|Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
15 - 21 February 2001
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A Diwan of contemporary life (377)Sounds of old and new music hit discordant notes in the 1920s. The generation gap was never more pronounced than over the kinds of songs being played and heard. On one side of the musical divide were ardent adherents of the old works, traditional pieces of proper decorum. On the other were the snappier, wittier tunes whose irreverent lines -- "My arm still hurts! Bite the other arm!" -- were a hit with youth of all classes. Dr Yunan Labib Rizk looks at those in support of and against rabble music as they orchestrated their campaigns in Al-Ahram.
Even then, fast-food music
History is not just a record of events; it is the story of the conflict between old and new. It is this epic struggle that makes the historical narrative palpable. Unfortunately, it is a dynamic that is sorely lacking in the works of amateurs and, worse yet, in school textbooks so dry as to alienate many students in the subject.
(from top to bottom)
Umm Kulthoum; Ihab El-Kharrat
The conflict between old and new is not restricted to politics and economics. Indeed, it plays itself out primarily in the realm of thought and feelings. The world of music epitomises this struggle, as we ourselves have witnessed over the past two decades, with the advent of the faster rhythms and catchier lyrics of Egyptian pop at the expense of tarab -- the sense of being transported in time while listening to music -- much to the dismay of devotees of the more traditional forms.
It is not surprising that the new music caters primarily to youth, musical tastes and expression being among the most evident manifestations of the generation gap. This music also appeals, in general, to the more affluent sectors of society that have had closer contact with the Western world and are more open to the Western way of life. From these sectors would be drawn the frenzied audiences of pop concerts as opposed to the more contemplative coffeehouse denizens from the lower and middle classes who still enjoy listening to recordings of the artists of the past. Of course, this does not obviate the fact that many of the younger generations of the middle class have also been swept up in the fast music craze which, after all, illustrates today's "take-away" era.
Today's comparison between old and new in Egyptian music had a precedent in the 1920s and it is interesting to see that the battle was fought over the same socio-economic battle lines which sometimes used similar artillery. Then, as today, adherents of the old hurled the term "youth" disparagingly at enthusiasts of the latest musical fads. Whereas today the video clip, the indispensable medium for the dissemination of pop, is much reviled by musical conservatives, it was the phonograph that was attacked then; public radio broadcasting not having yet got off the ground. "Records for the riff-raff" was how they referred to this newfangled invention.
The conflict between old and new in music cannot be viewed in isolation from the changes in the social, political and economic environment in which it took place. Modern Egyptian pop emerged against the backdrop of an economic open-door policy, privatisation, the emergence of new entrepreneurial forces, the onset of globalisation, satellite television and the Internet. The "youth music" craze was bound to spread no matter what traditionalists said.
The turbulent and energetic climate following the 1919 Revolution was also conducive to rapid and sweeping changes in musical tastes. It was a time when the educated middle class began to encroach into a political arena that had formerly been the preserve of the upper classes of notables and the rural elite. Not only were members of the effendis, as the middle class civil servant and intellectuals were called, becoming an increasingly powerful force within the political parties, but they were also making unprecedented inroads into high government positions, attaining ministerial posts for the first time in the government formed by Saad Zaghlul in 1924. The beginning of the 1920s also brought the creation of the Bank of Egypt with all its subsidiary companies, among which was the Egyptian Theatre and Cinema Company, providing a powerful vehicle for popularising new performers. The same applied to the phonograph companies that began to proliferate as Egyptian and foreign entrepreneurs discovered a profitable field for investment. Finally, in the political domain, Egypt's independence, granted in accordance with the Declaration of 28 February 1922, contributed to opening Egypt up to the outside world more than ever before.
One imagines that Al-Ahram readers of the 1920s first sensed the impending battle between old and new in music in "Music: the Queen of the Arts," the title of an article written by Sheikh Hassan El-Mamluk, a noted master of traditional Arabic music. The author had nothing kind to say about the new generation of musicians and songwriters. "Music has always been the language of the soul and as such had a palpable effect on religion, literature and morals. But how do music and song now compare with the past?" El-Mamluk asks. The difference is enormous, he contends, manifested in "the decline of song and, hence, morals because of the advent of impostors whose only source of livelihood is dabbling irresponsibly in that sublime spiritual exercise (music). Dilettantes have reduced this art to a scam without having considered the consequences of their detestable actions."
At the time the short, ditty-like taqtuqa was rapidly encroaching on the dawr, a more complex genre that permits for lengthy virtuosic solo improvisations. El-Mamluk deplored this development. He wrote, "The result of the artistic chaos in music is the appearance of the taqtuqa, a genre that is truly deficient in substance and form, devoid of the prerequisites for decency, so filled with obscenities that one blushes in shame when hearing the lyrics, let alone contemplate their impact on the ladies." The new genre was "shameless and impudent," not worthy of being set to music and certainly not suitable for the ears of refined women. They were produced by "idle knuckle-crackers and parasites who have used them to corrupt all decent and moral people. It is shocking that this appalling moral deterioration affects all classes and ages equally."
El-Mamluk's strong criticism of the new genre seems to have been founded in personal experience. He relates that he was asked to give music lessons to the daughter of a well-to-do individual. He chose the piano as the medium of instruction for his student, the instrument of choice for women aspiring to social advancement and better marital prospects. He was shocked to discover, however, that his student did not appreciate "the pure, fine art with its emotive strains imbued with the refinement and perfection suitable for respectable women." Instead she asked him to teach her "some of those taqtuqas, such as 'Let down the curtain' and other such vulgar songs that have more in common with obscene language than with music. I could only mourn the fate of morality and virtue," he concludes, but he fails to tell us whether he excused himself from the job or complied with his student's wishes.
However, El-Mamluk did offer advice on how to prevent the spread of the contagion of the taqtuqa. His solution is the recourse by all defenders of the old against the inexorable incursion of the new: censorship. Towards this end he urges the establishment of a music academy "to supervise songwriting and singers" and that would "demand from those in authority to put a stop to songs that corrupt public morals."
El-Mamluk's was not the only voice to be heard in defence of the old. Joining him was Iskander Shalfun, editor-in-chief of Rodat Al-Balabil (The Garden of Nightingales) and director of the Egyptian Academy of Music, who wrote to Al-Ahram on 3 November 1920 under the headline, "The tragedy of music: Come hear, see and judge!" Shalfun opens with a lament over the passing of the old masters: "Where is Abduh El-Hamuli and his empire of marvels? Where is Othman and his feats, his legions and his castles? Where is Sheikh Salama and his conquests? They are all gone and what a pity! A generation of brilliant artists has left behind grief and anguish. Empires have fallen, crowns have toppled and the thrones of music have been levelled. The calamity does not befall those who are dead and buried, but those who have lived to see how the palaces of art and its glory have turned to ruins."
To Shalfun the effect of the new music was more detrimental than the cinema, a scandalous novel or a painting of a nude woman. "Not everyone can afford to go to the cinema; the market for portraits of nudes is small; and relatively few purchase those novels designed to make old men feel young again, particularly as nine out of 10 people are illiterate. However, dirty songs can be sung by all, literate and illiterate alike, and especially by young boys and girls."
Shalfun believed that there was some kind of conspiracy against proper music and urged the Oriental Music Club and music schools and academies to locate its source and "apprise themselves of the corrupt thoughts that are fermenting in the minds of lyricists and songwriters."
Officials of the Oriental Music Club heeded such appeals and urged the government to ban the taqtuqa. In a letter to the deputy minister of interior, the club's director, Mustafa Rida, wrote:
"The Oriental Music Club is committed to the advancement and refinement of Arabic music so that it can symbolise the progress our nation has achieved in its literary and artistic revival. We have worked assiduously towards this goal for many years. However, over the past two years certain immoral elements whose sole interest is money have dedicated themselves to the composition of vulgar music that corrupts public morals and debases the honour of the nation. This music goes by the name taqtuqa and its dissemination is abetted by phonograph companies, comedy playhouses and certain professional musicians. As a result, the morals of our sons and daughters have deteriorated and the work of our club has been undermined.
"Among the goals we have set in our club's charter is to strive to have the government recognise our club as a literary and musical body. We are honoured to have won the sponsorship of His Majesty the king and the support of his government. We would like to take the opportunity to appeal to the Ministry of Interior, which supervises public morals, to take the necessary measures to censor publications, theatres and such like, in order to put an end to these sources of corruption and to safeguard the dignity and morals of the nation. The club further feels it is incumbent upon it to offer the ministry our technical expertise..."
Also from the ranks of musical conservatives was Abdel-Fattah Abduh, who equally deplored the effect of what he sarcastically called "national songs" on the state of music and on public morals. Young men and women, he held, should not be permitted to listen to "Let down the curtain" or conversations under the mosquito net ("It's knitted and knotted. I hug and I kiss.") Respectable people are urged not to listen to the song about the taxi ("Your cheek and my cheek. It honks and we play.") Or the one that goes, "My arm still hurts! Bite the other arm!" Not to mention the one in which the woman sings: "Don't worry about me and love. I've got a baccalaureate in love," or, "Now that we've finished dinner, it's fun and frolicking for dessert." "These moral-murdering songs, these lyrics that cause chaste brows to sweat, are generating dissolute men, wanton women and an immoral nation!"
Another Al-Ahram reader, Abdel-Aziz Ahmed from the American University in Cairo, praised Abduh's article and added another arrow to the old school's arsenal. Promoters of new fads are quick to defend themselves with the argument, "But that's what the public wants." The AUC student rejected this reasoning and relates the story told by the early 20th century master singer and composer Sheikh Zakariya Ahmed: "A phonograph company asked me to compose the music for some lyrics they had selected from new songwriters. I refused because I thought the lyrics exceeded the bounds of propriety. This prompted the company's representative to protest. 'What can we do? This is what pleases the public.' I offered to compose other pieces but he refused, saying they wouldn't sell and would cause the company to lose a lot of money." In the end, Ahmed admits, he was forced to compromise, agreeing only to set to music those songs he found the least pernicious. He asks, "As this is my way of earning my living, could I do any more than that?"
If Al-Ahram had given extensive coverage to defenders of the old it was equally prepared to open its pages to proponents of the new. The first volley of the counter-assault appeared under the headline, "Musical stagnation." The article must have raised quite a few eyebrows because its author suggested that the available musical heritage did not have all that much to offer. The dawrs were love songs of no consequence in form or substance, he wrote. Although sometimes they are of some vocal interest, "composition is subjected to strict rules of sequence, arrangement and progression, all very similar, especially if constructed around a single theme."
The muwashah, lyrical poetry set to music, believed to be of Andalusian origin, was among the most pleasant forms of music, in the author's opinion, but would be unable to attain important musical value "so long as it remains so inflexible." "The beauty we find in it is hardly worth the amount of effort exerted in composing it," he adds.
The mawwal, a genre based on a short text around which a solo singer improvises, had no saving graces. "What possible use is a thousand mawwals when one is sufficient," the writer protests. In sum, the author of "Musical stagnation" concludes that "our music requires much refinement and considerable laundering. It needs to be vested with new meaning, attitudes and forms. Its methods and rules must be fundamentally changed."
Others were not quite so forthright in their defence of innovation. Hafez Galal, who described himself as "an enthusiast of the fine arts," contributed two articles to the debate. In one he criticised the mawwal and the dawr, which were lacking in "proper meaning" and "correct language." In the other he discussed Western instruments such as the harp and violin and encouraged their increased use which, in fact, was already the trend among the new generation of musicians.
However, the largest space allocated to the champions of the new was given to Al-Ahram's arts critic Mohamed El-Tabie. El-Tabie, or "Handas" as he signed himself, followed the reverse strategy of the traditionalists. They chose the best of the old and the worst of the new. He did the reverse, basing his argument on the best models of musical innovation. Towards this end, his selection fell upon Umm Kulthoum and Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, both of whom proved among the most prodigious and long-lasting talents in the Arab world.
At the time, Umm Kulthoum was performing the wasla, or suite of songs that was presented following a play by the George Abyad theatre company. Handas observed that the audience remained glued to its seat throughout her performance despite the fact that the play was incredibly long. Indeed, it appeared to him as though they had endured the play -- six drawn-out acts -- only to watch her sing. He also noticed that a good many people among the audience were friends and relatives of the famous singer and that the entire crowd was thoroughly overwhelmed by her performance, including the Al-Ahram critic himself who wrote, "If I were more knowledgeable about music and its laws and conventions, I would allow my pen to venture into some detail. However, I am not and, therefore, I find myself at a loss for words that would do justice to the voice of Umm Kulthoum. All I can say is, praised be the power that blessed that beautiful voice with its magic and mystery. What is most beautiful about her voice is its purity, its faithfulness to the music and the emotion packing every word of the poetry to which the music is set."
Abdel-Wahab, according to the Al-Ahram critic, was no less than brilliant. His budding talent had attracted the attention of Munira El-Mahdiya, then a powerful figure in the world of performing arts who had begun her career as a cabaret singer in early 1910 and eventually founded a theatre troupe of her own. El-Mahdiya had invited Abdel-Wahab to join her company offering him very generous terms. But to Handas' relief, he turned down her offer. "A good thing he did, for Abdel-Wahab should continue to concentrate on his work in peace and put aside the theatre for a while." Handas was afraid that the young talent would succumb to pressure to comply with the strictures of older genres to the detriment of his creative capacities.
Al-Tabie was known for his caustic wit. However, in his article of 25 June 1925, "The World of Music and Song: Mohamed Abdel-Wahab," he had no cause for sarcasm. In fact, one imagines that Abdel-Wahab would have jumped with joy when reading the review of his performance in that morning's Al-Ahram. Handas wrote, "We were immersed in a world of melody blending sweetness and pain. It had such a delightful impact on me that I knew I was in the presence of a naturally creative musician, not a skillful imitator." And to drive the point home, he adds that the young performer's music "represents a departure from his predecessors," but at the same time he was far removed from "the performers of love songs one hears in the tramway carriages and coffeehouses, whose lyrics dwell on the anguish of lost love while their faces sport a smile from ear to ear." Handas was further impressed to learn that Abdel-Wahab planned to go to Europe to study music "so that he can realise his aspiration to lift Oriental music to the stature of Western music."
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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