Mustafa Abul-Oyun: Echoes of the past
Keeper of the voice that was once Egypt
Profile by Gamal Nkrumah
The sonorous voice of turn-of-the- century singer Sheikh Youssef El- Manyalawi emerges from a gramophone into the dim evening light. Outside, the lights are coming on along Ramses Street. For a moment, the city seems to quiver, as if trembling with emotion and nostalgia.
If we are listening now to this performer who has long since passed away, it is thanks to the efforts of Mustafa Abul-Oyun. For this disc is but one item in the largest private collection of recorded music not only in Egypt, but in the whole of the Middle East, a collection which Abul-Oyun has assembled over many years. He has long found refuge from the trials and stresses of his professional life as a gynaecologist in the task of painstakingly and lovingly building up a vast combustible library of the music of early 20th Century Egypt -- "folk", "classical" and "religious". His private collection now contains some 4,000 78 rpm gramophone recordings of songs dating from the period between 1904 and 1940.
Abul-Oyun cups his chin in his interlaced fingers, and his brows furrow as he listens intently.
The very first piece of his collection to be assembled -- the songs of El- Manyalawi -- was also a priceless one. It consisted of 50 78 rpm recordings of the pioneering singer who died in 1911 and who was equally adept at religious tawashih songs and romantic qasaed. The collection was given to Abul-Oyun by Wagih Badrakhan, the late head of the Near East Broadcasting Service. Abul-Oyun "fell instantly in love" with El-Manyalawi's music. He never tires of listening to the singer whom he describes as "capable of conveying deep feeling because he sings from the heart". To this day, El-Manyalawi remains his all-time favourite singer.
Abul-Oyun explains that El- Manyalawi's repertory was typically a motley collection of songs. His 78 rpm recordings speak volumes of both the musical styles and the vocal skills of the time.
He enumerates the rules of reciting ( tajweed ), then pauses for breath, puffing as he extinguishes yet another cigarette.
He then moves on to describe the unique art of the Al-Mitayibatiya, the praise-singers who accompany the lead vocalist. When pressed, he vigorously denies the popular rumour that these artists were much given to debauchery.
We meet at Abul-Oyun's clinic, located only a stone's throw away from Ramses Station, Cairo's main railway terminal. The building once belonged to virtuoso violinist Sami Effendi El- Shawwa, and the youth club on the floor just below the clinic was once a nightclub called Styria, after the Austrian Alpine province. Erected in 1929, in its heyday El-Shawwa's 13-floor apartment block was the tallest building in Cairo.
Today, of course, the building is dwarfed by the city's numerous skyscrapers. But, at least it is still standing, when the music of that period is all but dead.
That is Abul-Oyun's mission: to bring the music back to life.
He describes the recurrent themes that run through his collection: religious, romantic and sexual. "These were the defining staples of the music of the period. And the intoxicating rhythms easily produced the desired effect -- ecstasy."
He cites some graphic examples to sex things up a bit. "In those days, weddings used to last for 40 days," Abul-Oyun lets out a chuckle. "There was much feasting and dancing, and reverie," he muses.
The marriage of the Khedive Ismail's daughters, Afrah Al-Angal, was one such outrageously ostentatious occasion. Al-Henna Al-Henna ya Qatr Al-Nada, "Oh henna, oh henna drop of dew", is one popular song that dates from that event, and whose popularity has survived the ravages of time.
"Religion, sex and narcotics," says the doctor, stabbing his index finger at the air in a melodramatic fashion, jabbing at each word that passes. "These are the only three stimulants known to produce a state of ecstasy," he exclaims excitedly, before pausing to catch his breath. "And music is often symbiotically associated with each of them."
We return to the music of El- Manyalawi, which belongs to a period of Egyptian history that seems to have a strong appeal for Abul-Oyun. First religious song metamorphosed into the amorous qasaed. Then from these emerged the ghawazi, which writhed and wriggled shamelessly, accompanied by much drumming and hand-clapping.
"All distinctly unfashionable traits in our increasingly religious and conservative culture," our host laments.
Abul-Oyun's collection boasts records by more than a 1,000 different singers of that era. "I know each record by its shape and form, just as I know which period it belongs to". Of all these artists, he says, "Sayed Darwish was the closest of the old composers to the modern school."
Abul-Oyun goes on to describe the dances that accompanied this music: Raqsat Al-Nahla, the Bee Dance; the impromptu dances by the ghawazi ; and the daraboka dance and song -- another sexually explicit genre, with women singing and drumming as they executed the most suggestive shimmies.
In his opinion, these performing artists did nothing to profane the long upheld traditions of Islam. "Malik, the most enlightened of the fuqahaa [ leading Sunni Muslim jurists], sang -- he had a beautiful voice and he sang in public. He had no problem with singers. Singing was never banned in Islam. There is no text in Islam -- either in the Qur'an or in the hadith -- that outlaws singing or pronounces it haram," he asserts. He adds that the roots of Egyptian popular music are to be found in the religious inshad, or song, and in the madih, which sings the praises of the Prophet Mohamed. Qur'anic recitals were and still are a dominant feature of popular Egyptian culture.
In his youth, the multi-talented gynaecologist danced professionally with the Palestine Troupe for Folkloric Art. Today, he remains sprightly, singing along to his records, and dancing with his eyes and eyebrows. The diminutive physician shakes his shoulders and deftly clicks his fingers as if they are castanets. He is every inch the doctor, who knows how to live off his wits and think on his feet.
Abul-Oyun reminisces about Wahid Badrakhan, the celebrated choreographer who introduced him to the music and song of the 1910s and 1920s. "The music was like an intoxicating drug," he recalls. "I heard it, and was bewitched."
Then, without warning, he pulls out an oud -- "the oldest oud in Egypt," he beams proudly. This is just one of the many precious possessions he keeps in his clinic. "It used to belong to Kamel Al-Kholeie, one of that era's finest musicians."
Abul-Oyun changes the record on the gramophone. It is another of El- Manyalawi's classics:
La tahseboun in mayli beinakum taraban
Min lazzat al-rah aw min hazzat al- naghama
La tadhnoun in ihtizaz al-gism min farah
Fal-tayr yarqos madhbouhan min al- alam
"Do not think that I sway to the music because I am enchanted by it
Or that I sway because of the magic of alcohol or the beat of the melody
Do not think that my body swaggers because I am overwhelmed with joy
For even the birds dance in pain when they are slaughtered"
Born and bred in Cairo, Abul-Oyun's roots are in the Upper Egyptian province of Sohag. He insists, however, that he is a Cairene to the bone. His clinic is as much a mindset as a physical location, crammed to the brim with memorabilia and period instruments.
His voice is hoarse because he is a chain-smoker, but he never stops talking, pausing only to laugh. And his laughter is rich, mellow and infectious.
Easy and loquacious by nature, he downplays the pivotal role he plays as a repository of Egyptian cultural heritage. "I am an amateur," he says, with typically self-effacing Egyptian understatement. "I am still learning about the music of the period. I am always discovering new facets of the lives and music of the performers of the period."
He acknowledges the great challenges he faces -- the problems associated with archiving, documentation and preservation of the country's rich cultural heritage. "Professional archiving demands time, money, technological proficiency and commitment," he concedes.
Like his taste in music, his medical practice is far from conventional. He incorporates the mystical and esoteric healing traditions of ancient India into his work. In particular, he focusses on encouraging his patients to develop skills for modulating and expressing strong emotions.
To this end, he takes his music with him into the clinic. He has some 400 records stored there. Right now, he wants to get the music digitalised and restored. He is always experimenting, adjusting volume levels, bass and reverberation, to try and better reproduce the original sounds.
His interest in India is not an escape, but an enrichment of his roots. Abul- Oyun is a devoutly religious Muslim, well versed in Islamic theological discourse. He is an avid reader of Sufi and mystical Islamic literature. He sees no contradiction between his Islamic convictions and his use of the Tantric tradition in his medical practice. "Tantra is not a religion, but a spiritual path," he insists.
His path to his Maker is "God- loving", not "God-fearing", he explains.
He sips his tea and delicately picks up a biscuit before breaking into a boyish chuckle. Abul-Oyun maintains there is a deep and intricate connection between Islam and music. Music was central to Islam from its inception, he stresses. Indeed, he believes the Qur'an is the most exquisite work of music.
Many Egyptian singers of the first two decades of the 20th century started out as professional reciters of the Qur'an -- Youssef El-Manyalawi, Salama Hegazi, Ali Mahmoud and Darwish El-Hariri, to name but a few.
"The Qur'an is almost always read aloud -- it was then, and it still is today."
Abul-Oyun says there is a widely-held misconception, especially among the young, that the music of the period was slow-paced and somewhat tedious.
Yet precisely, one of the virtues of the music of the years between 1910 and 1940 is that it eschews the sort of droning, moaning tone that afflicts so much of what the good-humoured gynaecologist dismisses as "modern Arabic music" -- by which he means Umm Kulthoum, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, and especially Farid Al-Atrash, whom he loathes with a venom.
The style of the pre-1940 performers was not tortured and solitary, but utterly engaging. They interacted much more directly with their audiences -- a tradition which Umm Kulthoum herself held on to tenaciously.
The Egyptian economy was surprisingly buoyant in the 1920s, and talented musicians were therefore able to carve a real niche for themselves as the entertainment industry boomed. "Middle and upper-middle class Egyptians patronised entertainment by buying tickets and records," Abul-Oyun points out.
Music halls proliferated and were usually packed every night. Nightclubs and commercial recording studies mushroomed across Cairo and Alexandria.
Some of these music halls later turned into hotbeds of revolution and anti- colonial activism. Hawal huriya fi masrah Munira El-Mahdiya -- "There is love of freedom in the theatre of Munira El-Mahdiya", proclaimed one popular saying. Nationalistic songs were summarily censored by the British colonial authorities.
Veering off from the politics and economics of cultural productions, Abul- Oyun delves once again into the central role played by the recitation of the Qur'an, religious songs and folk music on the popular music style of the time. Indeed, the Jewish-Egyptian composer Dawoud Hosni, once remarked in 1932, "as long as there is the Qur'an, Arabic music will live."
Abul-Oyun sips his tea and delicately picks up another biscuit before breaking into song. "The entire country used to sing in those days. The fellahin, or peasants; construction workers, petty traders in the market place and street vendors -- everyone sang," he muses.
The most popular singers at the time were noted for clarity of articulation, excellence of delivery and loftiness of imagery.
There were a few religious singers who were women, such as Sekina Hassan, and Umm Kulthoum herself was instantly recognised by Egyptians of the time as Min Al-Mashayekh, "nurtured by the sheikhs", the Muslim clerics who best recited the Qur'an and were most familiar with classical literary Arabic.
Be that as it may, Abul-Oyun's favourite female performing artist of the earlier period is Nedra, Amirat Al- Tarab, "Princess of Tarab" [literally, Princess of 'Enchantment' -- in the sense of having been deeply moved by music], who died in 1993. They remained close friends to the end, and he would often visit her in her home to listen and learn as she reminisced about old times.
Mallak, Mutribat Al-Awatef, "The Queen of Emotions", who died in 1983, was another woman singer whose impassioned lyrics and romantic melodies have left an indelible mark on Abul-Oyun.
The mashayekh musicians were the forerunners of the secular singers of the amorous qasaed, or ballads. This was popular style untouched by exogenous influences. It was only following the defeat and disintegration of the Ottoman Empire in the aftermath of World War II that Western music was introduced into Egypt.
"I am a great admirer of contemporary popular shababi, or youthful, music. The contemporary shababi song has revived the old Egyptian musical tradition of upholding the primacy of the rhythmic beat," Abul-Oyun explains.
"Music is rhythm and melody. Umm Kulthoum and Abdel-Wahab did away with the traditional styles, where rhythm was king. They discarded rhythm in favour of melody, and changed the course of Egyptian music," he adds, somewhat disapprovingly.
Once again, his thoughts turn back to yesteryear, as he recalls a list of forgotten stars -- the dancer, comedienne and music hall owner Badia Masabni, whose Salat Badia (Badia's music hall), established a new tradition -- a weekly matinee for women only. Or Fatheya Ahmed, Mutribat Al-Takht, "Lady of the Stage". Or Munira El-Mahdiya, known as Sultanat Al-Tarab, or Queen of Enchantment.
We listen to another record, and then another. Naima El-Masriya, Tawhida and the list goes on. As he recounts their names, their foibles, their precious accomplishments, and the joy which their music conveys, it is clear that Abul- Oyun is far more than an antiquary, or an archivist.
He does not have to recreate the magic of those early decades, because for him they are still alive.