Safi, Majida El Roumi, Nasi Shemseddine, Ziad Rahbani and Marcel Khalifa.

Since then, Lebanese music has established itself as a symbol and leader of Arabic music. Today’s stars such as Najwa Karam, Diana Haddad, Nancy Ajram, Haifa Wehbe, Wael Kfoury, Assi El Helani, Fadhel Shaker and Elissa have become household names in many countries around the world.

But when exploring a country’s music, attention must not only be paid to its singers but also to its instruments. Lebanon’s traditional music incorporates the deep and mellow sounds of the Oud, the beautifully decorated Derbakki (a kind of drum also known as the Tabla) and the Deff (also known as the Riqq, corresponding to the English tambourine).

But if you really want to know all about Lebanese music, you will need to dance. Dabke is the national dance and the Lebanese people take particular pride in their skills in dabke dancing. Comparable to the Irish step dance or the Greek Hassapiko, songs such as Nasri Shemseddine’s ‘Ala Ali El Dar’ have the perfect beat.

Wadih El-Safi’s and Sabah’s songs had distinct nationalist tones, reflecting the fact that many Lebanese were among the first Arab nationalists, particularly within the field of music. Mohammed Falafel, a servant of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, composed songs that became the anthems of many Arabic nations. From the very beginning, nationalism and music have been intertwined in Lebanon – the Rahbani Brothers and Fairuz are two other acts that should be mentioned here.

Fairuz is one of the most famous Lebanese singers.

After World War I, Lebanon was occupied by France until 1946. Following independence, many Lebanese artists emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, carrying on a tradition that was born under the French mandate. Mixing Western and Oriental music styles and instruments, the Rahbani Brothers popularized local folk music and made Lebanese music a highly distinguishable and unique genre.

In the early 1970s, Fairuz also performed more Western songs, with lyrics that were closer to European traditions such as ‘Habaytak Bi-Sayf‘ (which means ‘I loved you in Summer’), which catapulted her to fame in the West. Another favourite is Samira Tawfik’s ‘Balla Tsoubou Hal Kahwa‘, which is literally about drinking coffee and adding more cardamom to it. The 70s not only produced these gems but also singers, if you will, like the Bandaly Family with their infamous ‘Do you love me?‘. Bear in mind that this was shortly before the Lebanese Civil War in 1975 began.

Mashrou’ Leila make Arabic alternative music.

In the landscape of post-civil war Beirut, there was a vacuum that needed to be filled, and around 1993, peace began to feel like a possibility for the first generation of post-war youth who were eager for change. Lebanon is surely not stuck in its past and it is thus one of the few Arabic countries which has an actual alternative genre to its rich traditional music, with artists such as the rappers Ashekman or Rayess Bek and alternative bands like Mashrou’ Leila or Youmna Saba. Seminal electro-Arabic fusion bands such as Soap Kills are considered to be the voice of an entire generation. Sounds derived from the production influences of Massive Attack and Portishead, Beirutian music has always been interpreted anew.

But Beirut is a complicated place. On July 12th 2006, Israel launched an offensive attack. After 33 days of heavy bombardment, Beirut’s alternative scene suffered greatly. Its political instability however is not characteristic of its population. Not only did Lebanese music never cease to exist, but it was always subject to experimentation and innovation. Unlike in many countries of the West, where there always has been a clear line between music and politics, when in Beirut, one finds the two intertwined. Maybe this is the only place where musicologists also have to be good historians too.

This article has originally been written for Your Middle East. Here is the link to the original article.

Pity The Beautiful Nation

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Fairuz

Half a year ago, I arrived in Beirut at a lovely family-led hostel, situated in the Eastern part of the metropolis very near to the historical Charles Helou Avenue, the motorway to Byblos along the coastline. Together with three friends of mine – all too different from one another – we had decided to come here for an Arabic language course at the Saifi Institute for Arabic language in Gemmayzeh, one of Beirut’s hip parts.

One week before departure, I had bought Robert Fisk’s “Pity the Nation – Lebanon at War” from 2004. The book is an excellent and detaillistic account of what atrocities had been committed here, by Israeli vengers as well as by religiously motivated militia beginning in the 1970s. Lebanon has been and is a platform of politics. This is why nearly everyone you talk to in Beirut – whether it is the taxi driver, bartender, tour guide, local students, entrepreneurs or film directors and artists – has a political opinion and is generally well acquainted with what has been happening in the Middle East. Everyone holds their own solution to the ‘problem’ and their own conspiracy theories – one quickly has the image of a very conscious and integrated civil society. There is absolutely no where you can’t discuss politics at – from complaints about human rights violations committed by the government to an honorary lecture about Nasrallah, the infamous head of Hizbollah while enjoying one of Lebanon’s finer wines.

Right outside our hostel, the jumble of history was everywhere. And inside it as well as our favorite café, right inside our hostel, ‘Em Nazih’ refused to play modern music and instead introduced us to classical Lebanese music that generally discusses topics such as nationalism, war, migration and gender.

Lebanese artists are the most stylistically diverse among the Arab world and their music has had an influence on the Arabic music scene of today and of the past that is worthy of mentioning. Drawn heavily on local musical traditions such as ‘Dabke’ – a form of line dance spread out in Greater Syria and Lebanon, comparable to Irish step dance maybe, Nasri Shemseddine’s  على عالي الدار is a perfect example. We would hear this every weekend at parties not just at Lebanese cafés but also in more seemingly Western restaurants. Wadih El-Safi’s and Sabah’s songs have distinctly nationalist tones, and in fact, one might not know this but many Lebanese people were among the first Arab nationalists back then, most particularly within the field of music: Mohammed Falafel, a servant of the Ottoman Empire in World War I, composed songs that became the national anthems of many Arabic nations. From the very beginning, nationalism and music have been intertwined in Lebanon – the Rahbani Brothers alongside Fairuz are to mention here. After World War I, Lebanon was occupied by France until 1946. Following independence, many Lebanese artists emerged in the 1950s and 1960s, carrying on a tradition that was born under the French mandate. Mixing Western and Oriental music styles and instruments, the Rahbani Brothers popularized local folk music and made Lebanese music a highly distinguishable and uniform genre. In the early 1970s, Fairuz also performed more Western songs with lyrics closer to European styles, such as ‘Habaytak Bi-Sayf‘, translated it means ‘I loved you in Summer’ and thus became better known in the West than any other Lebanese artist. A favorite of mine is sung by Samira Tawfik, ‘Balla Tsoubou Hal Kahwa‘, literally about drinking coffee and adding more cardamon to it. The 70s not only produced these goldmines but also singers, if you will, like the Bandaly Family with their infamous ‘Do you love me?‘. Noted, this is shortly before the Lebanese Civil War began. The ‘Civil War’ being the conflict lasting from 1975 up until the 1990ies, involved Lebanon, Israeli spill-over and Syria.

Together with Fisk’s account of Lebanese history and suffering, and with these beautiful, beautiful songs that I woke up to every morning, my Beirut trip could not have been any more perfect.