Al-Ahram Weekly Online   16 - 22 October 2008
Issue No. 918
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Singing in the shadow

Provoked by new low-standard pop songs, Sayed Mahmoud reviews the story of the now classic pop singer Ahmed Adawiya

Click to view caption
Adawiya with Mohamed Mounir in fervid mood

On my way to the newspaper office, the minibus driver clicked the cassette button to run the well-known pop song "Man and the Devil" by Mahmoud El-Husseini, who with his rough tone adopts a remarkable and ethical logic through a conversation between man and devil, which is also the title of the album published early this year. The album's songs are all run along the same theme: the devil is mocking man's behaviour on earth: " I dragged you, to commit sins, it is only your weakness that made you respond, and now you disturb your neighbours, and play Poker, and drink wine," goes the song. The lyrics raised a debate among the passengers on the bus, who hankered after the good old days of the leading pop singer Ahmed Adawiya, who, despite his fame, has not achieved half of Al-Husseini's profits from cassette sales.

This poses the questions: is it a significant indication, or rather an occasion to celebrate, that Adawiya should be given his due respect after years of misunderstanding and intentional insult of his artistic contribution? The more painful paradox is that critics who are interested in this kind of pop music were not thrown out of joint when Adawiya himself returned to the artistic scene two years ago with a video clip entitled Wala Eshq wala Hawa (Neither love nor affection) that could not stand in face of the new wave of pop singers.

Nowadays Adawiya, now in his late 60s, spends his time in the shadows, looking back to a full history of controversy over the true merit of his songs, an ongoing debate about the artistic and the political, between the ethical and the aesthetic.

A profound review of press articles that dealt with "the phenomenon of Adawiya" reveals how difficult it is to avoid this kind of argument, although, now that 40 years have passed since the singer embarked on his career and established a phenomenon that has now acquired a legitimacy; it is what we call "cassette singers", those stars who have acquired fame outside the boundaries of the official organisation. In other words, those singers can be best identified as those who are not accredited as singers by Egyptian radio and television, and, in the period that extends from the end of 1970s to the mid-1980s, they include Adawiya and Katkout Al-Amir, on the grounds that their songs are trivial and the musical composition is bizarre. Adawiya's own success has benefited the generation that has followed him. It is worth mentioning that the music production company Sawt Al-Hub, which supported him, also supported the then successful groups such as the Al-Jets, Al-Masrieen, and Four M, which have worked on the development and modernisation of the Egyptian song.

Born in mid-1940s in a working-class area on the outskirts of Maadi, Adawiya worked as a waiter in a café where he started presenting his popular mawaweel, or folk songs. By the end of the 1960s he was beginning to be on demand as a singer at high-class wedding celebrations. And with the emergence of the new casinos that by the early 1970s had spread along the Pyramids Road, his songs were proving so popular in such places that he amassed a huge fortune that later enabled him to build a number of buildings in the elite district of Maadi. His most successful albums were Zahma ya Dunia (Oh How Crowded!) and Bint Al - Sultan (The Sultan's Daughter), whose songs have been widely reproduced by new singers.

"I consider myself an extension of prominent popular singers such as Shafiq Galal, Mohamed Rushdi and Mohamed Abdel-Mottaleb, who have preserved a kind of traditional singing that could be assimilated by simple, uneducated people," Adawiya says.

Returning to the context of Egyptian singing, which produced the phenomenon of the 1970s, the classification made by music historian Farag El-Antari in the social survey run by the National Social Research Centre in the late 1980s can be perfectly adopted. In his survey, El-Antari classifies the Egyptian singing scene into three categories: adherers (those who abide by the form of Arab heritage music in an attempt to adhere to the national identity, which was partly tarnished by the 1967 defeat; Westernised singers who were knocked back by the defeat and resorted to Western musical melodies; and a third category that expressed its feeling of alienation by supporting Adawiya's musical trend. Besides these categories, intellectuals were preoccupied with another experience: the couple Ahmed Fouad Negm, the prominent ammiya poet, and Sheikh Imam Eissa, an experience which was based mainly on the sarcasm of Gamal Abdel-Nasser's socialist policies.

In the same vein, Al-Bosla, an occasional leftist publication, described Adawiya's songs as "oppositional songs"; the one entitled Salametha Um Hassan (Be good Um Hassan) had been described as a national song, where Abdel-Nasser is Hassan, and Egypt is Um Hassan. His famous song Haba Fou' wi Haba Taht, (Stuff Above and Beneath) was explained as talking about the discrepancies between Egyptian social classes.

On the other hand, in his book Intellectuals and Soldiers published in 1988, Salah Eissa, a famous leftist writer and a historian, perceives Adawiya as a product of Anwar El-Sadat's open door policy, "which allowed for superficial singers to flourish just as the great singer Abdel-Halim Hafez was an integral part of the Nasserist phenomenon."

Following this analysis, Adawiya was harshly attacked by leftist intellectuals who were enjoying a critical authority at the time. They opted to place all the blame on popular art, describing it as the easy and uncivilised face of the art scene in Egypt.

The attack on Adawiya has apparently not faded. In their book The Alternative Song, prominent journalists Ibrahim Eissa and Abdallah Kamal openly criticised Adawiya as the opposite side of prominent singers of the 1980s such as Ali El-Haggar and Mohamed Mounir, who have become today's most successful singers. They also perceive him as a representative of the social class that appeared with the open door policy, which has made quick profits with very little effort.

One can best understand the cassette singer phenomenon by reading Eissa's articles. He explains that simple people were able to buy radio-cassettes for the first time as a result of profits gained by the Egyptians working in the Gulf countries in the 1980s. These same people now have the facilities and cash to purchase cassette tapes produced by pop singers who had been rejected by the Egyptian radio committees who considered their songs cheap and vulgar.

Despite this official negation, support for Adawiya came from a surprising quarter: no less a person than the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz. Not only that, but top singer Abdel-Halim Hafez sang one of Adawiya's songs at one of his biggest concerts. "The official rejection on the part of Egyptian radio and television did not cause me much disappointment because I was not in need of their support. I was warmly supported by people and that is what counts," Adawiya told Al-Ahram Weekly. In addition to his fire-rocketing success in the commercial market, he was in several film productions (another feature of the Open door policy) including Shaaban Taht Al - Sifr (Shaaban Below Zero) and Al-Shahateen (The beggars), where he appeared in his real character as a pop singer.

The paradox was that by the mid-1980s Adawiya had become an accredited singer on Egyptian radio. His songs, once described as vulgar, are now broadcast on almost all radio channels, including the special songs channel which presents classic songs by Um Kalthoum and Mohamed Abdel-Wahab. Adawiya's songs are now widely recognised as classic songs when compared with Mahmoud El-Husseini or the most recent version of Essam Shaaban, son of Shaaban Abdel-Rehim, another low-standard pop singer. Adawiya's songs have succeeded, many critics believe, because they address the feelings of the working class and observe the gap between Egyptian social classes.

Now, can we point to Adawiya as a real pioneer of a wave of singing that has proved itself outside the realm of the censorship of official cultural organisations? With the fading of Adawiya's own career at the end of 1980s because of an unexpected health crisis, the phenomenon of commercial pop singers had by then established its roots in the artistic scene and generated more pop singers with still different trends. Singers like Hassan El-Asmar, Hamdi Batchan and Abdel-Baset Hamouda are now the leading figures of the pop singing scene, although their songs are superficial compared with Adawiya's.

Photographs of Adawiya with Abdel-Halim Hafez and composer Baligh Hamdi adorn the walls in his quiet home, while occasionally the telephone rings. Even though it is the twilight of his career, reporters often ask Adawiya's wife (now his business counsellor) for television interviews. Amid all this, Adawiya, now half paralysed, has one wish: that his only son Mohamed, who adopts his father's style but in a more modernist way, will have a better opportunity in the current, more tolerant artistic atmosphere.

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