22 - 28 August 2002
Issue No. 600
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Hani Wahba:The DJ will be determining your mood tonight
"So who's going to DJ your wedding?"
Hani Wahba is asked that question more than most people. He has, after all, DJed more weddings than most people would care to remember -- somewhere around a thousand in the last 10 years or so. Put in perspective, that's a thousand zaffas, a thousand first dances, a thousand laser shows, a thousand cake shows and a thousand of all the other outlandish features of a modern Egyptian five-star wedding.
Hani is one of the kings of wedding DJdom. And because he is getting married soon, it's always the first question anybody asks him these days...
"So who's going to DJ at your wedding, Hani?"
They're not really expecting an answer, just looking for a laugh, proffering a slice of irresistible wit.
"Ya ragil!" Hani says, in mock camaraderie. "Yo man!"
It's become quite a routine.
Meanwhile, Hani is trying to adjust his life to the certain changes that will come with marriage. "Going out to work at 10pm, coming home in the morning, sleeping all day, that's no way to live with someone. I know I don't want to put my family through that."
That's why he's trying to move out of the party arena to a more managerial play, orchestrating teams of DJs and lighting technicians for weddings and parties, only playing himself when specifically requested. Trouble is, that happens a lot. One week in early July saw Hani performing on Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights.
On the last day of that long haul, the grand ballroom at the Conrad Hotel was heavy with pre-wedding atmospherics -- low lights, scattered groups of guests sitting, standing, heading in and out. It was 10pm and Hani had not arrived. No big deal because the bride wasn't ready yet either. Parking was still manageable outside the Nileside hotel and the decorators were putting the final touches in place.
Hani's team is in charge of the lighting as well tonight. They have dangled strings of lights from the massive chandeliers, so they look like oriental lanterns, reflecting nicely in the hall's gigantic mirrors. The DJ's table stands alone on the stage, the sound system piping out a metaphysical Enigma-type theme, pre-programmed by Hani's crew. Years of practice have taught him exactly when to arrive. Fondly described by one of his assistants as "the little guy, skirting around, eyes everywhere, his head alight", sure enough, exactly 15 minutes later Hani is suddenly there, flipping through CDs, doing sound checks, and then announcing that the zaffa has just begun.
"Don't make me look bald," he jokes with the Weekly's photographer.
His act has become an integral part of the package, one of the elements comprising every carefully planned wedding, along with the invitations, kosha, food, flowers, singer, belly- dancer. These days, for budgetary reasons or just because it makes life easier, the DJ is often the only form of entertainment on offer. Hani has more or less become the main arbiter of the evening's mood, and people are willing to pay good money to delegate that particular responsibility. "Giving a good party" is the DJ's job, and Hani takes that seriously -- he wants to give people a good time, to ease their pain, free their minds. He wants to get them on the dance floor and keep them there till dawn. He's also an artist, describing with passion the "entrance" show for the bride and groom.
The light engineer puffs some preliminary smoke as Hani does his sound check. As he raises the volume on some majestic march, it's very much like the "Dolby -- the audience is listening" moment at the movie theater just before the film starts. Shafts of light appear -- "filled with the haze from the smoke, the overall lighting along with the music will make a cadre," he says.
When the bride and groom do walk in, the scene is cinematic, an audio- visual trip for both the lucky couple and the audience.
"Music is so powerful," I say to Hani, half-jokingly.
"It's very powerful," he says, not missing a beat. "I can make people get up, sit down, smile, shake them this way and that, raise their spirits, bring them down, drive them crazy..."
Then he remembers something. "Yesterday at 4am the groom's father suddenly screamed at me: 'Hey stop that already!'" Hani looks flabbergasted as he tells the rest of the anecdote: "I really didn't know what to tell him. The bride and groom and all their friends were having a great time, dancing like crazy... And he really couldn't believe it was 4am and still going on..."
Then again, another party taught him that dancing is not everything. It was a Sudanese wedding where nobody -- literally no one -- got off their chairs all night long. Hani tried everything -- "Arabic, reggae, rock, slow, even Indian... but no one wanted to get up and dance because the bride and groom weren't getting up. He was just sitting there, smoking a cigarette, and she was just sitting there as well. They weren't getting up -- period."
He thought he had failed --- then, as people were leaving, right after they shook hands with the bride and groom, most made a point of coming over and shaking his hand too. "We had a great time," they were saying, "we really loved the music."
For Hani, loving the music all started at the Jesuit. "We were a class on a mission," he says, "we were crazy about music." Getting the newest records from abroad was "war between classmates". When parents went out of town on business they'd always be forced into bringing back dozens of records for their kids.
These were the days of the Heliopolis musical maniacs. One of them, Wael, remembers stores like Frequency and Jetline swamped with students from the Jesuit and the English School, carefully probing the seemingly endless rows of foreign records, choosing songs for mixes.
Hani started DJing in junior high school, mixing at his own birthday and for others. Today, he holds an engineering degree from AUC, but this is what he's been doing for 12 years. "His was the first name to be associated with DJing weddings," says Wael, "because he has a certain style to his music. His sound system is nice, so it's not noisy, and he gives weddings a classy feel."
Egyptian weddings are by nature spectacles -- and Hani is certainly a beneficiary. "As a society," Hani says, "we like to have a good time. I don't think there's anywhere else on earth where you see people -- everybody -- up all night like here."
And yet the DJ's work is also mostly anonymous. His role in society is yet to be defined. There are no institutions, associations, or unions for him to belong to.
Hani went to the Musicians' Syndicate eight years ago and asked to join. They asked him if he played an instrument, and when he told them what he did, they were sorry but he couldn't become a member.
That seems ironic in the wake of successful DJs the world over who release best-selling CDs just like musicians. It's also interesting when you consider how intricate Hani's performance really is.
Tonight's wedding is a little different from most -- no kosha for the bride and groom but a "guest of honour" table instead. It's a chic crowd, and the hall is divided in two -- shabab on one side on silver fer forgé tables, adults on the other side in a more formal set up. Hani looks over the crowd. There's a girl in a pink tafetta dress. She's aching to dance, moving her hips and shoulders, her curly hair bouncing -- which means the party is nearly ready for the switch away from cheesy slow songs to continuous dance. Hani tries to test the audience's preferences. Are they responding more to Arabic or English? Do they want him to play some hip hop, or hit deep into trance?
Hani knows trance is the future. It's about the speed of the music. "Techno made by the West has forced Arab music to speed up. If we don't groove faster we'll feel like we're backwards. We're talking 110 --140 beats per minute now," he says. Still, there are limits to how fast society is allowed to go in this new, bold direction. "When people shake their heads a little too fast the Eastern mentality labels it devil worship," he says, remembering the devil worshipping brouhaha of a few years ago. Maybe it was a not-so- subtle warning to kids to slow the beats/minute rate a little bit.
Here at the Conrad Hani gradually takes the crowd to dance land. First a jazzy tune to get the bride and groom and a few core group friends up on the dance floor, moving slowly in a circle. Next comes that cross-cultural Italiano- Americano song, the beat getting slightly faster and funkier, then another popular hit, Sway Me More, followed by a few jazzy Spanish tunes as more people join in.
He sticks to the Spanish theme for now to keep them in the mood. This part of the routine is crucial -- the way the crowd is introduced to what will become the overwhelming atmosphere of the party -- pure dance.
Soon enough Hani knows it's time to start hitting it. A heavier bass creeps in at the end of one of the songs, and about 12 seconds later the crowd starts to freak out to the song, Al-Deek biyeddan Koo Koo Koo Koo -- one of those housefied classic Arabic tunes featuring the awesome technical mastery of trance united with the ancient trills of a hara. The best part is that they're participational songs -- the crowd gets to sing the chorus "Koo Koo Koo Koo" every once in a while, which is very uplifting. Even the cynical guy who was just looking everybody over is now off his chair and dancing it up with the bride and groom.
At this point, it's time for this genre's anthem -- the remix of Um Kulthum's Alf Leila Wa Laila, with its tremendous souped up tabla, interspersed with beautiful nays and sagat. This is East meets West, baby, and we're right at the core of what this trend is all about.
Hani is mixing to the point where you can't tell how many different songs are playing at once. Still, all the signs are pointing to this party moving steadily towards an Arabic music focus, though I think it looks like he's already won the audience over either way.
I ask him where the wedding is headed, music- wise, but he's not so sure. "I'm between two fires," he says, "should I continue with the Arabic or not?"
A decision is soon made, and announced, appropriately enough, with the song Arabiyon Ana by Yuri Mercadi.
Is this crowd Arabiyon then? Yes, indeed, a new kind of Arabiyon, juiced up by techno. More than anything, these types of tunes define the mood, the moment the world is in -- mixed up, globalised. With his easy ability to merge between different sounds the DJ is the perfect metaphor for this shrinking globe.
That's a DJ's specialty -- keeping everyone's head shaking, as they look around, walk around, straighten their tie, puff on a cigarette or cigar, analyse the crowd. For the DJ it's a continuously curious game, a sort of psychological theatre, with music as a form of release. Hani has become a master at this slow, gradual interplay with the audience's emotions.
"One of the best feelings I get," Hani says, "is when I already have a song on deck to change the mood and someone comes up to me and says 'Will you play this?' and it's the same song I have planned. I can't begin to describe how ecstatic I am at that point because I know I'm reading the crowd right. You know what I do? I make that person put on the headphones, so they know that I'm on their same wavelength."
Maybe the act of mixing music is in itself a personification of where the world is heading -- a micro-macro merge of cultures, trash and trouble-free crescendos. Hani is all about this culture mash. He's all about the meeting of generations, all about East meets West. And like the good DJ that he is, the mood he creates is all about merging people's comfort zones, playing the tunes they grew up with, and the ones they love like crazy right now.
Hani first met Nada while he was DJing a party at her school a few years ago. Their wedding is planned for sometime next year. Nada says she's gotten used to Hani's fame sometimes getting in the way. Like when they're at a restaurant and everybody wants to come over and chat with the DJ who made their wedding so great.
And now, the moment we've all been waiting for: "People think I'm joking," Nada says, "when I tell them that Hani is actually going to be the DJ at our wedding -- but really, I'm not."
Officially, his team is going to do the wedding.
"But it's well known," Hani says, "that when there's equipment around, I can't keep my hands off of it."
Letter from the Editor
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