Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 June 2003
Issue No. 643
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Mambo Egyptiano

The current wave of enthusiasm for Latin dancing is far from the first to sweep Egypt, Injy El-Kashef discovers

"El Mambo... Mambo Italiano"-- when I recently played the song from which this refrain is taken my mother exclaimed jubilantly that it had been one of her father's favourites, recalling how he would take her mother to dine and dance, and return still humming the Mambo song while practicing the steps. Strange as this account sounded, it makes perfect sense. One need only remember the songs in most of Na'ima Akef's films, as well as others such as Allemouni Al-Hobb (They Taught Me Love) starring singer Saad Abdel-Wahab with Ahmed Ramzy and Demis Roussos' mother Nelly Mazloum; or Abdel-Halim Hafez's Banat Al-Yom (Today's Girls); or Esha'et Hobb (Rumour of Love) -- where Youssef Wahbi's nephew is an adept Cha-cha dancer preparing for a dance contest -- to realise that Latin music and dance were as much the rage in the 1940s and 1950s as they have become in the past three years. Even Leila Mourad's song Abgad Hawwas, in the classic film Ghazal Al-Banat (Girls' Flirtation), is a clear Latin descendant with a group of girls dancing the mambo as they sing in the film -- not to mention Bob Azzam's popular song "El Mambo da taliani...El Mambo fi kayani" (Mambo is Italian...Mambo is in my soul).

Nor is that in any way surprising. After all, it's common knowledge that the pioneer of modern Egyptian song, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, whose far-reaching influence affected Arabic music perhaps more than any other composer, often borrowed foreign melodies, be they Western or Latin, and integrated them into his compositions. According to the Online Egyptian State Information Service, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab "employed new rhythmic formulas, including the tango, mambo, samba and rumba... in his compositions" successfully bringing to the cinema the rhythms and tempos of Latin American dance. Abdel-Wahab was a musician who kept the Arabic song contemporaneous with the international music scene in the cultural capitals of the world.

Following the Cuban revolution of 1959 and the resultant US trade embargo, Puerto Ricans and Cuban exiles in New York and Miami kept the sound of Salsa and its derivatives alive for American ears, gaining wild popularity which was exported to every corner of the globe. In Egypt, the Latin rhythms, had already been made familiar to the public through Abdel-Wahab, Farid Al-Atrash and Leila Mourad, but it was after the Miami absorption of Salsa that Egyptian legs and feet began to sway Latino. Meanwhile, Argentinian singer Carlos Gardel had given the Tango worldwide popularity in the 1930s, with Tango-specialised night-clubs sprouting up in every major city. By the 1950s and 60s, Egyptian youth were quite familiar with Latin dancing, flocking to the multitude of "stereos" (today's "discos") which featured live bands reproducing the world's top hits and creating their own. Among the most popular stereos were Stereo Al-Matar, Auberge Al-Haram, Arizona, La Ronde, Home in Helwan, Romance in Port Said, Auberge du Lac in Fayoum and Maxim in Maamoura where Les Petits Chats and The Cats, two of the period's most celebrated bands, played Latin music, particularly Cha-cha, among other popular genres, like twist and Franco-Arabe.

The re-explosion of Latin pop in Egypt during the past three years has its roots, once again, in the spread of the genre in the USA. With its huge Hispanic community, the US has always had a viable market for Latin music, most notably in the Miami area, home to the majority of the country's Cuba immigrants. Styles like Salsa, Tejano, and for a brief period, Lambada, found their way from their countries of origin to this community first through imports and then through labels that picked up on the trend.

The first true crossover from the Latin scene was in the mid- 1980s, with Gloria Estefan gradually turning into the scene's most visible star, her sound becoming the blueprint for a number of crossover stars who followed, such as Jon Secada in the early 1990s.

Meanwhile, more and more labels began catering to the tastes of the Hispanic audience. A host of stars appeared in the late 1990s, such as Enrique Iglesias (Julio Jr, now operating in Miami) and Ricky Martin, as the music followed the more up-tempo trend of the dance-pop mainstream. Finally, the labels felt the mainstream was ripe for a takeover, and the Latin idols hit with a carefully planned marketing scheme.

Martin and Iglesias' good looks combined with a series of glossy, occasionally provocative videos ensured rotation on music TV channels. Jennifer Lopez provided an alternative for the male demographic, and the Latin pop explosion was now a reality. The crusade continued with the Grammy Awards inaugurating separate categories for Latin music.

To fulfil the increasing demand, established stars were imported from South America, most notably Shakira and Luis Miguel, and given the tools built on the tried-and-true template of dance/ ballad/video/English/Spanish mix. Half-Ecuadorian Christina Aguillera, already a rising star in dance-pop, jumped on the bandwagon by recording in Spanish, even though she couldn't actually speak it. And Marc Anthony brought the sound and energy of original Salsa to Latin pop.

In Egypt, the long established popularity of Spanish music (Gypsy Kings were always a hit here), as well as the historical proximity between the two cultures (Latin music is, after all, a mixture of African and Hispanic musical traditions) led to local pop stars, particularly Amr Diab, dabbling in the sound, frequently incorporating flamenco guitars into their standard pop songs. So when the Latin pop explosion erupted, it was natural for the audience to quickly pick up the sound. Young girls fell under the spell of Martin and Iglesias and young boys (and old ones too), like their counterparts elsewhere, drooled over Lopez and Aguillera. Shakira, however, took the country by storm, thanks to her Arab roots (emphasised by illegal -- and frankly better-sounding oriental remixes of her hits, with special video montages of her belly- dance sequences). Shakira-mania hit teens and adults alike, her curly locks and faded denim attire becoming a typical sight in some unlikely places.

And thus the Latin wave splashed and drenched Egyptian youth once more, and it resurfaced in local song and cinema. Tarek El- Erian's Al-Sellem wal-Teban (Snakes and Ladders) starring Hani Salama and Hala Shiha, features the female lead role playing a successful marketing professional who gives private Tango classes at her studio in the evenings attended by a substantial number of students. As uncharacteristic of the general local culture as this detail may be, it is an unmistakable testimony to the recent spread of the Latin musical genre in Egypt, a social trend the scriptwriter could obviously not ignore when addressing a certain segment of society.

As for music, Hakim, Amr Diab, Edouar, Dana, Angham, Hisham Abbas, Samira Said and Ihab Tawfik, to mention but a few, all have scored hits in the past two years based on Salsa compositions.

By the time I joined a Latin dance class at a popular Zamalek venue last year, a number of social changes had already taken place with the spread of Latin music, namely the youth's perceptions of the propriety of dancing. These days the Latino wave is sweeping sectors of society it had failed to trail along in its initial crest, about three years ago -- though initially only the hip, rich and "cool", in other words those most susceptible to Western influence imported from the US, were learning the Salsa steps, by now many more "traditional" young are flocking to the dance joints and studios catering for the Latin craze. Not only do most night clubs and discos now offer Salsa classes several times a week (some instructors even embarking on trips to Cuba to learn the proper Salsa rather than the Miami version), and fitness centres have now added Latin dancing to their list of activities, but dance studios of world renown, such as Arthur Murray, have also opened a Cairo branch.

Men who sway their hips are no longer seen as lacking masculinity (though it may have taken them much mental effort to believe that) and women who do so are no longer perceived as loose or improper. Salsa, quite a sensuous dance, is no longer "eib" (inappropriate) but "adi" (normal) -- to use the age-specific terminology. Some perfectly conservative, unwesternised couples are now even learning Salsa months ahead of their wedding in preparation for a public show. Last summer students could be counted in the thousands, as the Salsa phenomenon was not confined to the big mango we call Cairo, but had spread to sea-side resorts like Hurghada and Sharm El-Sheikh.

But while the Latin pop sensation still shows no sign of slowing down, it must be remembered that pop is made primarily of short- lived sensations, its audience always hungry for something new.

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