13 - 19 April 2000
Issue No. 477
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875|
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Darkness and the guruProfile by Youssef Rakha
In one crucial sense, Ammar El-Shiri'i still belongs to that race of artists (muqri'in) who, deprived of the power to see, set out to mould their voices into the magic implements of some strange extra-sensuous perception of the divine revelation. Such, in a nutshell, is the tradition of Qur'anic recitation -- an art whose basic precept is the idea that the beautiful vocal articulation of the sacred text allows people to be immediately in contact with it. Many musicians were originally muqri'in and major muqri'in relied on the counsel of musicians. Examples include the muqri'-turned-oppositional-composer Imam Eissa -- the 1970s leftist icon and collaborator of colloquial Arabic poet and lyricist Ahmed Fouad Negm -- and El-Shiri'i's renowned mentor, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, who is said to have provided the top muqri'in of his day with melodic lines to draw on.
Instead of working on his voice, however, El-Shiri'i chose to deploy the magic implements of sound in the form of the instruments he played, and soon positioned himself firmly in the secular context of the modern entertainment media. Consequently his music is as "serious" as it is popular. Layers of all-too-familiar emotions wrapped into bite-size munchies light enough for instant digestion yet sufficiently substantial to provide lasting nourishment: El-Shiri'i's numerous television serial scores -- the best-known portion of his multifaceted contribution -- supply the exact, precision-calculated amalgam of Eastern and Western sounds that the majority of Egyptians seem to be comfortable with. In fact, the sheer number of melodies El-Shiri'i can churn out when pressed is astounding, but his works are nonetheless never prey to thoughtlessness or complacency. Even though they do not give the impression of being mass-produced, one does feel that they are the products of a pragmatic musical mind rather than the symptoms of a musician's predicament. He is an artist who works to live, not the reverse; and his work inevitably reflects this sensibility.
Which sensibility is happily far more variegated than the previous remarks would suggest. For one thing, El-Shiri'i's image is of a lively, timid guru, always at a crossroads in his career but always somehow still very far from its end. His conversation, for another, is an engaging admixture of bourgeois worldly wisdom, musical erudition and obliquely personal reference to the one ever-present dilemma -- darkness.
Born in 1948 in the small town of Samallut, Minya, "about 200km away from Cairo", El-Shiri'i belongs to "one of those families that started being called feudal following the Revolution." This fact, incidental as it is, remains crucial. One of the veteran's most endearing qualities is his flair for enacting the nearly extinct role of the Egyptian bourgeois intellectual; and the earthy liberal humanism and easy familiarity with Western languages and culture that go with it are part and parcel of this perpetual conversationalist's personality. "My family, by virtue of its very conservative, very conspicuous place in Egyptian society," he recalls, "could never have accepted or even imagined the idea of one of its members working in the field of music. That whole music thing was unthinkable" -- El-Shiri'i sounds perfectly deadpan -- "maddening; its penalty would normally have been death. Even though it became apparent that I really liked music from an extremely early age..."
One of the veteran's most endearing qualities is his flair for enacting the nearly extinct role of the Egyptian bourgeois intellectual; and the earthy liberal humanism and easy familiarity with Western languages and culture that go with it are part and parcel of this perpetual conversationalist's personality
El-Shiri'i belongs to the first generation of blind children who attended a school for the disabled, and remembers with poignant fondness "President Nasser's pleasing comment when he came to visit us, 'The Revolution knows no such thing as inability'." This school, founded in association with American educational institutions and at this stage restricted to the primary level, offered its students three options on graduation: an education in music, "for which talent was of course an essential condition if you were blind;" a religious education at Al-Azhar or one of its subsidiary institutes; or an education in a practical trade like plumbing or carpentry.
Despite resentment and active discouragement on his parents' part, El-Shiri'i had his mind firmly set on the first option. "By the time Nasser expressed the conviction that we should continue our education, I had already specialised in music and reached a stage impressively advanced for my age. At 10 I could read and write notation and had a firm grasp of all the essential concepts in practice and theory." For nine years, in addition, El-Shiri'i studied piano and composition by correspondence with an American institution for the education of the blind. At the music institute in Cairo, he specialised in accordion, soon to become a widely acknowledged virtuoso with a number of prestigious local and foreign prizes to his credit. This tendency has persisted. The awards, while deepening his roots in the establishment, have not prevented him from living up to the public's expectations. Of his many honours, however, the prize he recieved at the last festival for children's cinema was the most intriguing. While raising more than a few questioning eyebrows (what on earth does Ammar El-Shiri'i have to do with children's cinema?), it revealed the fascinating fact that more than half of his opus was actually written for children.
Immediately after graduating from the English department of Ain Shams University -- an essentially unnecessary educational move undertaken solely to satisfy the family -- El-Shiri'i joined most of the popular bands of the 1960s and 1970s, one after the other, before becoming one of the most widely demanded soloists in the country and subsequently creating his own band -- a time at which he was also inevitably making the contacts necessary for a buoyant career in musical composition. "I leave the examination room in the morning and by the evening I'm playing keyboard in a nightclub," he explains. He also moved out of the family house in the neighbourhood of Zeitoun and began an extended period of nomadic wandering, moving from one furnished flat to another from the age of 23. Soon he was composing music for the radio and then for television and the cinema. He wrote his first song, Imsiko El-Khashab Ya Habayib (Knock on Wood, Dears), for singer Maha Sabri, in the early 1970s. Very gradually, very reluctantly, the family finally got over the seething discontent, but this was only five years after his graduation from university.
Aside from Abdel-Wahab ("I am his son, artistically his son; I grew up on his lap") and composers like Kamal El-Tawil, El-Shiri'i speaks of many mentors -- poet Kamel El-Shennawi, for example, who was a friend of his father's, used to spend Fridays with El-Shiri'i every week throughout his formative years, reading him poetry and discussing art and culture -- the most interesting of whom is his physical education teacher Abdallah Mohsen, a frustrated musician whose doomed musical career eventually drove him to a tragic end. Mohsen adopted El-Shiri'i early on, encouraging him to learn the oud (El-Shiri'i started with the piano and eventually taught himself the oud) and placing him on course in various other ways. In fact, he was the man who put him in contact with the American institution with which he studied by correspondence for nine years.
Since the 1970s, El-Shiri'i has come to be regarded as the greatest practitioner of the most popular school of respectable musical composition in the Arab world, and in this sense has become Mohamed Abdel-Wahab's truest heir -- a position to be reckoned with. "I believed, I still believe, that isolation from the world's musical trends is ultimately a mistake. I mean, if we compose purely Eastern music then we're ultimately the losers; the rest of the world has nothing to lose and that's a fact proved by experience. Nonetheless," he says playfully, "I still get the urge to compose a purely Eastern piece sometimes, just for my own pleasure." Over the years he has written songs for an impressive number of well-known singers (Warda and Shadia, among others) and composed and/or edited the music for almost every successful television serial (Al-Ayyam, Wa Qal Al-Bahr, Baba Abdu, Arabesque and most recently Umm Kulthoum, to mention but a few), as well as popular films. His popular weekly radio show, Ghawwas Fi Bahr Al-Nagham (Diver in a Sea of Notes), has for decades divulged the often esoteric intricacies of Arabic music to an ever wider non-expert public in a straightforward and entertaining way -- so much so that the attempt to produce a television version of the show is currently under consideration.
Marriage at the age of 43 and the unexpectedly joyful experience of fatherhood (he refers to his infant son as "an ingenious invention") have likewise ameliorated an otherwise restless and nomadic temperament. For years he has been settled in Mohandessin, giving up his single man's freedom in return for the invaluable attention and understanding of his dedicated wife, and managing his mini-empire of music-related businesses, supplemented mainly by the pursuit of his computer programming hobby and more recently putting it to use in collaboration with such electronics companies as Sakhr in various attempts to broaden and deepen the scope of digitalised sound recording, playing and composition. "We're trying to introduce the full range of Arabic musical notation, including the quarter-tone, to computers, for which I of course need expert help, but the young geniuses I work with are more than providing it." Dreams of "something international" have been tickling him lately, but as yet he is reluctant to talk about this.
"My son is named after my uncle, Murad El-Shiri'i" (the guru unexpectedly starts reminiscing again), "in whose house the only meeting of the legislative assembly that occurred outside parliament took place in 1919, when the English suspended parliamentary life following Saad Pasha's revolutionary activities. I also had a brother named Murad whom I really loved and who died very young, so I thought I would have a son named after both of them. I don't know what I'm going to do when he grows up, if it finally turns out he doesn't like music..."
But the conversation doesn't end at that. Ammar El-Shiri'i -- the famous musician, the astute businessman, the bourgeois intellectual, the potential muqri' -- is willing to talk for hours. Whether or not they are voices, but particularly when they are, sounds are his magic way of penetrating darkness. Through them, he switches on peculiar forms of extra-sensuous and ultimately heartening light.
Photos: Mohamed Anan