Monday, October 22, 2007

Ali Hassan Kuban, "Min ayn al-samra al-hilwa di" (feat. Mano Negra)

Ali Hassan Kuban was a giant in modern Nubian music. Here are excerpts from a review of Kuban's last album that I wrote for the Middle East Studies Association Bulletin (39, 1), 2005:

Ali Hassan Kuban feat. Salwa Abou Greisha & Shahin Allam. Real Nubian: Cairo Wedding Classics. 2001. Piranha. One compact disc, 13 tracks (48:10). $19.98. ASIN B00005RGK8.

Real Nubian came out shortly after ‘Ali Hassan Kuban’s death in June 2001, the last recording of his long and illustrious career. Kuban was a leading figure in the modernization and urbanization of Nubian music. Traditional Nubian music, as played in Old Nubia before the Aswan High Dam caused its inundation and destruction, consisted of vocals backed by the polyrhythms of hand claps and the tar (frame drum). Kuban, who migrated to Cairo in the 1940s and mastered the clarinet and bagpipes, formed his first Nubian musical group in the mid-fifties. Performing mainly at Nubian weddings, his ensemble did both traditional songs and modern compositions, accompanied by tar-s and new instruments like the ‘ud, accordion, violin and tabla. As Cairo’s Nubian community Cairo grew and developed, so too did Kuban’s band. By the late seventies it had added instruments like the sax, electric guitar, trumpet, electronic keyboards, and Western-style drums. In 1979, ‘Ali Kuban began to record for Cairo’s booming cassette market, producing several cross-over hits in the Egyptian mainstream. In 1990 the German label Piranha released Kuban’s From Nubia to Cairo, marking his entry into the world music scene. During the nineties Kuban ceased playing the local wedding circuit, instead performing almost exclusively abroad. He also quit producing cassettes for the local market, because piracy meant there was no more profit in it, he told me in 1999. Instead he recorded for Piranha, which put out three more Kuban albums. But he still dominated the lucrative Nubian wedding circuit, for the ‘Ali Kuban group--now a stable of leading Nubian instrumentalists and singers--remained the most popular and prestigious ensemble for hire. And Kuban’s “club”--an apartment suite in ‘Abdin, downtown Cairo--remained a central gathering place for Nubian artists.

In his last years Kuban continued to record and tour, but he was increasingly frail, displaying the symptoms of tremors. The vocals on Real Nubian, recorded in the late nineties, are marked by Kuban’s age and ailments. His voice was known in any case for its soulful roughness rather than its beauty, and his best songs are spirited, catchy anthems, sometimes chanted or even shouted. By contrast, Kuban’s vocals here are weak, and at moments embarassingly flat, as on “Gammal,” the opening track.

But despite the infirmities of Kuban’s voice, this remains a worthy effort...

To hear Ali Kuban in better voice, I recommend the earlier Piranha recordings. Each has its particular charms. From Nubia to Cairo highlights the hits that made Kuban so popular in the eighties’ Cairo cassette market; Walk Like A Nubian is funkier, thanks to Bibi Hammond’s bass work; Nubian Magic ranges from the traditional to the highly experimental, including two dance “jungle” remixes of “Maria-Maria.” For a best-of collection, there is The Rough Guide to Ali Hassan Kuban. Real Nubian nonetheless is an honorable bookend to the career of this giant of contemporary Nubian music. Its high moment is “Hela Houb,” where Kuban--in his strongest and most energetic vocalizing of the entire session--calls on Nubians to unite and return to the banks of Lake Nasser to rebuild Nubia. ‘Ali Hassan Kuban may not have made the return himself, but he played a crucial role in keeping the dream, and the reality, of Nubia and its culture alive, in Egypt, and the world.

I also wrote a short review of Real Nubian release for PopMatters, which you can read here and I have authored an article entitled "Nubian Music in Cairo," in Virginia Danielson and Dwight Reynolds, eds., Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: The Middle East.

This is from a bootleg cassette I picked up in the early '90s in Cairo, featuring Kuban in concert, in Europe no doubt, that features the great Clash-gone-Med band Mano Negra, helmed by Manu Chao. The cassette is called Al-walidi.

Click here to download.

Friday, August 31, 2007

'Adawiya, "Qalaq"

'Adawiya is the undisputed king, the Elvis, of Egyptian sha'bi music. Although he was massively, massively popular in Egypt from the 70s to the 90s, he is considered rather 'vulgar' by the Egyptian educated and literati, and therefore, has not received his props. Little scholarly work has been done on 'Adawiya either, with the exception of Walter Armbrust's marvelous work, Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt.

I know next to nothing about this song, "Qalaq" (anxiety, worry, pronounced 'ala'), the title track from a cassette release. When I can find the cassette cover I'll scan it. It shows 'Adawiya sitting on a couch, dressed in brown velvet jacket, looking like he's put in a long night. On the table in front of him is an ashtray overflowing with cigarettes. Here are a few lines from the song, "Worry (qalaq) in the morning, worry in the evening, sleeping and waking, coming and going." One of the most enjoyable elements in the song is when, about half-way through, it starts to sound, for a moment, like a disco song. The bass really grooves throughout. (I apologize for a few skips, due I guess to the elasticity of cassette tape.)

Here's a good article on Adawiya from Al-Ahram Weekly. And a couple videos from youtube. One (of inferior video quality) is of Adawiya in nightclub gear, singing one of his hits, "Bint al-Sultan," while Suhair Zaki bellydances. The other is from the 1976 film, Al-ghatna wa al-sa'luk, featuring Adawiya this time in a sha'bi outfit appropriate to his social origins, and singing "Kullu 'ala kullu." Mervet Amin is the dancing brunette, and Hussein Fahmy is the guy who comes in on the scene.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Al-Bilabil, "Al-byis'al mâ bitûh"

Here's a song from the great Sudanese female vocal trio (composed of three sisters) called al-Bilabil ("The Nightingales.") The title of the track (which seems to be a live recording) is "Al-byis'al mâ bitûh," and it's from a cassette I purchased in Cairo in the early nineties, from a cassette shop near the downtown Post Office, near Ezbekiyya, that specializes in Sudanese and Nubian music. The cassette title is simply al-Bilabil. There are several Bilabil videos available on youtube, including one in black-and-white of them performing this song (it tells us that the lyrics are by Ishaq al-Halnaqi and the music by Bashir 'Abbas). And there is this great one in color, of them performing "Al-sahr al-layl," apparently in 1974. Two of the three members of al-Bilabil, Amal and Hadia Abdelmageed, performed at the Sudanese Music and Dance Festival in Central Park on July 22.

I can only find fragments of information about al-Bilabil, who have been described as Sudan's version of The Supremes during the 70's and 80's. Here's a sketch from Sudan Reports, which I believe is lifted from The Rough Guide to World Music Vol. 1 (1999):

"In the early 1980s [sic, 1970's] three gifted teenage Nubian sisters with a supportive father formed the group Balabil. Trained by oud player and songwriter Bashir Abbas, who also found lyricists and musicians for them, they found an avid audience around the Horn of Africa. In the uncertain climate of Sudan's sharia law, however, their yearning undertones were sometimes sufficiently sensuous to get them banned from television.

Balabil got back together for the first time in ten years to play in Eritrea in 1997 - and made a recording for Rags Music - and Hadia Talsam, the ablest sister, has made a solo album in Cairo entitled Kul' al-Nujum ("All the Stars"), on the Hassad label."

Thursday, August 2, 2007

DJ Abu Yousef

A bit more on DJ Abu Yousef's "Abu Yousef" that I've managed to dig up--see post below.

This song was a hit in Jordan in the early '90s--and the usual English spelling seems to be Abu Yousef and not "Abu Yusuf" as I've written it below. The photo is of Abu Yousef and Jordanian singer Rania Kurdi, who recorded a duet, "Zgurt"--not sure when that was released, which you can download here. (It's mistakenly identified as "Rakeb Hal Suburban").

And here are some of the lyrics of "Abu Yousef":

'Amman Irbid Baqa' Sawaylih [these are all Jordanian cities]
Everybody talk about Abu Yousef...

Mashi fi al-shari'
Shuft hilwa btirkud
Ruht irkud ma'ha
Qultilha yalla nuq'ud
'Aalitli ka'ka bi 'ajawi
Qultilha ma'aki?
'Aalitli la, qultilha laysh?
'Aalitli mish zaki

Walking in the street
I saw a pretty girl jogging
I went and jogged with her
I told her let's sit
She said a cake with dates
I told her do you have?
She said no, I said why?
She said, it's not tasty

If you know Arabic (mine isn't 100% by any means), it's hilarious. Download it here.

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Libyan 1980's pop: Nasir al-Zimawi wa al-Nusur

"Shanta Safar" by Nasir al-Zimawi wa al-Nusur (Nasir al-Zimawi and the Eagles). From Tripoli, very important in the 1980s.

(Updated, 6/6/11)

Friday, July 20, 2007

"Abu Yusuf" by Abu Yusuf

A rap number, "Abu Yusuf," from Jordan, circa 1994 or 1995. Very well known. (There's a little blip in this recording, so it's not perfect--sorry.)

If I learn more about the song, I will post more later.

More on Bob Azzam & "Mustapha"

"Mustapha" was still a popular song, four years after it hit the charts, when I moved to Beirut, at the age of 14, in January 1964. Probably one of the few songs in Arabic (or at least, partly in Arabic) that American kids living in Lebanon ever knew and enjoyed. It's been re-recorded (and is better known as "Ya Mustapha") dozens and dozens of times; only recently, during a visit to New York in March, I heard it played by a Arab/Jewish/Greek band at a Greek nightclub.

I really love this Time magazine article about it, from the pun in the title right through to the end:

Most Happy Fellah
Time, Monday, May 30, 1960

"It has a wiggly-hipped, exotic beat that sounds part Latino, part Arab. When the song is played at Geneva's tonier-than-thou Chez Maxim's, aging bankers and their young girl friends go into curious convulsions on the dance floor; at least one U.N. functionary has been known to snatch up a tablecloth, wrap it around his waist and do a belly dance. In Paris the tune tumbles endlessly from Left Bank students' rooms; chefs abandon soufflés to hear it. From Stockholm to Sorrento, Bandleader Bob Azzam's Mustapha has spread like a rampaging fungus, is the biggest European juke and nightclub tune since Volare.

Tomato Sauce. Like 37-year-old Azzam himself—who was born in Cairo, lives in Geneva, drives a Chevrolet station wagon and speaks five languages—the song is a hybrid, Eurafrican polyglot. Written in French, Italian and Arabic, its lyrics may have been found in a Babel café:

Chérie, je t'aime, Chérie, je t'adore,
Como la salsa del pommodore.
Ya Mustapha, ya Mustapha
Ya baheback, ya Mustapha.
Sabaa senine fel Attarine,
Delwati guina Chez Maxim's . . .

All this is, more or less, the story of a fellah who once lived in the Cairo slum of Attarine [sic: Attarine is in Alexandria, not Cairo, and is more middle class than slum] , is now at Chez Maxim's (where Bandleader Azzam himself hit the big time), and adores his girl "like tomato sauce" (salsa del pommodore in Azzam's pidgin Italian). But the words do not matter. They merely complement the international melody, which tinkles like goat bells near the White Nile and clicks like the heels of an Andalusian gypsy. Scored by Azzam for bongos, flute, tambourine, echo chamber and his own voice, Mustapha is adapted from an Egyptian student song, but owes much of its popularity to electricity. When he plays the song at nightclub engagements or recording sessions, onetime Electrician Azzam surrounds himself on the bandstand with an impressive bank of hi-fi equipment, places a microphone before each member of his five-man combo, whirls dials feverishly to doctor their output as it blends in the echo chamber, before a final electric impulse sends it shivering through the audience.

Fox-Oriental. Bob Azzam learned his electronics in the British Royal Navy, set up his own business after World War II, may have been discouraged by the outcome of his biggest contract, the complete wiring job for a pair of 200-room palaces belonging to Saudi Arabia's Premier Feisal. Azzam worked for a year, putting in everything from air conditioning to electric-eye doors, but had trouble collecting bills and ended up without a profit. Turning to music, he organized a combo and began picking up engagements around the Levant, hit it biggest in Lebanon with his "slow rocks," "fox rocks" and boleros.

The band caught the last ship when the Lebanese civil war broke in 1958. In less than two years, Azzam & Co. had driven the Continent wild on Mustapha's "fox-oriental" mixture. From then on, every thing was pure tomato sauce."

Here's another useful source on the song. Just a few things to highlight here: Bob Azzam was an Egyptian Jew, and the polyglot nature of the song is entirely characteristic of Arab Jewish culture. [Update: Bob was born in Cairo, to a Christian Lebanese family. Sorry!] (A more modern example is Dana International's song, "Dana International," which I analyze in an article published in Walter Armbrust's Mass Mediations.) Note that the song reportedly hit number 23 on the British charts!

One more thing to notice: the fact that song modulates back and forth between Western and "Eastern" modes--like Khaled's big hit of 1992, "Didi." This makes it easier for Western audiences to appreciate it (and to sing along, at least when the Western scale is in force.)

There's more to say about Bob Azzam, who had quite a career (he passed away in 2002), including some Brazilian recordings. Perhaps I'll get back to him later.

Monday, July 16, 2007

Bob Azzam et son orchestre, "Mustapha"

"Mustapha" by Bob Azzam et son orchestre (Barclay 7" single).

And check out his "Fais-moi du couscous."

More on this song ("Mustapha") will be posted later.