10 - 16 October 2002
Issue No. 607
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Recommend this page|
Hakim:From Mohamed Ali Street to Radio City Music Hall
The business of pleasure
It took us over a month to get an appointment with Hakim. It could not be helped; he was out of the country on tour most of the summer. And apparently he was a big hit too, with his pop shaabi songs and distinctive voice making entertainment headlines in international papers and magazines. Afropop Worldwide described his voice as "clear and agile, capable of delivering both spiritual highs and playful pop gambits".
The New York Times said "Hakim worked the songs to crest after crest, with his clarion voice arcing above the band."
The distinguished style in which Hakim has always presented Egyptian shaabi music is not only well received by his audiences, but worth studying in its own right. A Harvard professor, Scott Marcus, who is preparing a book about Arabic music, has chosen Hakim as an example of the shaabi genre. He has been on Hakim's heels for a year, attending all his concerts and never missing a beat.
I was expecting to meet the Hakim I'm used to seeing on stage -- a vivacious, buoyant personality with a wide grin. Instead, I found myself walking towards a very different person. He was sitting at the end of a broad reception hall, listening intently to his manager, who was doubtless preparing him for the interview ahead. He rose to meet us, a very composed figure, undemonstrative, with a surprisingly low voice. In fact, his voice was so low, I was afraid that it wouldn't register on the tape.
He was also much taller than I had expected, and -- as both the photographer and I could not help commenting -- thin. He explained that cameras add 10 per cent to an individual's body weight. On top of that, he has been dieting and working out for the past three years to keep in shape.
"I had gained a lot of weight as I travelled and tasted new foods," he explained, until one day, "I was watching one of my performances in Italy and I thought that my fans would not appreciate the way I looked."
Losing weight has probably contributed a great deal to the way his looks have changed of late. He has also changed the way he wears his hair, and the way he dresses. When he met us, he was wearing blue pants and a fashionable light blue long-sleeved shirt. A golden chain with a red pepper hung from his neck, while his wrist sported a square watch with a diamond shield.
Our preconceptions of Hakim mirrored those of his fans. He told us that when he runs into his fans on the street, they approach him over- enthusiastically, expecting him to act as he does during performances. "Sometimes, it's stifling," he said.
"When I am on stage, I am doing my job. The audience is there to enjoy themselves, and I must give them a good time," he explained. "Off- stage, I am a regular human being. I have my problems and I cannot keep the show up all the time. People have to realise that."
But problems or not, when he is on stage, Hakim leaves everything behind and concentrates on putting on a good show, and on enjoying himself. He acts out his songs with his whole body. He moves his eyes, brows, hands, shoulders and feet in time with the beat. And when he is particularly enjoying the beat, he dances his heart out.
His infectious enthusiasm on stage makes a stark contrast with the reserve with which he speaks off stage. In fact, his answers to our questions were almost exemplary: maybe they were well rehearsed, or have just become a routine for him. He told us about his tour this year, a good portion of which took place in the US where he held 12 concerts. One of the highlights was sharing the stage with Khaled, the Algerian Rai singer. That concert had originally been scheduled for last fall, but was cancelled following the events of 11 September. For Hakim, going through with it at a later date was important. It was the first Arab concert in the US after 11 September. "People were interested in finding out who the Arabs are," he explains. "This was a chance to teach them a part of our culture."
"We needed to tell the Americans who the Arabs really are: peace-loving people, not terrorists," he stressed. Although the audience may not have understood much of what he was saying, the music did the trick. And, according to Hakim, simple phrases like Al-Salamo Aleykom know no frontiers. But that song went a long way, not only abroad, but even more so locally. In fact, it is the only song that made a mark in Egypt this summer. It was also the cause of some controversy, when an Egyptian member of parliament claimed that it was defamatory to Islam. Hakim responded that this was a backward way of thinking. "The song does not offend Islam in any way. It contains only optimistic values and love."
His last concert in the US, at Radio City Music Hall in New York, brought his summer to its climax. As he put it, "it was a big leap." Even now, he can hardly believe it happened. It took Hakim 12 years and eight million copies in album sales to get where he is today. If his family had foreseen this success, they would not have stood in his way at the beginning of his career. His father, mayor of Maghagha, tried over and over again to discourage him from singing, but with no success. And everyone who heard him encouraged him to persevere. "They couldn't all be wrong," he thought.
His break came when his brother met Hamid El-Sha'eri by accident, and asked him to listen to Hakim and give him a negative opinion. But the opposite happened. Four days later, Hakim had his first formal contract.
Since then it has all been easy sailing for Hakim. He has moved, apparently effortlessly, from one album to another. Today, even his family wants their photo taken with him, and have dropped their disapproval.
But the local market was not enough for Hakim. Going regional, and then international, was his ultimate goal. In fact, his dream is to take shaabi music to every corner of the globe. To do that, he has continually modernised his sound, yet always staying true to its shaabi core. For example, he has given his music to Britain's Transglobal Underground to remix, and performed a duet with the Puerto Rican artist Olga Tanon. The latter song has been nominated for the 2003 Grammy Awards.
The video of his song with Olga is different from any of his previous clips. It shows him as a romantic loner, wandering the streets of a foreign city in search of his loved one. This is a totally different image from that of the "regular guy next door" which he often portrays in his songs. The video clip for Al-Salamo Aleykom showed him as, in turn, coffee shop waiter, taxi driver, doctor, government employee, and car mechanic. His video clips are often shot in traditional Egyptian locations, and make extensive use of the back allies of Cairo. One Egyptian fan, who had been living abroad for 23 years, told Hakim that he could smell the incense of home just by watching his songs.
When we asked him why the video for his duet with Olga is different, he told us: "I want to address a new region, namely the West. This is something that has always been a target of mine -- to take the popular song to international levels, take it outside the Arab world."
In the future, he hopes to change the way he presents his songs even more radically, while still remaining faithful to their Egyptian core.
He hopes his contract with Universal, who produced his latest three albums, Yahoo, Tammenni Aleyk and The Lion Roars, will help him achieve that goal. He believes he has a lot to learn from international production companies. "They deal with the international market which we are trying to reach."
And he believes he has a lot to offer the West too. "We have things like the 1/4 tone which the West doesn't have. We have something different to offer: if we wrap it in the right technology, it could give a new taste to music, and it would certainly attract audiences."
It was his ability to attract audiences that encouraged MobiNil's advertisers to approach him to do an ad for the cellular phone company. The result was such a success, that sequels to the original have been produced as well. The ad may not have won him a new audience, but it certainly reinforced his popularity.
What has won him a new audience is his duet with Olga and his concert with Khaled. And to keep his audience, Hakim works hard. He has not forgotten the weddings at which he has always played. "Weddings still get the same share of my time: the audience of weddings is not to be treated lightly."
"All my audiences give me a good time. They are people who want to be happy, and they are doing it through me." It is normal now for couples to plan their weddings around Hakim's schedule.
In this connection, Hakim told us a little story. A lady died and left in her will that, when her grandson married, no one should entertain the guests at his wedding except Hakim. "This makes me happy," said the honoured artist, "and it makes me want to do everything I can for those people."
For the rest of the year, Hakim plans to stay put. He will work on the new album and on a role in a film. He will also spend more time with his family. His two children -- Mariam, three-and-a- half, and Ahmed, five -- and his wife Marwa don't get to see much of him when he is away. But when he is in Egypt he tries to make time for them. As you might expect, they are his biggest fans. "They love my songs. They imitate me and make their own act," he said laughing. Mariam, he says, is a born artist, but not Ahmed, who is a bookworm, totally unlike his father. Although he has a degree in Communications from Al-Azhar University, he was not a particularly diligent student.
"At school, I would daydream that I was a singing star and the other students were my audience." His dream came true. Today, to keep up with his audience, he never goes to bed before 6am, and wakes around 2pm. He practices with his 14-strong band five days a month.
He does not do anything in particular to exercise his voice, but he tries to have a good night's sleep, which he believes is the best medicine. When his voice is exhausted, he does certain Swedish exercises. And he does not smoke. "My late mother, although she opposed my singing, wisely advise me not to smoke or drink coffee or tea, so that they would not ruin my voice. And to this day I don't smoke. I only started drinking tea recently."
Speaking of his mother, Hakim for once lets his guard down a little, and talks more naturally. Another subject which arouses his serious enthusiasm is how he profited from his experiences on Mohamed Ali Street, where he learnt the basics of music. "I didn't earn any money, but learned a lot just by dealing with musicians. Even today, I always say that the musician who never worked on Mohamed Ali is not a musician, and I cannot trust them to stand behind me. Anyone who has not tried playing on the streets is no good. Mohamed Ali is the ultimate academy."
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