photo of Ahmed Basiony at Tahrir Square, Feb. 26, 2011
Monday, October 22, 2007
Ali Hassan Kuban was a giant in modern Nubian music. Here are excerpts from a review of Kuban's last album that I wrote for the Middle East Studies Association Bulletin (39, 1), 2005:
Ali Hassan Kuban feat. Salwa Abou Greisha & Shahin Allam. Real Nubian: Cairo Wedding Classics. 2001. Piranha. One compact disc, 13 tracks (48:10). $19.98. ASIN B00005RGK8.
Real Nubian came out shortly after ‘Ali Hassan Kuban’s death in June 2001, the last recording of his long and illustrious career. Kuban was a leading figure in the modernization and urbanization of Nubian music. Traditional Nubian music, as played in Old Nubia before the Aswan High Dam caused its inundation and destruction, consisted of vocals backed by the polyrhythms of hand claps and the tar (frame drum). Kuban, who migrated to Cairo in the 1940s and mastered the clarinet and bagpipes, formed his first Nubian musical group in the mid-fifties. Performing mainly at Nubian weddings, his ensemble did both traditional songs and modern compositions, accompanied by tar-s and new instruments like the ‘ud, accordion, violin and tabla. As Cairo’s Nubian community Cairo grew and developed, so too did Kuban’s band. By the late seventies it had added instruments like the sax, electric guitar, trumpet, electronic keyboards, and Western-style drums. In 1979, ‘Ali Kuban began to record for Cairo’s booming cassette market, producing several cross-over hits in the Egyptian mainstream. In 1990 the German label Piranha released Kuban’s From Nubia to Cairo, marking his entry into the world music scene. During the nineties Kuban ceased playing the local wedding circuit, instead performing almost exclusively abroad. He also quit producing cassettes for the local market, because piracy meant there was no more profit in it, he told me in 1999. Instead he recorded for Piranha, which put out three more Kuban albums. But he still dominated the lucrative Nubian wedding circuit, for the ‘Ali Kuban group--now a stable of leading Nubian instrumentalists and singers--remained the most popular and prestigious ensemble for hire. And Kuban’s “club”--an apartment suite in ‘Abdin, downtown Cairo--remained a central gathering place for Nubian artists.
In his last years Kuban continued to record and tour, but he was increasingly frail, displaying the symptoms of tremors. The vocals on Real Nubian, recorded in the late nineties, are marked by Kuban’s age and ailments. His voice was known in any case for its soulful roughness rather than its beauty, and his best songs are spirited, catchy anthems, sometimes chanted or even shouted. By contrast, Kuban’s vocals here are weak, and at moments embarassingly flat, as on “Gammal,” the opening track.
But despite the infirmities of Kuban’s voice, this remains a worthy effort...
To hear Ali Kuban in better voice, I recommend the earlier Piranha recordings. Each has its particular charms. From Nubia to Cairo highlights the hits that made Kuban so popular in the eighties’ Cairo cassette market; Walk Like A Nubian is funkier, thanks to Bibi Hammond’s bass work; Nubian Magic ranges from the traditional to the highly experimental, including two dance “jungle” remixes of “Maria-Maria.” For a best-of collection, there is The Rough Guide to Ali Hassan Kuban. Real Nubian nonetheless is an honorable bookend to the career of this giant of contemporary Nubian music. Its high moment is “Hela Houb,” where Kuban--in his strongest and most energetic vocalizing of the entire session--calls on Nubians to unite and return to the banks of Lake Nasser to rebuild Nubia. ‘Ali Hassan Kuban may not have made the return himself, but he played a crucial role in keeping the dream, and the reality, of Nubia and its culture alive, in Egypt, and the world.
I also wrote a short review of Real Nubian release for PopMatters, which you can read here and I have authored an article entitled "Nubian Music in Cairo," in Virginia Danielson and Dwight Reynolds, eds., Garland Encyclopedia of World Music: The Middle East.
This is from a bootleg cassette I picked up in the early '90s in Cairo, featuring Kuban in concert, in Europe no doubt, that features the great Clash-gone-Med band Mano Negra, helmed by Manu Chao. The cassette is called Al-walidi.
Click here to download.
Friday, August 31, 2007
'Adawiya is the undisputed king, the Elvis, of Egyptian sha'bi music. Although he was massively, massively popular in Egypt from the 70s to the 90s, he is considered rather 'vulgar' by the Egyptian educated and literati, and therefore, has not received his props. Little scholarly work has been done on 'Adawiya either, with the exception of Walter Armbrust's marvelous work, Mass Culture and Modernism in Egypt.
I know next to nothing about this song, "Qalaq" (anxiety, worry, pronounced 'ala'), the title track from a cassette release. When I can find the cassette cover I'll scan it. It shows 'Adawiya sitting on a couch, dressed in brown velvet jacket, looking like he's put in a long night. On the table in front of him is an ashtray overflowing with cigarettes. Here are a few lines from the song, "Worry (qalaq) in the morning, worry in the evening, sleeping and waking, coming and going." One of the most enjoyable elements in the song is when, about half-way through, it starts to sound, for a moment, like a disco song. The bass really grooves throughout. (I apologize for a few skips, due I guess to the elasticity of cassette tape.)
Here's a good article on Adawiya from Al-Ahram Weekly. And a couple videos from youtube. One (of inferior video quality) is of Adawiya in nightclub gear, singing one of his hits, "Bint al-Sultan," while Suhair Zaki bellydances. The other is from the 1976 film, Al-ghatna wa al-sa'luk, featuring Adawiya this time in a sha'bi outfit appropriate to his social origins, and singing "Kullu 'ala kullu." Mervet Amin is the dancing brunette, and Hussein Fahmy is the guy who comes in on the scene.
Saturday, August 18, 2007
Here's a song from the great Sudanese female vocal trio (composed of three sisters) called al-Bilabil ("The Nightingales.") The title of the track (which seems to be a live recording) is "Al-byis'al mâ bitûh," and it's from a cassette I purchased in Cairo in the early nineties, from a cassette shop near the downtown Post Office, near Ezbekiyya, that specializes in Sudanese and Nubian music. The cassette title is simply al-Bilabil. There are several Bilabil videos available on youtube, including one in black-and-white of them performing this song (it tells us that the lyrics are by Ishaq al-Halnaqi and the music by Bashir 'Abbas). And there is this great one in color, of them performing "Al-sahr al-layl," apparently in 1974. Two of the three members of al-Bilabil, Amal and Hadia Abdelmageed, performed at the Sudanese Music and Dance Festival in Central Park on July 22.
I can only find fragments of information about al-Bilabil, who have been described as Sudan's version of The Supremes during the 70's and 80's. Here's a sketch from Sudan Reports, which I believe is lifted from The Rough Guide to World Music Vol. 1 (1999):
"In the early 1980s [sic, 1970's] three gifted teenage Nubian sisters with a supportive father formed the group Balabil. Trained by oud player and songwriter Bashir Abbas, who also found lyricists and musicians for them, they found an avid audience around the Horn of Africa. In the uncertain climate of Sudan's sharia law, however, their yearning undertones were sometimes sufficiently sensuous to get them banned from television.
Balabil got back together for the first time in ten years to play in Eritrea in 1997 - and made a recording for Rags Music - and Hadia Talsam, the ablest sister, has made a solo album in Cairo entitled Kul' al-Nujum ("All the Stars"), on the Hassad label."
Thursday, August 2, 2007
A bit more on DJ Abu Yousef's "Abu Yousef" that I've managed to dig up--see post below.
This song was a hit in Jordan in the early '90s--and the usual English spelling seems to be Abu Yousef and not "Abu Yusuf" as I've written it below. The photo is of Abu Yousef and Jordanian singer Rania Kurdi, who recorded a duet, "Zgurt"--not sure when that was released, which you can download here. (It's mistakenly identified as "Rakeb Hal Suburban").
And here are some of the lyrics of "Abu Yousef":
'Amman Irbid Baqa' Sawaylih [these are all Jordanian cities]
Everybody talk about Abu Yousef...
Mashi fi al-shari'
Shuft hilwa btirkud
Ruht irkud ma'ha
Qultilha yalla nuq'ud
'Aalitli ka'ka bi 'ajawi
'Aalitli la, qultilha laysh?
'Aalitli mish zaki
Walking in the street
I saw a pretty girl jogging
I went and jogged with her
I told her let's sit
She said a cake with dates
I told her do you have?
She said no, I said why?
She said, it's not tasty
If you know Arabic (mine isn't 100% by any means), it's hilarious. Download it here.