25 - 31 July 2002
Issue No. 596
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Ahmed Khafagy:The refusals may have surprised; they also affirmed
Matters of tone
Ahmed Khafagy does not lead an ordinary life. For a start he does not believe in going out.
Click to view caption
Performing with Abdel-Wahab, Nur El-Hoda, Fayza Ahmed
"It is not a joke," he says. "There are only three places where you will ever find me: at work, at home, or at the gym."
Or, he forgets to mention, travelling around the world.
"Yes," he laughs through blue and brown eyes. "The only time I really go out is when I'm travelling."
Then, he admits, he eats out, meets friends for coffee, sends his clothes to the dry cleaners, and even -- this with half a laugh -- gets the odd hair-cut here and there.
"The thing is," he explains. "I like to do everything for myself. Why wait at the barbers shop for 15 or 20 minutes when I can just do it myself and get it done in five minutes? I like to rely on myself."
It is a philosophy that has impacted across all arenas of his life. Had he depended on others and their opinions, he insists, he would have never have got anywhere.
"In school," he recalls, "my music teacher 'tested' us. And you know what he told me? He told me that I was no good, that music was not for me -- I didn't have it." His hands, he was told, were far too small.
It was not that much later, though, that Khafagy was sending melodies through the halls of the Music Institute, graduating top of his class year after year and earning a solid reputation as the nation's young qanoun wizard.
"I had an artistic talent," he says, "but I wasn't quite sure what it was at first. My older brothers and sisters used to come to me when they had art assignments. They would give me five piastres per drawing. I made good money from them!"
And then Khafagy decided to try acting.
"I went to acting college and performed at the Azbakiya Theatre," he says. "I worked with people like Zaki Tulaymat, Youssef Wahbi, George and Dawlat Abyad."
Again, though, there was something wrong.
"My voice," he sighs. "They said it was too low. And of course there were no microphones at the time."
He persevered, and his memories of the 1940s overflow with characters such as Abbas Younis and Nigma Ibrahim.
"We rehearsed at their house frequently," he recalls. "We had fun, and I learned a lot from them. But then I moved on."
His introduction to music, he confides, was more or less an accident.
"It came by coincidence. After I finished the Thanawiya 'Amma, I worked in the statistical department of the government. I mean, I was a government employee." He pauses, as if to make sure the implications of the position are fully understood.
"One of my colleagues was the brother of Mohamed Qandil, the director. He's the one that suggested that we put together a music group. He told me to take up the qanoun, because he said I had a sporty spirit." Khafagy agreed, and seven of them enrolled at the Ittihad Mousiqi (Music Federation).
Khafagy was the first to leave, conscripted in to the army. After completing his military service he dutifully returned. He returned, however, to find them all gone.
"They had all moved on," he says. "But I decided that it was what I wanted to do, and so it began. That's when I enrolled at the Arabic Music Institute."
In the years to follow, Khafagy played in the Huwaa group, the Shabab group, the Diplomasiya group, with individuals such as Amal Fahmy, and a host more. His name began to be known. He began to gain a following.
"I travelled all over the world to play," he says. "I was the only performer to play the qanoun on the stage of the old Opera House."
Khafagy stops talking and rummages through a large brown envelope beside him.
"This," he says, bringing out a magazine, "is from 1958. I was given an award for qanoun playing by the Higher Committee of Music. I was chosen alongside Renee Perlo, the pianist, Goma'a Mahmoud Ali, the oud player, and Nagi Habashi, the cellist."
Khafagy stops, and laughs. "I'll tell you something, lots of people had applied to be considered, but they withdrew when they heard that I was part of the pool."
This is offered with rather more humour than pride, though soon after telling the anecdote he asks it to be removed.
"Take out that bit," he says, scratching the air with his index finger and thumb. It is a gesture that is endlessly repeated during numerous sittings over the course of a week.
"But come on," an accompanying friend urges one evening. "You must let her write that. That's a scoop. That's what she wants. These are the things people want to read."
He is surprised.
"No, no, no." He shakes his head. "People want to know about Abdel-Halim Hafez and Abdel-Wahab. This isn't interesting. This isn't what's important. We don't want trivial things in this."
And so the trivialities, the amusing anecdotes are variously edited out of the career of this accomplished qanoun player. For the further he reached, the further he aspired, the more, he says, he focused.
"I managed to get as far as I did in my profession because of my focus. No parties, no outings. I don't hate these things. I never 'hate'. I only refuse."
Some of those refusals have become the stuff of legend. "When Mohamed Abdu Saleh died," he says, "They called me to replace him in her [Umm Kulthoum's] orchestra." He promptly refused.
"Umm Kulthoum and Abdel-Wahab were the two people I loved and respected most, and the two people I refused to work with most."
It was their fame, he says, that kept him away.
"If you worked for either of them you had to be 110 per cent dedicated. And it is true, time is money. They wanted to spend every minute of my time," he says, his eyebrows rising in bewilderment. "Which is my money."
They would have cost him far too much.
"Those who worked with them did so because it was an honour, and it would establish them in the profession. I didn't need to make a name because I already had one."
Yet his decisions took everyone by surprise.
"I wanted to travel, I wanted to play with different people, and I wanted to experiment. I couldn't do that with them."
The relationship between the two stars and the young musician remained strong, nonetheless, and Abdel-Wahab often listened to Khafagy rehearse.
"I had tremendous respect for him. He had a special way of taking ideas or melodies from around him, adapting them, adding his own style, and coming up with something incredible."
Khafagy, it is widely rumoured, was one of Abdel-Wahab's inspirations.
"But I prefer that my name is not linked to him in that way," he says, requesting that several Abdel Wahab-linked anecdotes just told are off the record. "I don't want it to look like I'm doing PR for myself."
"There is no need," he repeats, then quickly changes the subejct. "I have four friends," he says, going off on a tangent. "Two grandchildren -- Mu'min, and Mohamed. They play chess with me, and they're teaching me how to use the computer. But I have to admit, I'm not a good pupil."
"My other two friends are the oud family, and the qanoun family. That is how I spend my time. If my grandchildren aren't home, then my two instruments are."
Otherwise, he spends his hours in aerobics classes or in the gym.
"I don't watch TV, or read the newspaper," he says. "I never deal with politics, and I've never voted. I don't really know anyone. I see signs with names, and I hear campaign slogans, but I don't really know any of them, so how can I vote? Life has really changed," he continues. "We no longer even make a pencil in Egypt. Everything is foreign, everything is imported. It upsets me. Where is the Egyptian stuff? Where is the journalism?"
And where, he asks, is the music?
"Language here is lost. It's the most important part of society -- it's the wasila (vehicle) of worship and law. Language and music go hand in hand."
Both, he believes, have been torn apart by modern times.
"When you listen to music you must say 'subhan Allah'," he says. "Before, Egyptian music was tarab (enchanting). It made you refuse to listen to anything else. It forced you to say Allah. Now, this is absent and no-one says this."
The collage of cultures and images and sounds and colours that have come to represent all cities and nations have, Khafagy believes, imprinted themselves on music .
"A mix has happened," he states firmly. "Electric instruments are not invented to play with natural, string instruments. Every creation has its own duty. Today, duties have merged, and it is a mix that destroys everything. When you put the tarab (natural) scale with the mua'dal (modified) scale," he continues, "the modified overpowers the natural, and music is destroyed. We need to go back to the roots."
He says it with a smile. Khafagy cannot seem to stop smiling. Or asking questions. He stops, smiles, asks.
"Tell me," he asks, "Why don't young women your age want to get married anymore? I want to know this..Is it because there are no men?"
There is silence.
"And tell me," he continues, pointing to my ears. "Why do you all have so many holes in your ears?"
He laughs. He is intrigued by the so-called younger generation, and even more so by society and what it has become. Music especially.
"They say that fast music is in tune with the times," he says. "But they are wrong. It may be similar but it is not suitable. If everything in life is fast, music must not be fast. It must give us relaxation, not increase the tension. Today's music is too similar to life, too similar to traffic and stress and a fast-pace. It's not healthy."
"Sound pollution, from traffic and car horns, is no different to using loudspeakers to amplify music. Both are criminal."
His views on most issues are similarly extreme.
"Anything I feel passionate about, I respond to in writing. For example," he says leafing through a pile of papers in front of him, "I've prepared some things for you. This is about football. I like it and played it all my life," he says, "but when it emerges with such hysteria -- as if it's a national issue -- it leads to tension, hate between nations, gambling until bankruptcy, and even sometimes suicide. I reject this type of football completely. If poor countries paid attention to growing food, that would be better for them."
He continues; about the international order, religious conflict, his lack of respect for higher education.
"And these," he continues, "are things I wrote in response to some global issues."
The first is about Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky.
"I talk about how she fooled him, like Delilah tricked Samson."
"And this is an answer to terrorism, using the Qur'an as a response as to why it's wrong."
"I've read it over 200 times," he says. "I once read the whole thing in a day. It took me 15 hours. I will never do it again!" he laughs.
Khafagy recites the Qur'an to himself constantly -- in the gym, in the house, or on the walks he has been known to take from Maadi to Tahrir Square. The Qur'an serves as his guide to life.
"Every time I hear someone say something that sounds wrong, I check it against the Qur'an," he says.
And of course, he writes it down.
"I have summarised all the Arabic qawa'id, because no-one understands them, and all the Qur'an recital rules, and all the basics of tonalities and the relation between them and European tonalities, and the 43 varieties of rhythm in Arabic music, and all the instruments of the orchestra and their range, and the rules of harmony."
His list of summaries and collections and answers is endless. Khafagy, it appears, has an answer to everything.
"Okay", he says in the middle of one conversation. "I have something to say. I sleep eight hours a night. You come to me one day, and you ask me how old I am, and I tell you that I'm 49. And you say, 'but I heard that you're 74', and I say, 'but I slept a total of 25 years, which makes me 49."
He laughs again.
"Who cares about age?" He tosses the statement into the air in amusement. "When we talk about years, I say 'who cares?' What does the number of years mean?"
It is one thing for which he has no answer. And it is one thing about which he has not written. Age, to Khafagy, means nothing. It is one of those trivialities that people waste precious energy and focus fretting about. It is, to him, a waste of time.
Letter from the Editor
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